Trash Romance

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

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Coffee Conspiracy

"So, about Carter."

After some pleasantries and banter about Eli, Mackenzie’d finally brought the conversation back around to why they were there. In the back of her mind, she was already drawing up a plan for how to deal with Carter. Or, at least an outline where a plan would go. She needed the facts though, what his limits were. The one firm point on the outline was that Carter would be expelled from the Threshold. She’d underlined that one. Deirdre may have put her to the task, but he had made it personal.

They were short Natalie, but Mackenzie didn’t know when the manager would arrive to relieve her, and she didn’t want to keep waiting. It was live music night. They wouldn’t have long before Norah Is DEAD! arrived and drowned them out anyway. Newspaper clippings and band posters were encased under the lacquer surface of the table, and according to one, Norah Is DEAD! had played at Riot House right after they’d opened. Beneath the table, Jona traced circles on Mackenzie’s shin with the toe of their purple All Stars. She swirled her mocha double with whipped cream, trying to think of how to ask her question.

"Yeah, about Carter," Christy said. She handed off her iPad to Eli to keep him busy while they talked.

With her tight, dark curls and loose-fitting mom sweater, Mackenzie almost hadn’t recognized Christy. If it hadn’t been for the first grader at her heels Mackenzie wouldn’t have taken a second look. Surprisingly, she was shorter than Mackenzie. She hadn’t taken a good look at Candy’s shoes but she wouldn’t put it past her to have had six inch candy cane stilettos, sharpened like they’d been licked down to a lethal tip.

Mackenzie took a sip and got mostly whipped cream. Oh well. She set the drink down so she could sign what she could for Jona. “Connect the dots for me. What’s so important about his magic that you wouldn’t stand up to him?”

"First night, show and tell," Christy said. "He was making a game of it, picked me as his magician’s assistant. So while I’m listening to him, me and everybody else are hearing a recipe for cupcakes. I think, ‘Ha ha, cool, because I’m Candy right?’ But suddenly it’s like déjà vu for me. I remember my nana giving me this same recipe as a little girl. Except when she’s saying it, what she’s really telling me is how to tell when a boy likes you. And thanks to my nana’s lesson I was certain that Carter was into me. I wasn’t having that and told him I didn’t like his cupcakes. Everybody laughed.”

Mackenzie paused mid-way through interpreting for Jona as it occurred to her what Christy was saying. She did her best to repeat the end, but she was already replaying in her mind all the times she and Carter spoke and worrying about which of them were influenced by his semantomancy. Had he ever used it on her? “So wait,” Mackenzie said. “It sounded like a cupcake recipe? Even to you?”

"That’s what I said."

Mackenzie didn’t dismiss the idea, but she couldn’t accept it either. There had never been a time where he’d said something that strange. “That makes no sense. If you heard the words, wasn’t there some part of you that knew it wasn’t real?”

"I dunno. It’s like dream logic." Christy pulled her gaze away from the street and locked eyes with Mackenzie. "You know how in a dream you can see a door, except, you know with every fiber of your being that the door is actually a portal to India, and if you open it a bunch of elephants will pour out? They wouldn’t even fit, but you’re certain that’s what will happen. It felt like that. It didn’t have to make sense, I just knew what he really meant by cupcakes and that I had to tell him no.”

Mackenzie leaned back. Jona reached out and stroked Mackenzie’s arm with their long fingers. She resisted the urge to flinch and was surprised by how comforting it was. Having others able to tell when she needed a reassuring touch was taking some getting used to.

"So if everyone else is hearing cupcake recipes, what does it matter if he uses it?" Mackenzie asked. "Wouldn’t everyone else know it’s him using semantomancy?"

Christy sighed and glanced at Eli’s screen. “I don’t know. If he’s subtle about it, I don’t think it matters. He gets his hooks into you, pushes buttons you didn’t even know you had, and to everyone else it just looks like a really convincing argument. Pretty soon you don’t even realize you’re doing exactly what he wants you to do because you think it’s your idea.”

Jona cut in with a question and Mackenzie repeated, “Yeah, I want to know too. Did your grandmother ever tell you a recipe? Was the memory even real?”

"No. At least, not the recipe part. We did talk about boys a lot though, my nana is good like that. Probably why she came to mind even if the words were nonsense." When Mackenzie opened her mouth, Christy added, "But he was just goofing off that time, making it obvious. I’m not sure how I’d know how I’d tell, otherwise."

When Mackenzie didn’t reply immediately, Jona took Mackenzie’s hand in theirs and stroked the back of it with their thumb.

This put a wrinkle in her plans. She’d intended to roll in with her friends at her back. But how would she fight someone who with one word could convince her to give up and leave? Or worse, convince Natalie or Jona to turn on her? For all she knew, he’d been turning her against Deirdre from the start.

In the silence, Christy finished off her drink, but when she set it down the expression on her face darkened. “He’s done it to you, hasn’t he?”

"Huh?" Mackenzie hadn’t realized her focus had drifted until it was brought back.

She leaned in and hushed her voice. “You’re the third person I’ve told this to—my husband, my girl Sabbie, and you—and this is where they start looking at me like I’m out of my damn mind. And it ain’t just trying to tell non-faeries about magic; Sabrina’s artie just like us. But you’ve got that look in your eye that says you know what I’m talking about.”

"Um, no," was all Mackenzie got out. She froze on interpreting for Jona. None of her encounters had been so absurd as cupcake recipes. He was just another jerk with invisible authority exploiting her vulnerability, wasn’t he?

"Sure he did. Shit, this is worse than I thought," Christy said.

"Language!" Eli chided, looking up from his game.

"Sorry, baby. Mama’s got a foul mouth when it comes to bad people." She tousled Eli’s hair and looked back to Mackenzie.

Before Mackenzie could respond, Natalie tossed her apron over a chair and pulled it closer to Mackenzie. She plopped down with exaggerated exhaustion. “I called Lex. Ey’re on eir way,” Natalie said. She waved to Jona, then went for a kiss. Mackenzie met her lips with rehearsed, rote synchronization, just enough to keep their noses from colliding. But her mind was entirely on Christy’s words. “You ok?”

"Yeah, fine." Mackenzie kissed Natalie’s cheek to reassure her.

"So?" Christy asked. "He has, hasn’t he?"

"Has what?" Natalie asked. Jona started catching Natalie up. A moment later Natalie interjected, "He did? Sweetie why didn’t you tell me this guy was messing with your head? That’s my job." Mackenzie only managed a halfhearted smile. "Sorry. Inappropriate."

Mackenzie shrugged. “I don’t know if he did.”

"But they just said—"

"I know what Jona said!" Mackenzie groaned. She hadn’t meant to erupt like that, but the conversation was interfering with her thinking. "Sure. Maybe? The first time I met him, he was trying to tell me how he was different than all the people I’d met like him. It didn’t feel like he was using magic on me, I just knew exactly who he was talking about." She turned to Christy. "The second time was when I met you. And you were there for that. He was just telling me to leave before I blew the place up."

"I don’t remember him telling you that," Christy said. "Leaving was your idea. He was just telling you to get it together."

"Yeah, after he wouldn’t stop prodding me long enough to do that. So it amounts to the same thing," Mackenzie said. Christy shrugged, half-hearted. She was conceding but nothing in her posture suggested she believed Mackenzie. "What? You think he didn’t want me to leave?"

Christy held up her hands in surrender. “I’m just saying he didn’t tell you to from what I heard.”

Mackenzie dropped back against the metal chair back and folded her arms. “It doesn’t take magic to make it clear to someone that they’re unwelcome.” Christy didn’t argue. Natalie had taken over interpreting for Jona. Mackenzie apologized but Jona brushed it off. “Speaking of, yesterday. That didn’t take magic. That was just him being a jerk, you saw it yourself.”

"Why are you defending him all the sudden?" Christy asked.

She couldn’t answer that. She didn’t even think she was defending him. She was defending herself, because if he was using magic, that meant she was susceptible to it. She hated this mind crap. She hated thinking she wasn’t in control. And if she admitted Carter was manipulating her magically, what did that say about Natalie? Was Natalie as bad as Carter? Did it matter that she couldn’t control it like he could? What separated them besides the fact that she loved Natalie?

Mackenzie rested her forehead on the table and closed her eyes. There was no answering some of those questions. Maybe there wasn’t a moral high ground to be found in all this, just a slightly-further-up-the-moral-slope.

She lifted her head. “I should never have let him talk me into arguing publicly, that’s all.”

"Why did you?" Christy asked.

Realization hit Mackenzie so hard she flinched. The memory of Dr. J’s waiting room. It was only related in the most tangential sense to what was going on, connected only by the same flavor of fear. Nothing she had to say to Carter was on the same scale as the wound her sister had delivered that day, but dredging that up had forced her to empathize with the group. She’d always thought of empathy as a good thing, something there wasn’t enough of. The thought that it had been twisted back on her made her want to throw up in her coffee.

Carter had made this very personal.

 

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Sale: For Whom The Kettle Bell Trolls

"Is the table for sale?" Mackenzie asked.

"No, it’s all free," the sweet retiree guarding the cash box said.

Mackenzie stood in front of the free table, looking over the impressive array of garage sale junk displayed without shame. The children’s books and toddler toys on sale behind her she could understand, but not the free table. Maybe somewhere there lurked a decorator with a twisted sense of humor who could explain it. The framed watercolor rendering of an Iron Maiden poster might perfectly match the lamps and drapes in someone’s party room. There was probably a story behind the plastic flowers planted in a lime green watering can, and giant novelty paper clip-cum-paperweight, and the 76ers lampshade with no lamp. But by and large the free table’s offerings were a cross-section of embarrassing purchasing decisions and she but figured she was better off not knowing the why of it. All she wanted was the table underneath.

"No, I mean the table itself. How much for that?"

One of the casualties of the move was the coffee table Natalie had been using. While shuffling backwards with her dresser, Mackenzie had tripped on a table leg and fell, landing on the table and cracking the cheap wood right down the center. So the hunt was on for a replacement.

The woman got up from her folding chair and wandered over. “There should be a tag on here somewhere. I think I said $15, but let me check. Oh, I just love your hair! I wish I could do that.”

"Thanks." Mackenzie reached up to touch her undercut. It was odd receiving compliments when all she could think of was that it was too long to feel properly trimmed. "Um, why not go for it?"

The woman laughed. “Oh hun, I’m too old for that. If I cut my hair that short all you’d see is scalp!” After a minute of searching, neither of them had found the tag. “Let me check my notebook. Be right back.” She retreated into the house.

Mackenzie passed a hand above the table, reaching out with tendrils of magic. She was certain she could manipulate nearly everything spread across the driveway, price tag or no. She bet that if she offered to haul it all away the woman let her have the entire sale collection for free. The concept of ownership was rather fuzzy when it came to forgotten and unwanted things.

She reached into the pile of exercise equipment on the table. Between a Thigh Master and an Ab Roller lay a 12kg kettle bell that had been so well used that the pink neoprene coating on the handle had been worn away to bare metal. “Venice Beach, CA” had been carved into the coating.

"Hey, watch this," Mackenzie said.

"Famous last words."

"Shut up."

Mackenzie tossed the weight back and forth between her hands in a figure eight, letting the momentum carry her arms out into wider and wider arcs. When she had reached her limit, she committed to letting the downswing spin her around. She kicked a leg up while pivoting to counterbalance, then on the upswing launched it into the air. If not for trashmancy, she’d have dislocated her shoulder just trying that. It sailed upwards until she lost sight of it in the bright sky.

"Where’d it go?" Natalie asked.

"Relax, it’ll be a while."

"No seriously, where the hell is it?"

"Relax!"

Natalie continued appearing skeptical, but she approached the table and picked up an old, well-used Teddy Ruxpin. “Ha. I used to have one of these as a kid.” It had been sitting on the free table, which meant the woman had no idea what she had on her hands, even with the name “Kylie” written in marker on the sewn-in tag.

When Natalie turned the bear over so its butt was facing upward, Mackenzie couldn’t resist a little trashmancy. “Hi there!” the bear said. “Do you like what you see?”

Natalie shrieked and dropped the bear on the table.

Mackenzie kept going. “That wasn’t very kind of you.”

"Yo, this is some Barbie Liberation shit going on here," Natalie said and backed away, laughing nervously. Mackenzie couldn’t meet her gaze for long before laughing as well. "Are you doing that?"

"Did you steal my pants, Natalie?" the bear said. "I’m not that kind of bear. You have to pay for this show."

"Oh Goddex, stop, it’s freaking me out," Natalie choked out between bursts of laughter.

Mackenzie made the bear sit back down.

"Here we go," the woman said, returning with a notebook in hand. "Yes, $15 for the table."

Natalie fished in her purse but she was still too busy watching the sky, so Mackenzie had her wallet out first. She gave the woman a $20 and got her change back before Natalie had even realized the transaction was finished. Together they cleared off the table by hand. Mackenzie could have done faster with magic, but she didn’t want to scare the poor woman. She reserved that for Natalie.

They shuffled down the street carrying the table between them. Natalie insisted on being in front to avoid any mishaps this time, but she was so busy watching the sky that she repeatedly bumped into other pedestrians. Natalie was trying to make her glances upward more subtle, but Mackenzie caught her every time and snickered. That drew a growl of frustration which only made Mackenzie laugh harder.

Natalie’s old table still sat on the curb awaiting pickup outside their building. Natalie finally cracked. “Ok, what the fuck? Where is it?”

Mackenzie laughed. “Let’s just get this inside.”

"You don’t even know where it is anymore, do you? Is it in the lake? In orbit?"

"It’s not in orbit, you goof." She knew exactly where it was. She could point right at it. But it was too much fun torturing Natalie like this. She didn’t say a word as they rode the elevator up to the fifth floor.

Natalie opened the door to their unit and dropped her end of the table. “Seriously? You’re an ass.”

Mackenzie cackled. Outside the window, sitting atop the window-mounted air conditioner, was the pink kettle bell. Right where she’d put it.

 

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[NSFW] Bare Walls

A bare wall was an invitation to misbehave. It loomed, taunting Mackenzie during sex. She couldn’t focus on what Natalie was doing beneath her because her gaze was fixed on the unbroken expanse of white. Natalie had found time to have painted the living room, so why was the bedroom left bare? There should be a law against bare walls. She entwined her fingers with Natalie’s and stopped what she was doing with her hips. She declared she was going to rectify this.

"Uh, sure. Go wild."

She kissed Natalie and resumed riding Natalie’s strap on.

The next morning, she texted Jona with her plans. Jona showed up with paint and plastic and an ear-to-ear grin. Together, they removed the furniture from the bedroom. Natalie said she was content watch. She had her couch, a bowl of cereal, and the final episodes of a giant mecha anime that Mackenzie couldn’t get into. This was Mackenzie’s project, according to her. At least until Mackenzie wandered into the kitchen-living room naked with her hair pulled up into a clip. Then Natalie suddenly took an interest in what was going on in the bedroom. Go figure.

Mackenzie dunked a sponge into the blue and squeezed it out over Jona’s collar bone, letting the paint course down their chest, coating their soft skin. She did the same on the other side. They wiggled as the droplets ran down their ribs and sides. Mackenzie coated their arms in blue, spending extra time running the sponge along the fine hairs of their forearm. She spread the dripping blue across Jona’s chest swiftly, not wanting the paint to dry. Rubbing the sponge on their belly button made them jump back and shiver.

"Hold still!" Mackenzie signed, sending droplets of blue paint flying. Some hit the walls. Oh well. She flung more droplets about, making sure all the walls got hit. She was careful not to send it in the direction of the closet doors though.

Mackenzie moved down Jona’s torso, then to their legs. Without realizing it, she’d started using her other hand to help rub the paint around as well. She just couldn’t resist touching Jona, especially with the slick layer of paint coating their leg hairs. Satisfied that they were covered, she ran the sponge over their face. She guided Jona to the wall to the left of where the bed had been. Jona pressed their body against the wall. Mackenzie helped rub it in by pressing up against Jona. At least, that’s what she told herself she was doing. Satisfied with their blue silhouette, Mackenzie pressed a towel into their hands to wipe their face.

Next was Mackenzie’s turn. She had to take out her body jewelry for this. She’d never gone so long without her nipple piercings and they were starting to itch. Jona wasted no time taunting her: they sponged the purple over her breasts first, making it impossible to scratch them effectively while they painted up the rest of her. It was torture and Jona smiled sweetly through every minute of dishing it out. Mackenzie lifted a leg and raised an arm when she pressed against the wall. She made sure her other hand was touching Jona’s silhouette.

"This looks fun," Natalie said.

"Then get in on this, you goof!"

Jona let Mackenzie handle covering Natalie. The third color was grey, and they didn’t have much of it. So Mackenzie mixed in some of her purple giving it a light tint.

As she sponged the paint across Natalie’s body, Natalie would press into it. Mackenzie grinned lasciviously. She looked over her shoulder to Jona. Seeing that they were busy touching up the heads—only noses and foreheads and cheekbones tended to make contact with the wall—she oh so innocently gave Natalie’s cock a slow, careful swipe with the sponge, then around the underside to make sure she got it all covered. She narrowly resisted the urge to get it covered in purple with her free hand; while it might be fun in the moment, it would make the resulting imprint awkward to explain to guests.

Mackenzie gave Natalie a satisfying slap on the butt and sent her to the wall. Natalie pressed herself to the wall so that her hand was covering Mackenzie’s silhouette’s hand, forming a chain. Without a word they all reached the same conclusion: why stop at one wall? Jona pressed another imprint, this time by jumping into the wall. They continued the chain of hands.

"Pick me up," Mackenzie instructed them both. Jona held her under her torso and Natalie held her legs. Shuffling with Mackenzie, they shoved her into the wall, giving her purple imprint the impression of hanging on to Jona’s in order to keep from flying away. Jona covered Natalie’s back side, and Mackenzie couldn’t resist the urge to slap two purple hand prints on her butt. Natalie backed into the wall, hand prints and all.

Then Jona kissed Mackenzie with their blue lips, inspiring Mackenzie to make another imprint with a conspicuous blue mouth.

"Trust me?" Jona asked. See, when they asked that first… Mackenzie nodded.

Jona wove bands of light that were more solid than Mackenzie was accustomed to. They formed a scaffold that grew under Mackenzie, hoisting her up until she was being squeezed against the ceiling. Natalie was the next to ride the light, and the grey paint dripped off her butt and landed on the plastic with a pop.

Once the ceiling was covered, Jona excused themself, giving Mackenzie a kiss on the back of the head and trotting their willowy, paint-slathered behind into the shower.

The only space left was between the windows, and it was looking mighty bare. Mackenzie pressed Natalie backwards, leaving her grey imprint. She touched one purple leg to the wall, and slipped the other leg in between Natalie’s. She pressed her forearms alongside Natalie’s imprint and laced her fingers between Natalie’s, giving the impression that one painted shadow was riding the other. She wouldn’t blame anyone if they couldn’t figure out how that silhouette was made.

There they were, all covered in paint and no space on the walls left to coat. Their colors had mixed on their chests and thighs and in dangling wisps of hair. All the furniture had been moved out of the room. Jona was busy in the shower.

It seemed a shame to waste all that plastic.  

 

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Dirty Laundry

It was impossible to get a whole car to oneself in the city, but it was late enough that Mackenzie wasn’t pressed to clear the seat next to her. A seat to oneself on an outbound train was the most alone a person could be in a city this full of people with worries of their own. As the subway tunnel gave way to early evening skyline, she played back the conversation with Carter in her mind.

Her head was heavy with words left unsaid, so she rested it against the train window and let her breath fog up the glass. She couldn’t think of anything to draw on her fresh canvas. Hearts were only cute when a lover was there. She didn’t feel much like a smiley face. And the last thing she needed was some dude to take a frown as an invitation to hit on her. What to draw wasn’t even a real problem, and yet her inability to settle on something felt emblematic of her entire situation.

She drew a zig zag and left it at that.

The train reached her stop before she was ready to get off. Mackenzie felt no urge to move. Each step would bring her closer to a conversation with Natalie she wasn’t ready to have yet, and if she stayed put, the train would spirit her away to the suburbs where none of it mattered. To her, the suburbs seemed like a place with whole different kinds of problems, the kind sold in outlet malls to people with yards. Their high schools had names; their problems had to be different. Surely they weren’t the kind of problems that turned every realm into a Bleakruin or a Grotesquerie, leaving everyone to fight over one clubhouse. She wondered if there were enough faeries in the suburbs to be so picky about who was allowed in.

She had to tell Natalie all of it. If Actyun came after her while she was at Natalie’s place, that would put Natalie in danger. Crashing there was one thing, but that danger was a burden she didn’t think anyone would take on for someone they’d only been dating a short time. She didn’t have a solution to offer yet, and without one it was hard for Mackenzie to see why Natalie would let her stay.

"Doors closing," the recorded voice said.

The suburbs didn’t have the answers, and she couldn’t ride the train forever. Well, maybe she could; there must be an Otherworld realm like that somewhere. But she couldn’t keep stalling. Mackenzie popped out of her seat and jumped through the closing doors.

#

Natalie was camped out on the laundry machine playing some cutesy game about being a celebrity when Mackenzie found her. Someone in their building hadn’t gotten the memo that it’s a shitty move to dump other people’s wet clothes on the fucking floorjust because they weren’t right there when the load finished. Thanks to one passive-aggressive jerk, doing laundry now meant doing nothing else until it was done. Mackenzie wondered if there was a laundromancer faerie out there somewhere she could contract to curse the person’s clothes so that one small spot would never quite dry.

Mackenzie hopped up on the adjacent machine and leaned her head on Natalie’s shoulder to watch her play. Her touch was soothing, but she knew heartfire would change that in a hurry. She just wanted one brief forever to focus on Natalie’s warm presence before that happened. She didn’t get half that. Mackenzie sat up straight and shifted away.

Natalie turned off her phone. “Uh oh. What’s up?”

Of course it wasn’t lost on Natalie. Mackenzie watched the clothes tumble about in the dryer across from her. It was like a window into her own head. She knew what she had to say, but she couldn’t get the words to slow down so she could put them in order.

"Kenz?"

"Yeah, sorry. Just thinking."

Natalie nodded and pulled her legs up to sit cross-legged facing her. “Take your time.”

"Ever since Mara was attacked, I’ve been working for your mother," Mackenzie began. She launched into her first meeting with Deirdre, then jumped back to what had happened on their first trip to the Otherworld and why she reacted the way she did, then forward to her disastrous encounter with Candy Sparkle Catastrophe. She tried to keep it coherent even if not in order, but it was though she’d opened the dryer mid-load and it all flew out while the drum spun down. And from the way Natalie was interrupting with questions she knew she wasn’t doing a great job. At least they weren’t angry questions. Even seated, Natalie was constantly shifting position and moving as she listened.

One of Natalie’s questions stuck out. “Why didn’t you confront him sooner?”

Mackenzie closed her eyes to shut out everything but her thoughts and the rumbling hum of the laundry room. “Carter made me feel at home for the first time. For the first time I was surrounded by people who made me feel like I was one of them. I’d never had that before. Growing up, I was too white for the Asia-Pacific Island Student Union, I dated too many boys for the Queer Student Alliance, I was too artificial for the Faerie Court. But Carter and the others understood me. They knew what it meant to be an outsider among people who were supposed to be peers. At least, I thought they did.” Mackenzie shook her head. “I don’t know if that’s a feeling you’ve ever gone without long enough to get it, but it made me question whether giving the realm back to your mother was the best thing.”

"Uh, hello? Transsexual, remember? How would I not understand that feeling?”

"Yeah, I guess." Mackenzie sighed. Natalie made a good point, and she didn’t want to dwell on this. "Not that it matters anymore. I’ve been kicked out. Carter’s not interested in reconciliation or compromise. And his encore was to make me out to be a traitor to the artifaerie cause for dating you, in front of everyone. Too artificial for Deirdre, not artificial enough for Carter."

"Hey." Natalie lifted Mackenzie’s chin, then clasped her hands over Mackenzie’s. "You’re a faerie in a bottle, I’m a girl in a bottle. There’s always gonna be folks who think that’s more important than it is."

Mackenzie gave a rueful laugh. “Funny how they always seem to be the ones wanting to keep us out.”

"Yeah, well, little fish need to keep the pond small to feel big. Doesn’t mean you have to let them. They don’t have your back."

Mackenzie rolled her painted, green fingernails along the edge of the washer, and the rhythmic, metallic clacks echoed off the ecru walls. “About that—”

The washer chimed, cutting Mackenzie off. Natalie hopped down to move the load over to the dryer. Mackenzie moved to join her but Natalie stopped her. “I got this. Go on.”

"Your mother no longer has my back, it seems."

Natalie tossed a handful of crumpled underwear in the dryer. “What does that mean?”

"She’s stopped doing whatever it was she was doing to hide me from those guys who attacked Mara. Said she needs to focus on retaking the Threshold."

Natalie stood up, struck by sudden realization. “Huh. So that’s what Vik’s been up to.” Mackenzie tilted her head. “I wasn’t kidding when I said he’s my mother’s hound. He’s got a knack for finding people. And keeping people from being found, even by mundane means if he really puts his mind to it. Usually he’s out working collections for her. I’m guessing my mother is using him to hide whatever she’s planning from Carter.”

"Well, I’m back on Actyun’s radar. I guess that means you won’t be doing my laundry anymore."

"Two things," Natalie said, and swaggered over to Mackenzie. She trapped her on the washing machine, planting her hands on either side of her. "Vic’s magic makes him a good guard dog, but he’s not the only thing standing between you and Yvette Taisa." Natalie leaned in to kiss Mackenzie. If mischief had a flavor, Mackenzie tasted it on Natalie’s lips. "She’ll have to get through me." Her girlfriend’s protective threat to fight a CEO sent an excited tingle up Mackenzie’s spine.

"And the second thing?"

"Move in with me."

Mackenzie could tell Natalie was serious by the deviousness of her smirk. She was already living with her, but Natalie’s tone suggested she meant something different. She meant the way Mackenzie had been keeping one foot out the door ever since she started living there. The excited tingle became an icy chill, and with no help from heartfire.

Mackenzie coughed. “You still haven’t started the dryer.”

"Pretty sure it can handle wet clothes a little longer." Natalie swayed idly, but didn’t retreat. "So?"

The reasons to say no lingered fresh in the air between them. They felt so obvious to Mackenzie, and yet Natalie was still asking. Mackenzie didn’t get it. “Why?” Natalie raised her eyebrows. It was as though she were daring her to do better. “Why do that? Why make it harder to get rid of me when I get to be too much?”

Natalie laughed. “What makes you think I’d want to get rid of you?”

"I dunno, everyone does eventually. When they realize mine aren’t the kind of problems that get fixed, just managed. I mean, I try, but …" Mackenzie hooked her fingers in her hoodie pockets. "How long before you wake up one day and realize you could do better?"

That made Natalie retreat. “I don’t understand where this is coming from. Why would I think that?”

"Because!" Mackenzie pointed at her with both hands. "You’re Heartfire Witch Sinlight! You were out there cracking skulls and showing the world what faerie girls could do while I was still pretending that if I lived a normal enough life people would forget I had trash magic. I used to worship you! You were in my favorite band, even. Plus you’re the daughter of a faerie queen. What am I compared to that?"

Natalie smiled, warm and unrelenting. “Mackenzie Lynn Chen, I didn’t ask you on a date because I needed a magical girl sidekick. I didn’t keep dating you because you liked my music, or because it pisses off my mother. So if you’re sure I’m that awesome, then trust that I have awesome taste in girlfriends.” Laughing felt wrong given her state, but Mackenzie chuckled despite herself. Natalie brought her nose close enough to Mackenzie’s that she could feel the warmth of her breath as she spoke. “I love you. And that has nothing to do with who you think you aren’t, and everything to do with who I know you are. So, what do you say?”

Mackenzie let her forehead come to rest on Natalie’s. She still had questions. She still wondered if she’d ever stop waiting for the day their relationship would come crashing down; that fear was in her bones and one love confession wasn’t going to banish it forever. But it wasn’t the fear that heartfire found first. Instead, quiet warmth danced along her limbs and down her spine. She rolled her shoulders back as it loosened ancient knots, and her toes curled against the creased, broken-in leather of her Docs.

Her smile was contagious, and soon Mackenzie had caught it. Mackenzie would have had an easier time resisting the urge to smile while laying in the grass under the summer sun.

She nodded. “I will.” She kissed Natalie. “I love you.”

#

"In the laundry room?" Mallory asked. Her sister gave the road the disbelieving look meant for Mackenzie, since she would never take her eyes off it. Mallory was just that kind of driver. "Not like, on a date, or picking her up at the airport or something?"

Mackenzie rolled her eyes. “We live in the same apartment, Mallory. Why would I be picking her up at the airport?”

"You know what I mean."

Of course she knew. She meant that what Mackenzie had found to be comfortingly domestic and blessedly normal in her mess of a life was somehow inadequate for her. “Let me guess, Jared said it first while you were rappelling down a cliff face in Oregon?”

"Don’t be a shit," Mallory chided. You first. Mallory pointed to a street sign. “Highway?”

"Yeah. You’ll want exit 23."

Mallory’s Blazer rumbled up to highway speed. With the back loaded with furniture, it took neck craning and head bobbing gymnastics for Mallory to find a spot to merge. Mackenzie was fine with letting the moment pass in silence. “Met her parents yet?” Mallory asked.

"Ha!"

“‘Ha?’ What’s ‘Ha!’ mean?”

"It’s a long story." Once Mallory had settled on a lane, Mackenzie continued, "Yeah, I’ve met her mother. We started off on a horrible foot." Her sister sighed with a tone familiar to any kid whose parents had received a few too many calls from the school. She’d lived down to her sister’s expectations again. "Holy shit, Mallory. It’s fine. We started out on a bad foot, but she’s already given me a cutesy nickname." The truth made for a convenient lie.

Mackenzie chuckled internally. She’d have to tell Leigh that she’d finally figured out why she’d learned how to do that so well. Mackenzie could never get away with a straight-out lie to her sister; Mallory wasn’t Mom. So the truth had to take one for the team once in a while.

"This seems like a good thing, is all. I just worry about you. I’m your big sister, I’m allowed."

"Yeah, well, let Mom do that, alright?"

"Ha!" Mallory glanced away from the road just long enough to give Mackenzie a conspiratorial smirk. Mackenzie snickered.

Mom had left the worrying to Mallory years ago. After a lifetime of being as high strung as her daughters, once Mackenzie graduated Mom discovered that the right candle and a chakra alignment could fix every problem. She always stayed on the right side of irresponsible, but her worry-free life makeover had become something of a joke to the two of them. Mallory would still say Mackenzie had gotten her “disregard of consequences” from her, but Mackenzie never saw it; leaving school due to anxiety and harassment wasn’t the same as quitting a career for the “change in energy”. Besides, it was Mallory who needed control, and Goddex save the fool who changes plans on her.

"Thanks, for all this," Mackenzie said.

"Don’t mention it."

"With a permanent address it’ll probably be easier—"

"If you’re going to say you’ll pay me back, stop right there," Mallory said. "You don’t have to." The down side of being sisters was that she knew Mallory too well to think her offer was coming from a place of generosity. The open question of a debt would be intolerable compared to the certainty of writing off an expense. More importantly, it meant she didn’t believe Mackenzie would ever pay it back. Mackenzie had a hard time feeling thankful for that.

"Left here," Mackenzie said. "Then right at the second light."

Tense silence persisted until they reached Mackenzie’s building. It wasn’t even a new tense silence, just the same one that had always haunted their relationship. Not fighting had become such a habit that she couldn’t remember the last conversation they’d truly finished, rather than aborting at the first sign of tension. She and her sister had learned how to build bricks out of unspoken words, and use them to pave over buried hatchets.

Mackenzie’s phone buzzed. Private number. “Shit.” She passed the phone to Mallory. “Answer it for me.”

"What? I’m trying to find a parking spot here."

Mackenzie closed her eyes and kept her hand extended. She felt silly for it. That part of her that had remembered her meds that morning was trying its best to insist the call wouldn’t be another threat. But reassurances of safety were a hard sell lately, and the rest of her body smelled danger. “Just do it, would you?”

Mallory stopped the car in the middle of the parking garage’s aisle. She took the phone but not before rolling her eyes. Mackenzie didn’t need to see it. She could hear the lingering echoes of the eye roll in the way Mallory said, “I don’t know why you can’t answer your own damn phone… Hello, Mackenzie’s phone.”

Yes, you do. Better than anyone. More bricks.

"No, this is her sister. Who is this?" Mallory held the phone away and muted it. "Someone named Christy. Says she wants to know if you’re alright after yesterday?" Her tone shifted. "Did you do something?"

"I’ll take it," she said, ignoring the question. "Hello? This is Mackenzie."

"Uh, hey. Got a minute?" Christy sounded cautious. Mackenzie would be too if she had to call someone she’d thrown under the bus.

Mackenzie nodded to Mallory, who resumed the parking spot hunt. “Yeah, sure. What’s up?”

Christy spoke in halting bursts, like each sentence was a full body exertion. Meanwhile, Mackenzie was waiting for one of those exhausting sentences to be an apology. “It’s about Carter. I saw what happened yesterday. That wasn’t right, what he did to you.”

Mackenzie sighed. “Yeah, well, thanks. But it would have been nice if you’d said that at the time.” Maybe Carter wouldn’t have been so bold if someone had spoken up. That the trick of it, though: only surround himself with those who let him get away with it, and do what was done to Mackenzie with those who didn’t.

"Sorry, but it’s more complicated than that. I couldn’t."

"Bullshit." Mallory gave Mackenzie a dirty look, but Mackenzie shook her head to say not to worry about it.

Christy took her time answering the challenge. “Alright, maybe I could have. But it wouldn’t have changed anything.”

Mackenzie’s face felt hot. Crises of conscience after the fact might feel satisfying but they didn’t stop Carter from getting his way. “Is that what you told yourself the first time, too? Or were you just afraid you’d get shunned next?”

"Dammit, it’s not like that." Christy hesitated before continuing. "Carter’s a semantomancer."

"Explain?"

"Semantics. Meaning."

"Yeah, no, I know what semantics is. What does this have to do with you watching me get tossed?"

Christy groaned. “If it matters to you, I did speak up, and they turned my ass out just like yours. Happy?” Clearly not, but she’d succeeded in making Mackenzie feel bad enough to keep quiet at least. “I’m saying he can make words mean whatever he wants. Not like you and me, not the way anybody can make up a word or start using one a new way ‘til it catches on. I’m saying he can make you understand whatever he’s saying without explaining it. He can say something to you and you’ll hear the words just fine, but you’ll think it means whatever he wants it to. How do you argue with that?”

Mackenzie laughed bitterly to keep from screaming. “Am I the only person who can’t fuck with heads around here? I’m starting to feel left out.” After another sharp glance, Mallory parked the car and turned the engine off. She didn’t say anything, but the way she sat motionless spoke for her. Mackenzie rubbed her eyes. “Look, my sister is waiting and I’m tired of only ever having half the story. Meet me at Riot House tonight around 6? If you answer my questions, I’ll accept you’re not as awful as I thought.”

Silence. Mallory was very pointedly not looking at Mackenzie.

"I’m watching Eli tonight."

"Bring him along."

Silence.

"Fine."

 

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

Pure

Vik led Mackenzie to the Solstice attic. She had anticipated magical sigils painted on the ceiling, or rings of salt on the floor below the Crossroads hatch. Instead, boxes had been stacked to the ceiling in such fashion that the hatch concealing the ladder couldn’t swing open. It was an astoundingly low-tech solution, but it had worked. As Vik moved the boxes, Mackenzie piped up, “Before, when Deirdre brought me here …”

"The tree?" Vik replied.

"Yeah. It felt incredible. Scary at first, to be so deeply connected to all those other living things …" Mackenzie trailed off, unable to find the words. "But then it was over. And I was alone again. How does she do it?"

"She couldn’t teach you her magic any more than you could teach her yours."

Mackenzie shook her head. “No, I mean, has she ever told what it’s like to go back to being just … herself?”

Vik didn’t answer in words. All he offered was an unreadable look that Mackenzie thought might be pity. “Go on, kid. I’ll be right here waiting.”

#

The conversation stopped when Mackenzie emerged from the Crossroads. Not just a conversation, every conversation. Luckily she counted more confused faces than frightened ones, but it didn’t take a calculator to run the numbers: if she was coming through the Crossroads, then she was either doing it at Deirdre’s pleasure, or she had just valiantly battled her way past the bar’s staff and liberated the portal. Mackenzie wouldn’t bet on that second option either. If she was going to maintain any control over the situation, she had to set the tone early.

"I need to speak to Carter," she said, calm but direct. "It’s urgent."

The Otherscape rearranged itself until the rooftop with the pool was upside down above Mackenzie. The water remained in place, as did the faeries treading water. A shirtless Carter climbed out of the water and stood on its surface long enough to jump up, from his frame of reference. At the peak of his jump he flipped over and fell the rest of the way, down from Mackenzie’s perspective. When he landed, he was already dry, and wearing the kind of dreadfully casual polo-and-trousers outfit men wore when they owned a yacht, but didn’t want to look like they owned a yacht, but also didn’t know anyone who didn’t own a yacht that they could ask about whether they passed for hoi polloi. By reflex, a new hole opened in Mackenzie’s jeans, and her hoodie’s cuffs split and frayed.

The pool roof snapped back to wherever it had been, leaving a clear, sunny sky that clashed with Mackenzie’s demeanor. Carter approached close enough to touch her. Mackenzie wanted to back up but the portal was right behind her. “What’s the matter? Are you alright?”

"Yes, I’m fine. Is there a way we can speak privately?"

"I’m guessing this has something to do with how you just arrived?"

"And if it does?" Mackenzie stuck her hands in her hoodie pockets and held her ground. "I’d really rather not do this with everyone watching."

Carter nodded but looked to her plaintively. “Are you certain our friends don’t have as much right to hear this as I do?”

She wasn’t certain. She’d thought she was, but … then an old, familiar pain bubbled up: memories of people talking behind her back. She stomped it down because she knew if she was on the spot much longer, things would degenerate quickly. “I don’t know. Can’t you tell everyone else after?”

"If you think it’s best," he said, but she barely heard him.

Mackenzie sat alone on the cheap waiting room chair with the blue fabric as the door closed. She always sat in the blue one, never the green ones to either side, while Mom was alone with Dr. J. It was was the only blue one in the room, which made it special. Chelsea threw her pacifier at Mallory. “Chelsea, no. What’s Mom said about throwing things?” Mallory gave Chelsea her pacifier back, but Chelsea was intent on shaking it. “What’s so bad that they always have to talk about you after? You didn’t do something again, did you?” Mallory asked. Mackenzie stared at the door. Until that moment, Mackenzie hadn’t considered she was the topic. It seemed so obvious in retrospect.

Empathy overwhelmed her. Suddenly, she couldn’t risk everyone else feeling that same gnawing fear that they were being excluded from something important. “Nevermind. It’s fine,” Mackenzie said. Before she could worry about what she’d just agreed to, she continued, “Queen Deirdre wants to know what it will take to get the Threshold back. She sent me to negotiate.”

A single bark of laughter erupted from nearby, joined by several others. Carter kept his response to a polite chuckle. “Fuck that!” someone shouted from an adjacent rooftop, to the mumbling approval of the group. Carter quieted them with a look. It was exactly why she hadn’t wanted to do things this way.

Mackenzie rolled her eyes. “Oh, c’mon. It can’t be that absurd of an idea. You can’t be foolish enough to think she’d just let us have it without a fight.”

"If she could take it back, why hasn’t she?" Carter asked.

"Because I asked her to give me a chance to reason with you first. She has the other end of the Crossroads and can roll in at any time. I just proved that. So I don’t know what your long term plan is. Do you even have one?" Mackenzie’s words sent a worried ripple through the crowd. How many of them hadn’t even considered the Crossroads portal a risk? She might not convince Carter but she maybe she could peel away some of his support.

Carter laced his fingers together and bobbed his head as though he were considering her words. “Nevertheless, I think there’s a reason she’s coming to us with this and not the other way around: fait accompli. We already have control of it. All she has are empty claims of being entitled to it. Claims which are based in the old order of things, the order that would exclude us forever if we let it.”

Mackenzie clapped her hands. “There! That! Ok, see? That’s something we can negotiate for. We don’t want to be excluded anymore. Well, we have the attention of the person who can make that happen.”

Carter sighed. “That means giving power back to the person who made us unwelcome in the first place, and placing our faith in her that she won’t do it again. Why should we risk that when we already have what we want?”

"She used to let you at least have meetings here before, right? If you force her hand in expelling us, she’ll just take that as proof that we shouldn’t be allowed here ever again. Right now, she knows she can’t ignore us. This is the chance to make her change.” Carter seemed unmoved, but she pressed on for the sake of convincing the others. “And if you still want a private space, why not take a realm with a Crossroads that doesn’t belong to anyone? That way we don’t have to worry about anyone breaking in to take it back.”

"There’s a reason those places sit unclaimed. Do you think it’s fair to ask the most vulnerable among us to endure the horrors of a Grotesquerie? If a faerie is having trouble embracing the joy in life, do you think a Bleakruin is the best place for them? Not everyone is as strong as you, Mackenzie. Sometimes I worry that your resilience makes you oblivious to the struggles others face. This is a place for those who understand those struggles."

Carter had an uncanny knack for speaking straight to her heart, but this time it had backfired. Mackenzie looked at him with disbelief. Just who was the most vulnerable in his mind? Him? “So long as Deirdre controls the Crossroads, we all have to go through that anyway. Or open a Bloodgate. So how is this about sparing anyone?” She gave him a moment to answer but he said nothing. “Seriously, are you gonna be the one to tell a suicidal First Gen that in order to find anyone like them they’ll need to grab a razor but not cut too deep? Oh wait, what was I thinking? You don’t want the most vulnerable among us to even be here. So why are you worried?”

Carter looked down and nodded. “What is this really about, Mackenzie?” It was unsettling how sincere Carter’s concern sounded. “I know the First Gen rule upsets you. Is that where this anger is coming from? We’ve already made an exception for you.” The volume of the mumbling around them rose. The others hadn’t known after all. Suspected, perhaps, but that meant his backhanded concern was …

Oh no. No. No. No. This wasn’t concern for her wellbeing. Leigh was concerned for her wellbeing. Natalie was concerned for her wellbeing. Carter was making sure everyone knew she wasn’t one of them so he could litigate her emotions in front of them, force her to live down to their expectations of First Gens. And he wanted to look his best while doing it. She’d seen this cage before. One wrong word and it would snap shut.

The trouble was that she still wanted to take the bait, wanted to convince herself she could rally enough righteous anger and prove him wrong. She had to get things back on track before she did. Mackenzie held up her hands. “I’m not what this is about. Look, I just came here to ask what the group would accept in exchange for returning her realm peacefully. If you don’t want to discuss that, I’ll just leave.”

Her realm?” Carter said. It was sincere, not an accusation, which made it all the more threatening. He let out a long, disappointed sigh. “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to ask this, but … I’ve heard rumors that you and Deirdre’s daughter are romantically engaged.”

Mackenzie folded her arms. “I’m not hearing a question.”

"Well. I just …" Carter bobbed his head again. "Do you think that—maybe—it’s hard to believe you’re here negotiating in good faith?"

The gathering fell silent. At some point the familiar dome of rooftops had surrounded them, though only then had Mackenzie noticed it. She searched for a sliver of sky to focus on, but her mind wouldn’t let her ignore the hundred eyes bearing down upon her. This wasn’t a negotiation anymore. This was a trial. At least this time the Crossroads portal was just a step away. She had a way out that wasn’t the Rabbit Hole, and that knowledge alone kept her stable and the ground steady. She had a way out. She repeated the words to herself silently.

"If you want to accuse me of something, accuse me."

Carter smiled and shook his head. “I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just asking whether you can see our predicament.”

"What predicament? Goddex …" Mackenzie shook her head and stuck her hands in her pockets. "Yeah, I’m dating her daughter. But that doesn’t make Deirdre and I friends. If anything it means I’m more of a pain in her ass than any of the rest of you.” Looking down was the only way to avoid looking anyone in the eye by accident. She was afraid she looked sheepish in front of him, but the alternative was being reminded just how many were watching.

"I’ve just heard—and this isn’t my opinion, mind you—but some have expressed concern that after some of the things you’ve said, and now this with Deirdre’s daughter, that it was coming off as you believing your feelings matter more than anyone else’s. That you don’t truly see yourself as one of us." Carter offered an ineffectual shrug. "And with you coming here on her behalf, well, it doesn’t look good."

The statement was a fence with no gate: she could see all the holes but there was no weak point to attack. Mackenzie spent an uncomfortably long moment trying to come up with something to say. With everyone watching, there was just too much riding on every word. And Carter knew it; he’d set this up from the start. How could she be so oblivious? “Are you telling me to leave because of who I’m dating?”

"That’s up to you," Carter said. "Do you feel you belong here?"

The first rule of question safety is to treat every question like it’s loaded.

"No."

So much for caution. She knew there was somewhere she belonged. There had to be. She deserved somewhere like this; he’d even said as much. She had every right to be there. But faced with that question, she saw no other way to answer it. How could she pretend she belonged if her presence was an open question?

Wasn’t this supposed to be the one place it wasn’t?

#

"I see," Deirdre said, and struck a match. "Unfortunate." With a steady hand and no regard for Mackenzie’s presence, she lit a paraffin candle. Mackenzie took a keen interest in the toes of her Docs and pretended Deirdre’s pets weren’t just a few feet away, bound and suspended from the branches of her tree and listening to every word. The silence lingered like the scent of match smoke.

"Can I go now?"

"Yes, yes. Hop along." Mackenzie only made it as far as a hand on the door. "Oh, one more thing."

Mackenzie flinched. She’d rather take the hot wax than whatever words were coming. “Yes, Your Mystic?”

"I will be concentrating my efforts on retaking my realm, so I won’t be able to keep you out of Yvette’s sight any longer. I wish it were otherwise, truly." Deirdre looked up from her pet and devoted her full attention to Mackenzie for the first time. "Be careful, Little Rabbit. Don’t get my daughter hurt."

"Of course not, Your Mystic."

 

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

Coming Up Short

Queen Deirdre was already at Mara’s house when Mackenzie and Jona arrived. Until that moment, she had felt bad for not having visited sooner. Or at least, felt bad for not feeling that bad about it. She barely knew Mara, so she had no idea what the appropriate level of concern was in this circumstance. All she wanted was to show the perfunctory concern needed to quiet her conscience and leave. But Deirdre’s presence made her regret tagging along with Jona while Natalie was at work.

After all, she could have been in the Otherworld. There was magic in being surrounded by peers, problems and all. Even though it meant keeping quiet about her past from now on, she could just relax and be a faerie, and none of the rest of it mattered. She still hadn’t pressed Deirdre’s claim to Carter. That uneasy peace was more peace than Mackenzie had ever enjoyed. She hated the idea of giving it up. She wasn’t sure she even wanted Deirdre to have the realm back, anymore.

But Deirdre sat at Mara’s kitchen table, legs crossed, back straight, and her eyes were demanding answers even before Mara could invite Mackenzie and Jona in. She didn’t need a collar and leash to pull Mackenzie to the table, the expectant smirk was enough. Mackenzie would never get used to the way her smile resembled a sinister version of her daughter’s.

Mara apologized for a “messy” house that was cleaner than any place Mackenzie had ever lived in. Mallory’s house was the only place Mackenzie had ever seen that was tidier.

An entire wall of Mara’s living room was devoted to a guerrilla art mural of a woman with eight arms, each holding one of her internal organs. They’d been pulled from a gaping hole in her torso that looked suspiciously like a vagina. Across from that was a mural of a woman forcefully kissing a skull, and her serpentine tongue wound its way between the teeth and out the eye. Mara said they were her ex-wife’s doing. She didn’t specify whether she was referring to the paintings or the themes.

Mara’s cast had been downgraded to a brace and bandage, but both had been abandoned on the kitchen counter after a failed attempt at washing the dishes. Mara said the joke was on her: she insisted she felt fine, but they’d put a plate in to keep her from rotating her wrist for at least another two or three weeks. Something about it being compound or complex. Mara was still struggling with closing her hand.

"Is that why I haven’t seen you at Solstice lately?" Mackenzie asked.

"I keep telling her the work’ll do me good, getting my hand strength back. But.” Mara cocked her head, sharply punctuating her sarcastic-but-not-that-sarcastic challenge to Deirdre. Mackenzie interpreted for Jona, since Mara couldn’t sign with her hand out of commission, and Deirdre forgot to as often as she remembered.

"What can I say? I have a thing for strong lady bartenders who can pour drinks themselves." A joke. From Deirdre. Mara and Jona laughed, but Mackenzie didn’t. Not because it didn’t amuse her, but because it was unsettlingly close to Natalie’s sense of humor. Yet it was different, more restrained; not tamed, just focused. As they talked, Deirdre refrained from interrupting with business, but she didn’t stop watching Mackenzie.

Because of the eerie resemblance, she kept expecting Deirdre to sway, tap her foot, or bob her head the way Natalie would—something to throw off the boundless energy churning within her. But she didn’t. Rather than a mosh-pitting, free-running riot grrrl, Deirdre was a ballet battle maiden, and that same overflowing energy within her was channeled to entirely different ends. She was a rapier to Natalie’s battle axe, and each thrust was carefully chosen.

Deirdre rose from her chair to hug Mara. “It’s time I headed back. My pets may wait on my leisure, but I don’t want to abuse that. Why don’t you come by tonight? We already have two on, but if you find things easy enough, you can send Andy home. Hop along, Little Rabbit. We have business.”

The expectation of obedience in her voice made Mackenzie bristle. But she had no right to argue. She’d been ducking Deirdre since the move. Jona gave Mackenzie a questioning glance but Mackenzie tapped her phone.

Jona: [so?]

[Bout to get my ass chewed out. lol] :Mackenzie

Jona: [lol. gl. bite back. I hear she likes it]

[omg] :Mackenzie

Jona: [;)]

[Hey, why doesn’t Mara just chill in the OW while she heals? Be easier right?] :Mackenzie

Jona: [no changing = no aging = no healing]

She appreciated the way Jona never judged her for the things she didn’t know.

Rather than the street, Deirdre led Mackenzie to Mara’s back yard. “You two seem to be getting on well,” she said.

"Yeah, I dunno what Jona sees in me." Mackenzie chuckled, trying to keep it friendly.

Deirdre slipped off her heeled boots and stockings to stand barefoot in the grass. “I meant you and my daughter. Put a hand here.” Deirdre reached out and touched the trunk of an oak tree that was fighting for space between Mara’s garage and fence. “And hold on to my shoulder.” Mackenzie complied, too busy searching for a response to Deirdre’s first comment to press for clarification.

Without warning, Mackenzie’s hand went numb and crusted over with tree bark. Mackenzie shrieked and looked to Deirdre. The same was happening to her, but Deirdre responded with only a blase roll of her eyes. “Oh, Goddex. Relax, would you? You’ll be fine.”

The bark swept up her arm and across her chest, transforming clothing and skin into a branch like any other. In seconds it covered her entire body, but fear and uncertainty stretched each alien sensation into a time measured only in units of too long.

Mackenzie felt herself being pulled into the tree. And down. Her body stretched, twisted, and flowed as her blood mixed with sap. It felt sweet and smelled like tingling. It tasted like an itch too deep to scratch as the tree became a part of her, and she a part of it, and her mind struggled to make sense of it all. Vaguely, she was aware of Deirdre there, too. They traveled down to the roots, then out, into the earth that tasted of salt and iron. Deirdre led her from root system to root system. Not all of them were trees. Most weren’t. Some were sour, and the acidic grime of decay clung to her as they passed, only to be rinsed clean by the next plant. Their path meandered around basements and between pipes and across sewer mold.

At last Mackenzie was swept up by a century old tree, stubbornly holding its claim in the heart of the city. In its branches she was pressed small, into a seed cone. The euphoric oneness receded, and she swelled to her normal size. When the tree could no longer support her weight, it dropped her. Awareness of her body, and her solitude within her singular self, crashed into her as she crashed down upon the floor.

A shoot of new growth erupted from the soil in front of Mackenzie, and she scurried off the grass and onto the dark tile. A flower bud appeared first. The plant doubled in size, then again, and again, until the bud was larger than Mackenzie. The sepals burst open and peeled back, and a rose-like flower with broad, blue petals bloomed. Queen Deirdre shifted her weight and crossed her legs, bending down one of the petals as she used the grand flower as a throne.

"Update," she commanded.

Mackenzie was still getting her bearings but she stood as well. “Well, um. It looks like how you left it. Except daytime. Hard to get a number of how many there are since they’re always coming and go—”

"Yes, yes. I know all this from others. You’ve spoken to the boy, haven’t you?"

Mackenzie nodded. “I have, but he’s not in charge. Not really, Your Mystic.”

Deirdre looked startled. “He’s lost control already?”

"No. I mean, it’s sort of a collective. Everyone shares the goal of creating a place for us without the rigid hierarchies of a typical Court. Where everyone is valued equally. So there isn’t anyone in charge.”

Deirdre waved a hand dismissively. “Nonsense. This free haven for artificials is his idea, yes? His ‘vision’ or what have you?” Mackenzie nodded. “Then he rules. Even if he plays at being equal to the rest, this flowery talk about there being no masters is his way of making it harder for you to see: he’s a ruler, just as I am. Worse still if he believes he’s not.”

"Except he isn’t, Your Mystic. He puts questions before those present to decide together."

"Does he, now? Do these decisions ever curiously come down in favor of what he wanted all along? Does anyone who disagrees with him ever bother coming back to vote him down? Defy his authority and you’ll see how fast he shows who’s in charge, I promise you." Mackenzie looked down at where the flower had appeared. She clenched her teeth, trying to think of how to deny Deirdre’s claim. Deirdre smirked, wide and dangerous. "Does Natalie know you’ve chosen him over me? Oh, don’t gawk at me like that. It’s all over your face."

Mackenzie wished she were in the Otherworld so she could hide within her hood without having to lift it and make it clear she was hiding intentionally. She couldn’t deny it, but she was equally unable to say outright that she’d taken Carter’s side.

"Nothing to say for yourself? Then listen: This is not some petty philosophical debate between he and I. This isn’t about justice, or ideology, or legitimacy. This is about control." She stood up, and the flower withered and disintegrated. "He took what is mine, and now he is using your idealism to pretend he is somehow different than me.”

"If you had let them in—"

"Bup, bup, bup. I am speaking. I don’t know where you came from that you were allowed to go your whole life without any consequences for shrugging off what has been assigned to you, but that ends now.” Anger had crept into Deirdre’s voice, and not the grandiose theatrics of a ruler performing for her subjects. Real anger, the kind rulers hated to show because it revealed they’d lost control of the situation. “I stuck my neck out for you. And while you have been off playing house with my daughter and poking Yvette Taisa in the eye, I have kept her fools off your back. She has her eyes on this place already, you know that? And I risked making this fight personal to her by getting in the way. For you. Has he done the same? Or does his effort stop at making you feel warm fuzzies because you’re part of his little Star-Eyed clubhouse?”

Deirdre wielded the slur with the clumsy fury of someone who truly believed it. It had been in reach all along, ready to use the moment her composure broke. As soon as Deirdre recovered enough to realize what she had said, she looked away. “I apologize. That was beneath me.”

"You’re fucking right it was."

Deirdre didn’t deny it. Disappointment in herself was not a look Deirdre wore well, but she had apologized without needing to be told. Maybe there was still hope for them to have a cordial relationship.

"I will have Vik reopen the Crossroads," Deirdre said. "You will speak to the boy. Now. Hop along, Little Rabbit. You have work to do.”

Grand March: Waiting For That Paper Moon

"A wedding?" Mackenzie asked.

"Well, they’re already married," Natalie said. "Kayla and Dar rushed the courthouse after the ruling last month, but now they’re having the big deal. I’ll be in the wedding party, which means we won’t see each other much. If you don’t want to go—”

"No!" Mackenzie waved her hands. "I’ve never been to a faerie wedding before, it sounds fun. So how do you know these people?"

I don’t know if there’s a word for how we’re related, but Kayla is my …” Natalie looked up at the ceiling and counted on her fingers. “… brother’s great-granddaughter. I think? But she’s my age.”

"Oh wow. I didn’t realize you had blood siblings."

"Well, I don’t. Pete died in World War II. Long before I was born."

"I’m sorry."

"Don’t be. I never met him." Mackenzie searched her hoodie pockets for something to say. Natalie continued, "You do know my mother is old enough to be my great-grandmother, right?”

"For real?"

"You know how royal families in Homeworld have lots of branches that come back together? Well, because of ruling in the Otherworld, faerie royal family trees tend to have very long branches.”

Mackenzie snickered.

The reception and ceremony were held at a lakeside campsite outside the city, in a pavilion that resembled a treehouse. Supported by a dozen large trees built into the wall on the shore, its polished cedar platform cantilevered over the lake to give the illusion the head table was floating above the still waters. According to Natalie, the Crossroads boundary was the surface of the lake, but only under a full moon. Therefore, the entire evening was held in reverse, beginning with the dancing, and would end with the ceremony at midnight.

Kayla wasn’t a faerie anymore, according to her. She was an Angel, having converted to the United Church of Christ where she met Dar. That meant the whole affair was a strange chimeric blend of Christian and faerie traditions. After the cutting of the cake, they had the joining of the trees, where each transplanted a shoot into a sapling the other would later plant. They’d also tried to meet each other half-way on the other traditions. Kayla played it safe with Neil Diamond for the Parents’ Dance. And Dar did her best to laugh along during the lewd debauchery of the Gauntlet of Temptation. Natalie came the closest to tempting Dar out of the circle—with a dance that Mackenzie would demand she repeat for her sometime. She also suspected heartfire was involved.

Natalie pointed out her extended family, but the parade of names marched past Mackenzie in a blur. Even Natalie struggled to remember a few she was related to through her late brother.

Deirdre was looking her finest, wearing a deep green, open back dress with a collar that came up above her head, and bangles that looked like living branches growing at her wrists. Mackenzie could see the tension in her eyes even though she was the best she’d ever seen at masking it with genuine-seeming enthusiasm. The skills required of a queen, Mackenzie guessed. More than being a queen Deirdre was the matriarch of this clan, so Mackenzie wondered aloud to a husband-of-a-nephew-of-a-cousin why the party wasn’t being held at Solstice. The subject changed curiously quickly.

As though Deirdre had heard the question from across the room, she locked eyes with Mackenzie. Deirdre wasn’t the sort who had to glare or glower to express disappointment. All she had to do was sip her champagne and return to her conversation without acknowledging her.

As food was served, the traditional flyting began, and each bride nominated a champion whose poetic talents would be brought to bear to deliver only the most unnecessarily cruel and brutal insults to her partner in the name of true love. Kayla called upon Dar’s older sister, so Dar named Natalie, guaranteeing both sides would be dredging up the most intimate of details. That evening, Mackenzie learned more than she ever wanted to know about Kayla’s and Natalie’s drunken misadventures in Cancun. And Cabo. And Miami. And with that gentleman in Dallas. Like a Will Farrell joke, the list just didn’t end.

"Lucky for you, the Lord forgives, Kayla." Natalie made an ultra-sincere sign of the cross and brought her hands together in prayer as the crowd laughed. Kayla was laughing hard enough to ruin her makeup. "You know I’m only telling these stories of ours so you can’t tell them about me at my wedding, right? What’s that? Oh wait, I have the microphone, so only one of us gets to sass talk right now. Love you, Kaykay." Sadly, for the audience, Dar’s mother couldn’t bring herself to be as merciless as Natalie.

After dinner, Mackenzie caught Natalie by the arm and snuck a kiss before she dashed off to get ready for the ceremony. The ceremony itself was recognizable all through the procession and the vows and the rings. But when “The Song” began, it became a wholly faerie ritual. There was no name for the tune. It never needed a name. Nor words. Nor was it the same melody every time it was sung. If there was one thing that could be said to unite all fair folk no matter how little magic they had, it was “The Song”. Even Mackenzie knew it, as surely as she knew how to work trashmancy. To Mackenzie, it felt as though “The Song” was always there in the background, changing as the world did, and all anyone could do was pick up the tune and hum along.

The conclusion of the singing caught Mackenzie and a few other holdouts by surprise. She’d been so wrapped up in it that she hadn’t noticed the wedding party had picked up the brides and hoisted them up onto their collective shoulders. On the count of three, they tossed them off the platform into the water. Neither surfaced. The crowd cheered.

"They are going to have a fantastic honeymoon,” Natalie said. “I’m jealous.”

"I thought mundane folk couldn’t enter the Otherworld," Mackenzie replied.

Natalie looked at her strangely. “Who told you that?”

 

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[NSFW] Salty and Sweet

Mackenzie commandeered Jona’s hand to draw a glowing heart on Jona’s bare torso. Jona snickered. They responded by drawing glasses around their nipples and turning them into eyes. Then they drew a smile just below their navel. Mackenzie shook her head and laughed. She flicked the light rings, but one of her dark jade fingernails caught Jona’s nipple and they flinched. She signed, “Sorry!” but was laughing too hard to have said it. Jona pinched Mackenzie’s nipples in return and she yelped. Playfully, she slapped Jona on the arm, but they were too busy feeling smug to be bothered by it.

Jona had outdone themself with this realm, though. If it were just the garage-sized pillow fort, that would have been enough—they had even used oversized couch cushions for the walls, betraying their expert knowledge of pillow fort architecture. But zero gravity was the chocolate on that pretzel. On its own, either would be enough for a fun naked afternoon, but cushioned walls were made for freefall. The Otherworld needed a review service. 10/10. Would bounce around naked again.

Finding an unspoiled realm was costly, however. If Jona had asked first, Mackenzie would have opted for a gentler path. She hadn’t expected a Bloodgate to be so … literal. But Jona had the right idea: passing through a Grotesquerie would have just killed the mood. Easy for her to say, though. Jona was the one who had the bandage on their leg.

She’d just have to kiss it better.

So she did. She kissed around the edges of the fresh white tape. She nuzzled the fine hair around the edges of the patch Jona had shaved prior to the bloodletting. She planted a kiss atop the center of the wound and Jona writhed. Mackenzie felt their long fingers in her hair. They took up a fistful, which was their favorite way to say, “More, harder, faster.” They’d tap if they wanted her to stop. So she pushed off from the wall. They drifted until the cushions on the opposite wall caught Jona, letting Mackenzie press her lips down harder, with all her momentum, making sure it felt all better. Jona’s eyes lost focus and they groaned.

Mackenzie hadn’t expected Jona to revel in pain, to crave it. She’d never been in the position of seriously dishing it out before, and they hadn’t discussed boundaries in detail, so she still erred on the side of caution. She wasn’t formally taking the role of domme, or top, or however Jona cared to style it, but she sure wouldn’t rule that out for the future.

Jona grabbed her head with both hands and pulled her up. She could feel their smile as they kissed her. Their tongue wound its way between Mackenzie’s lips and danced around Mackenzie’s own. With a satisfied grin they pulled back, leaving a spaghetti noodle of red neon light dangling between them. Mackenzie stuck her tongue out as far as she could. Out of the corner of her eye she could see the ribbon of light bow-tied around her tongue. Jona opened their mouth revealing a matching tie. She’d heard of tying cherry stems, but this was talent.

Mackenzie laughed and kissed Jona again. As she closed the distance, the light became hard and brittle, shattering into a cloud of red sparkles.

Jona wrapped their spindly legs around Mackenzie and leaned back enough to sign. “Like it?”

"Nice tongue." Jona raised their eyebrows and shrugged, feigning humility. "Anywhere else you’d like to light up with it?"

Oh, were there places Jona wanted to light up. They started at Mackenzie’s left ear and planted kisses down her neck. Light appeared like glowing ink stamps each place Jona’s lips met Mackenzie’s skin, every one a new color. They left a trail of indigo, crimson, and midnight kiss-steps from her collarbone to her breast. Their tongue traced rose around her left nipple and sunflower around her right. Forest across her ribs. Seafoam down her belly. Mint, mint, oh Goddex don’t stop at mint.

She let go of the maroon paisley cushion she had anchored herself to and groped for Jona’s hands. She laced her fingers with theirs, pulling them tighter as they floated. Without either of them needing to support their weight, Jona was free to move as they pleased. Jona took every advantage of that freedom, lifting their legs to wrap them around Mackenzie one moment, or tickle her sides the next. Mackenzie laughed at Jona’s playfulness.

Jona lit their way up her inner thigh, leaving glowing bite marks until they reached the top of her leg. They teased with their nose, slowly drifting back and forth just at the tips of Mackenzie’s hair. She couldn’t see their grin, but their wild, eager gaze dared Mackenzie to tell them no just as she wanted to scream yes. Mackenzie nodded her permission.

Their tongue meandered up one labia and down the other, and Mackenzie shivered. The light their caress left lit Jona’s face with a pale blue glow. Jona was still teasing when they painted another line right up the middle. Mackenzie needed them to stop playing around and turn her pussy into a messy neon painting.

She moved one of Jona’s hands to her crotch and let go, keeping hold of the other in case she needed to signal Jona. With the way Jona was already painting her clit purple, it was likely she would just squeeze it until Jona was tapping out.

Two long fingers painted her inside and out, and Mackenzie squirmed. She wanted to press back against Jona, but the best she could do was hug them closer with her own legs. When things got sloppy, Jona wiped their shining chin on Mackenzie’s thigh and went back to it. The smeared mix of fluids glowed a rainbow across her leg. Giggling, Mackenzie wiped it with a finger and smeared it back on Jona’s forehead. In a playful huff, Jona popped their fingers out and withdrew.

"No, don’t stop!" Mackenzie pleaded, still laughing. She pulled Jona back, but Jona wouldn’t cooperate. "Oh, fine." She wiped the rainbow smear until it was dry, but Jona’s forehead was still glowing. "Better?"

Jona responded by diving back in where they had left off. Just the brief interruption was enough to make it feel like the first touch all over again, and Mackenzie shuddered. But laughing was the best kind of interruption. It took only moments for Mackenzie to slide back into that place in her mind where there was only Jona’s touch and her huffing breaths.

 

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Hall Monitors

[I need to blow off some steam] :Mackenzie

Natalie: [With a body count or without?]

[See, you get me.] :Mackenzie

Natalie: [lol. I know just the thing.]

Chelsea was still a toddler the last time Mackenzie had been to the The Briar Hill Mall. Mom had wanted to get a family photo because she knew the woman who ran the mall’s Glamour Shots through the consulate and thought Chelsea was finally old enough to sit still for the whole session. She wasn’t. The details of the photo session were lost in time; what Mackenzie remembered was the massive Easter display under the food court’s hanging glass sculpture. She had wanted a picture with the Easter Bunny, so the real photo session was a poor substitute. Mom probably made the right call. Mackenzie wouldn’t want to see that Polaroid surface these days.

The mall had closed after the tollway bypass was routed through the outer suburbs though, so there were no pastel ornaments anymore, just stale air and dust. Mackenzie stood under the sculpture, right where the Easter Bunny’s throne had been, and looked up into the conjoined spirals of glass spindles. They hadn’t taken it down when the mall closed. Where would anyone put it, even if it could be extracted from the concrete ceiling? Cobwebs tarnished the shine, but not the grandeur of the the fixture. Its size left Mackenzie feeling as small as she’d been as a child. If there was ever a place for a Crossroads, she’d put it right where she stood.

"Over here," Natalie said.

Mackenzie pulled her attention away from the sculpture and trotted after her. “Hey, I wanted to talk to you about something.”

"Sure." Hallways radiated out from the food court, and Natalie was already setting out for the one across from where they’d come in. Mackenzie dodged large wooden benches that had been stacked for removal to storage and forgotten where they sat. She passed garbage bin cases hanging open, as empty as the husks of old stores. "You know, I don’t think I ever shopped here while it was open. I hated shopping."

"Oh yeah?" Mackenzie could see she was going to have to compete for Natalie’s attention.

"Mmhmm. Used to come here all the time. Vik would keep me set up with quarters at the arcade while my mom shopped."

"You didn’t join her?"

"You ever been shopping for boy’s clothes? Just face the rack, close your eyes, and grab something. It’s all the same." She paused. "And, you know, we were both still pretending that other thing wasn’t what it was back then.” Mackenzie nodded, letting Natalie have her moment to reflect. She almost reconsidered mentioning Jona until Natalie said, “Sorry, what’d you want to say?”

"Oh, um." When Mackenzie and Natalie had talked about polyamory before, she hadn’t been thinking of Jona. Rules for handling jealousy, time constraints, and for disclosing everything from magical talents to Natalie’s trans past had all been sorted out. But the issue of dating chosen family had never come up. "You mentioned Jona is your big sibling, right?"

"Yep."

"Has that ever … made things weird with people you were dating?"

"Why would it? Most people I date have chosen family of some kind, or at least know what that means."

"What does it mean to you?"

The question stopped Natalie in her tracks just outside a shuttered Gap outlet. Mackenzie didn’t think it was that profound of a question. “You know, family. Just not by birth. They helped me get through the trans thing while I was busy being a nightmare of a teenager and my mother was too busy being Queen to notice. During my failed attempt at college, I helped them get used to spending most of their time in Homeworld again. Still not sure they’re comfortable here.” She paused. “But I’m glad they’re sticking with it this time. There’s no one I’m closer to. Why?”

"You ever date?"

Natalie laughed. “Pffft. Noooo. Two faeries as high key as us? We would be hilariously awful as a couple. Luckily we both know that.”

Mackenzie leaned in and poked Natalie in her stomach once with each hand, then leaned up to kiss her. “Did you know you drive me mad?”

"I do, huh?" Natalie took a fistful of Mackenzie’s hoodie and pulled her tight against her torso. "Like this?"

Natalie kissed Mackenzie, and didn’t back away like after the usual affectionate peck. At first, Mackenzie yielded to the excitingly forceful gesture. But she still wanted to discuss Jona, and she wasn’t certain how Natalie would take that.

Mackenzie’s breath caught as the stinging menthol chill of Natalie’s lips spread down her torso until icy needles tickled the back of her arms and calves. She remembered Jona being this close to her. She imagined Natalie seeing Jona kissing her like this, and the sinking feeling of betrayal Natalie would feel in her gut. The part of her that was certain Natalie wouldn’t respond that way had taken shelter from the heartfire frostbite. All that was left was the doubt. She tapped out of the kissing match.

"Sorry," Natalie said, letting go. The smile she offered was impish as always, but her eyes were contrite.

Mackenzie reassured her by reaching up to stroke her hair. “It’s ok.” She was getting used to needing to be careful with her thoughts while touching, and hoped she was getting better at managing when she wasn’t. The numbness lingered as she pulled her fingers gently through a knot in the orange curls. “You should re-dye this soon.”

"I know." Natalie cupped a hand over Mackenzie’s. "I was thinking blue and purple."

"I think that’d look good on you," Mackenzie said, withdrawing her hand. Silence blew by like so much old dust. "So …"

"Right. Shadows." Natalie took her time turning away. "This way."

"Wait," Mackenzie said. She shoved the word out without considering that she’d have to follow through. She knew if she hadn’t, she’d have just let her fear stop her again and she didn’t want to put this off, consequences be damned.

"What’s up?"

"How would you feel about Jona and I dating?"

Really? You and Jona?” Natalie grinned. “Wow, I didn’t think they were interested in anyone like that. That’s cool.”

Mackenzie swayed side to side, waiting for Natalie to elaborate. When she didn’t, she asked, “So that wouldn’t be uncomfortable? You two being siblings and all?”

Natalie shrugged. “We’re not the kind of siblings that that sort of thing matters for, so I don’t know why it would be. Just as long as you don’t expect us to close the loop and all be dating each other!” She chuckled. “So are we gonna stand here pretending I’m supposed to be jealous, or are we gonna banish some Shadows?”

She kissed Natalie and inhaled, savoring her lover’s scent and with it the rosy sweetness of relief. It flowed down into her chest, smooth, and soft. Heartfire found a way to make even the most unexpected sensations glorious. She hummed with delight as her tension melted away.

"Good answer," Natalie said.

The dusty main corridor of the mall was uncomfortably large without the screen printed t-shirt and fantasy replica sword vendor carts clogging it up. Their footsteps echoed as they passed a broken escalator that Mackenzie doubted could even function as stairs without collapsing. A fake tree nearby was home to a real bird’s nest, but it had been abandoned like the mall.

The dust on the ground was moving. Mackenzie thought she was imagining it at first, but when she paused to watch, she could see footprints appearing and disappearing in the dust. Natalie stopped between an Old Navy and a Victoria’s Secret. She said it was close enough to the Crossroads to assume magical form, and transformed on the spot. Mackenzie had the presence of mind to snap a photo this time. She caught Natalie mid-flourish with her spear, capturing the fierceness that Mackenzie so loved. She showed it to Natalie, and when she approved of keeping it, Mackenzie set it as her phone’s wallpaper.

"Well?" Natalie asked. "Just gonna stay like that?"

She only had one “first time” to impress Natalie, so she knew she had to make this good. A rapid fire series of half-formed ideas for transforming popped into her mind, and she dismissed them just as swiftly for not being cool enough. She tapped her fingers on her thigh and looked around for inspiration. The trouble with the mall was that it had been cleared out, leaving only dust and faded paint. But the hallway was empty, and it was wide enough …

Mackenzie stood atop the garbage truck as it careened through the hallway. She paid no mind to whether or not she had head clearance—she’d dismissed limitations of the possible the moment she began transforming. She didn’t know who was driving, and she didn’t care; she knew it would stay on course the same way she knew where her foot would fall while walking across its roof. She jumped into the back and landed among the plastic bags and loose trash. As the compactor activated, it pressed into place the sheets of metal scrap on her vest, tore holes in her leggings, and wrapped her in a patchwork cloak. Without stopping, it ejected her, flipping and spinning through the air, and disappeared down the hall. Mackenzie landed in a crouch right where she had been standing. She stood just in time to catch her fan blade sword and bike chain whip that had been ejected after her. She sheathed the sword through a bent carabiner on her belt, and slung the chain across her chest to take up the slack. With a self-satisfied smirk, she dropped into a fighting stance.

Natalie leaned her spear against her shoulder and applauded. Mackenzie curtsied, and the metal scrap plates rattled.

"So what are we after?"

"You’re gonna love it."

The hall ended at a closed movie theater. The film titles on the marquee were written in Sylvan pictographs, and the popcorn bins at the concession stand across the lobby were overflowing. The odor of freshly burnt popcorn wafted out at them, and Mackenzie could feel the gooey sheen of butter on her face and fingers. Her boots stuck to the floor as she walked because a Sour Patch Kid was caught in the tread. A flick of trashmancy peeled it off and sent it flying over the concessions counter.

Natalie hopped the velvet rope line, then covered her mouth to feign embarrassment for getting caught breaking the rules. Mackenzie snickered and jumped after her. Natalie poked around under the box office counter for flashlights, but something tickled Mackenzie’s mind. She grabbed onto it with outstretched magic and lifted it out of the cabinet. The Lost & Found box had been left behind. Natalie gave up on the box office and started searching the concessions stand instead. Meanwhile Mackenzie poured out the contents of the box on the counter.

Two sets of keys, a red and white winter hat, a Wisconsin Badgers cap, and a Katana flip phone. For the hell of it, she tried turning it on. It had just enough power to show the Sprint startup screen and prompt whoever “Cheesy” was for their password. Then the low battery light blinked twice and the screen went black. When she tried turning it on once more, it didn’t start. She twirled it in the air with her trashmancy idly as she took off her tiara and tried on the Badgers cap.

Natalie emerged with a large Maglite and a tiny LED flashlight. She pointed both at Mackenzie. Natalie laughed. “What are you doing?”

"What do you think? Think I can pull it off?" Mackenzie asked. Natalie answered with a skeptical scowl, so Mackenzie shot the phone at her. It struck her in the arm.

Natalie stuck her tongue out. “Jerk.”

"Ass." Mackenzie put her tiara back on. "So where are these Shadows?"

Natalie frowned with concern. “I don’t know. We should have seen them by now. Usually this place is crawling with Bond girls and perfect rom-com guys. You know, because—”

Mackenzie laughed, and stopped Natalie before she explained. “Let me guess: because when the movie ends, you’re left with the crushing realization those characters aren’t real?”

"You got it." Natalie opened the door to an auditorium. The seats had been torn out, leaving only bare concrete between the carpeted aisles. Even more so than the empty hall, the way the darkness swallowed her tiny flashlight’s beam distorted Mackenzie’s sense of space. She felt smaller than a kid.

Natalie’s voice echoed as she spoke, “It’s a little strange beating the snot out of a twisted version of the character you love, but at least the horror monsters and slasher killers are rare: you’re either too bored when you’re watching because you don’t buy into it, or you carry that shit with you for years because you can’t stop worrying it’s real. Like a mind virus, it only goes dormant.”

"I still won’t eat any soup that has the word ‘cream’ in it." Mackenzie laughed. "Shit." Mackenzie’s flashlight fell on a familiar looking Actyun logo on a crate against the far wall. "Not again. These assholes are everywhere." She was seeing that star far more often than she wanted lately.

This time she wasn’t leaving without finding out what they were bringing to the Crossroads. Using her fan blade sword as a crowbar, she popped the crate open. On a bed of packing foam rested a stone column as long as her arm. The stone was grey, with rose flecks, and Sylvan words traced carved spirals around a central symbol that resembled two interlocking circles of vines, or serpents.

"What is this?" Natalie asked.

Before Mackenzie could say she was just as confused, the sound of voices outside made her jump. Natalie’s eyes were wide. She’d heard it too. Together they scrambled to get the cover back on the crate, but in the attempt Mackenzie dropped her flashlight. The batteries popped out and she lost sight of where it rolled in the dark.

Natalie dragged Mackenzie by the arm into an alcove near the screen and pushed her flat against the fire doors under an unlit emergency exit sign. She turned off her flashlight and snuffed out the flames on her outfit, plunging them into perfect black.

"Shadows?" Mackenzie whispered. Natalie didn’t answer.

The auditorium door opened and a flashlight beam swept across the open floor.

"Let’s slip out the exit," Mackenzie whispered.

Frighteningly, Natalie didn’t reply. She hoped that didn’t mean Natalie was planning to go on offense. If those were real people and not Shadows …

Mackenzie waited for the beam to sweep to the far side and leaned out for a peek. Two men in dark green, or possibly blue delivery jumpsuits and caps; the details were lost in the darkness.

"Let’s just go. I fuckin’ hate theaters," one said.

"Shut up, I know I heard something," the man holding the flashlight said.

"Probably just one of them Shadows."

"The ones here only speak in movie quotes, dumb shit." Flashlight replied. The light bobbed up and down with his approaching footsteps. "I heard a conversation."

Mackenzie caught the reflected glare off of her lost flashlight. She tried to reach out to it with trashmancy and pull it to her, but it wasn’t junk; it just lacked a battery. Her magic glided over it as though it weren’t even there. All she could hope was that he didn’t see it.

Flashlight looked over the dropcloth barrier in front of the screen. His back was to them, easily rushed from behind before Dumb Shit could arrive to help. She didn’t need magic to know Natalie was doing the same risk calculation. But the last thing Natalie needed was fall back into her old routine of beating up real people, and Mackenzie doubted she’d get off with 24 hours in holding and a stern glare from a judge this time.

She laced her fingers with Natalie’s and held tight. “Don’t,” she whispered as softly as she dared. Her voice trembled. Heartfire began to turn concern into worry. She gripped Natalie’s arm in support, despite worry threatening to become chilling terror.

Mackenzie pulled Natalie deeper into the alcove, silently urging her to take the door. Natalie didn’t yield. The flashlight beam flirted with the edges of the alcove, and each time she worried that would be the time the beam stopped and went back.

"Just keep your eyes peeled," Flashlight said, giving up and starting back toward the door. As soon as Mackenzie felt Natalie relax, he kicked Mackenzie’s flashlight, filling the empty room with the clatter of aluminum and plastic. "The hell?" The beam fell on the flashlight case. "I told you I heard someone! Get in here and help me look."

Dumb Shit’s reluctance was audible. Mackenzie would have sassed off about his fear of a dark theater, but she wasn’t doing so hot herself in the numbing terror department. She clung to Natalie even harder. “Let’s go,” she whispered.

Too loud. Flashlight looked straight at her and lit up their hiding spot. Mackenzie yanked Natalie’s arm, using her weight to pull them through the emergency exit before Natalie could strike. Natalie lurched forward as expected, but Mackenzie held tight. But Mackenzie found the emergency exit handle wouldn’t budge.

"Not so fast, ladies," Flashlight said. The door handle popped off the hinge with a screeching ptang! and curled around Mackenzie’s waist. Within moments, it was supporting her entire weight. “I want to know what you’re—”

Natalie shot out of the alcove and her purple flames flared to life. With a spinning leap she threw her spear. Flashlight dodged just in time, but Natalie was still charging on him, ready to drop him with a haymaker. The running windup telegraphed her movements, and he caught her arm and tripped her. Mackenzie could only watch as Natalie’s chin bounced off the concrete floor.

Mackenzie kicked, trying to push against the door and bend the metal back, but she couldn’t overcome whatever magic Flashlight was using. Flashlight had made a mistake, though. By breaking the handle off, he’d given Mackenzie claim to it as well. She grabbed the broken handle with trashmancy and pried back. She’d never been resisted magically before. It was like trying to turn a greased door knob: she knew it was there and she could hold it, but the more effort she applied, the more it slipped. But the bar wasn’t tightening, either, so she guessed he was matched in the struggle.

Natalie, still on the ground, rolled over and kicked him in the back of the knee. He stumbled forward. He didn’t fall, but it was enough distraction for Mackenzie to recognize she had a firm grip of the bar. She pried it open and slid through to the floor. Dumb Shit took a step into the room at last, but Natalie rose to a knee and reached out at him. He dropped his flashlight and clutched his chest. With a shudder that rose up from his toes, he clumsily groped for the door and fled, screaming. His wails of fear faded into the distance.

Flashlight clobbered Natalie in the back of the head, dropping her back to all fours. Mackenzie grabbed the broken door handle and flung it at him as hard as her trashmancy could manage. She made sure to hit him with the length of the bar so as not to impale him; she didn’t want a body to hide. She struck just above his ear, sending him toppling over Natalie. She followed up by binding him in her bike chain and locking it. It would dissolve into a forgotten dream eventually, but it would keep him down long enough to get away.

She pulled Natalie to her feet. “Let’s go.” Natalie grabbed her spear.

They ran for the box office and jumped the velvet rope. They were coming up on the broken escalator when a concrete planter box flew over their heads and smashed into it. The mezzanine balcony cracked, ready to fall on them at any moment. Mackenzie grabbed Natalie’s arm and ran faster. One act wasn’t enough to tell what kind of magic Dumb Shit had that enabled him to pull that off, but none of the options that crossed Mackenzie’s mind were good. Apparently he’d found his nerve once he was out of the theater.

The balcony collapsed behind them, shaking the ground enough to make both of them stumble and fall. Natalie got to her feet first. Mackenzie looked back as Natalie helped her to her feet. “Fuck me …”

Dumb Shit rode the trailing edge of a miniature tornado. Dust and bits of concrete whipped up into whirlwind as he passed over the rubble, and one by one he loosed them. Most shot over their heads, or dented the metal gates of the closed stores. As they ran, one struck Mackenzie in the upper arm. Another would have hit a vertebra between her shoulders head on but was deflected by a pot lid hanging from her vest.

They reached the food court just as a chunk the size of her fist hit Natalie in the back of the leg and she went down. To buy time, Mackenzie reached out to the stacked wooden benches and lifted them into the air. They were heavy, the kind of bench that was never meant to be moved even for cleaning, and she arranged them into the shape of a golem protector. Even though she couldn’t see it, she could feel the tendrils of magic that flowed between the benches at the joints. She dropped into a fighting stance, and the golem moved with her.

She threw a right hook with a fist as heavy as a car engine. The whirlwind grabbed it and snapped the magical joint. Dumb Shit wasn’t able to bring it back around and fire it directly at her, however, so it sailed up in a wild, tumbling arc.

"Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me."

It smashed into the glass sculpture, shattering an entire section and raining glass all about. Mackenzie’s first impulse was to grab every one of those shards and pepper him, but it was clear that would backfire disastrously. Natalie was on her feet again, so she opted for throwing the entire golem forward at once. He couldn’t stop all of those benches with just air.

One succeeded in falling onto him from above, knocking him off the whirlwind. It dissipated, only to reappear beneath him before he landed and lift both him and the bench. However, it gave Mackenzie an idea.

With a wide sweep of her arm, Mackenzie gathered up the glass into a flying sheet one shard thick. While Dumb Shit wrestled to free himself from the bench, she curled the sheet into a ball high over his head, out of range of the whirlwind. She fused them together into a sloppy, jagged fish-bowl sphere and dropped it down onto him. Since it came from directly above and surrounded him, the whirlwind had no edge to hit first. It spun and toppled, and screeched when it contacted the floor. Mackenzie reached up and broke some of the remaining sculpture spindles free and fused them to the sphere as struts to keep him from rolling out of it.

Mackenzie rested her hands on her knees and caught her breath.

"Damn, girl," Natalie said. "You missed your calling." The glass cracked. "Wuh oh. Time to go."

They didn’t stop running until they were through the turnstile at the train station. The passengers looked at them like a pair of cosplayers who were riding the wrong train to the convention center, but Mackenzie just grinned with the glow of adrenaline and endorphins.

"So, new girl. What are we gonna call you?"

Mackenzie leaned on the pole as the train started rolling. “I’m thinking Trashcandy. Maybe tack on Rubbish Witch to fit the theme.”

“‘Rubbish Witch’, huh? You think I’m gonna let you bite my style just because we’re teaming up?”

Mackenzie kissed Natalie on the cheek. “Yep.”

 

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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?

 

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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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