Actions

Work Header

little dark age

Chapter Text

i grieve in stereo, the stereo sounds strange
you know that if it hides, it doesn't go away
if i get out of bed you'll see me standing all alone, horrified, on the stage
my little dark age

-- mgmt, “little dark age”


Hometown is dark at this hour. The wind carries fallen orange leaves through the empty streets and causes the trees that line them to shiver as one. This rustling and the occasional hum of a car are all that break the small-town silence; the leaves the only movement casting shadows in the sickly yellow street lamps.

That and you.

The swing creaks in protest of your weight as you settle down on it, and the chains dig into your hips, but you ignore both in favour of the bag of takis you lifted earlier. You toe your sneaker back and forth in the dusty dirt as you pop them open, making the swing pivot and creak again as it does so. Your white five-dollar earbuds, cords frayed from all the times you’ve only just caught yourself chewing on them, play Mindless Self Indulgence’s Pay For It tinny and as loud as your relic of an mp3 player will go.

You toss a handful of takis into your mouth, mind blank except for the music. I wanna pay for it, all of this shit, I wanna pay for it like a goddamn son of a bitch. You snap another handful in your back teeth, enjoying the way they crunch, and screw the top off a two liter of faygo to chug a third of it before returning to your snack.

Something catches your attention as you suck lime chili powder off one of your claws: movement in the bushes at the edge of the playground. You still, slowly lowering your hand. There’s no light back there, but you can see someone moving between the trees. You squint into the dark green darkness, ears pricked forwards, wondering what asshole thinks they’re you, skulking around after all good law-abiding citizens have been tucked safe in their hidey holes, and hand inching towards your inner jacket pocket.

After a moment someone stumbles out of the bushes. You pin your ears back at the threat, but after a moment you recognise one of your classmates. It’s that skinny human you share a homeroom with; hardly a threat at all. You watch as they look around, hair swishing as they move their head, not immediately spotting you. They have dirt staining their hands and all up the arms of their long sleeved t-shirt and the knees of their jeans, all over their front, too, and smudged on their face. They’re carrying an equally dirty shovel, a little longer than as to come up to their waist, and dragging a red wagon behind them with leaves stuck in the axles of the wheels.

You hold very still, unsure of what to do, mind still mostly blank. They look like they’ve been burying something. Just as you process that thought they notice you. Their hair hangs in their eyes like yours does, but you can tell they’re looking right at you all the same: face in your direction, holding as still as you are. Time seems to freeze for a moment. And then they turn and walk away, back into the trees that line the town, their wagon squeaking behind them.

You watch them go. What were they doing, you wonder. What were they burying, or digging up?

You shake your head to clear it. It’s none of your business what the little freak is getting up to. Not your fucking circus. You crumple up the empty chip bag and toss it in your mouth, feeling reality settle back around you as you chew it up. You notice the music again, the pop bottle tucked under your arm. It’s a little chilly this late in the year. You breathe in; breathe out.

Just another night, Susie. You’re stupid for being out with only your jean jacket. You grind the foil packaging between your back teeth, and with habitual purpose swallow. You wash it down with the rest of the soda and a squashed jelly doughnut fished out of your jacket pocket, before standing and overhanding your trash into the municipal waste bin on the edge of the playground. The doughnut bag flutters pathetically to the ground two feet from you. The soda bottle bounces off the edge of the bin and lands in the grass. Two fuckin points.

You slump off into the empty streets. There’s nothing to do in this fucking town besides skulk. You can sneak into the movie theatre when you’re really bored or cold, but tonight you’re neither, and so you slink down the sidewalks instead. The peeling sole of your left shoe slaps against the pavement. You stop mid block to light a cigarette, and then keep walking.

The thing is, the thought of the human twerp burying something mysterious in the dead of evening is interesting. It is, in fact, the first interesting thing that has crossed your path in a long time. Before you’ve thought about what you’re doing you’ve spun on your heel and started stalking back to the playground the way you came.

It’s empty as you left it; the little punk is long gone. You go straight for the bushes they wandered out of and rummage through them. You don’t see anything particularly remarkable; they aren’t even particularly trampled. You change that as you climb through them and head into the woods.

This forest surrounds nearly the entirety of Hometown. You can see pretty clearly in the moonlight filtering through the half-fallen ceiling of leaves. You come out here sometimes, but as terrorizing the neighbourhood is more your bag, not frequently enough to know where you’re going or what you’re looking for. You stop to look around and think. Your cigarette burns down to the stub. You eat it.

You don’t see anyone between the trees, or really any animals at this hour, not that that’d help if you did. There’s no obvious trails or...

Oh. There is an obvious trail. There’s a kicked up furrow in the carpet of autumn leaves, similar to the one you’re leaving behind yourself: dirty, wet leaves mixed in with the fresh ones on top, and piled up higher than those around them. Little shitface must’ve come that way. You’re a fuckin detective.

You follow the trail. It goes on for a long time. Occasionally you lose the path in a patch where the trees are thinner, but after a bit of searching find it again. You light another cigarette and pull your jacket closer around yourself. It’s getting darker. Night birds coo in the distance. Eventually you stop and pull out your phone to check the time. It’s 9 pm; you’ve been walking for nearly an hour. What the fuck was this asshole doing out here? You turn and look behind you, back towards town, but you can’t see anything besides trees. Welp. You came this far. You might as well keep going.

Another hour passes. You’re seriously cold by then, not enough to feel sluggish, but enough to hurt at the edges and wonder what the fuck you’re even out here for. It better not be a shitty time capsule or some bullshit like that. It better be something cool like a body, or money. Maybe it’s a treasure map. Maybe it’s a complete fucking waste of your time.

The path stops at the foot of a gnarled tree. The wood is old, probably dead or something, you don’t know shit about trees. It’s rooted at the edge of a little outcropping, a ledge of about a couple feet. It’s shorter than the rest around it, but twisted nearly sideways. The leaves at its base where the path stops are all turned over like your trail. You look around; this really is where the path ends.

You drop to your knees and dig. Your broad hands make good shovels, and underneath the leaves the dirt is recently disturbed, so it’s easy going even if the ground is cold enough to hurt. You’re almost excited. Just almost.

A couple feet down your hand hits metal. You brush away dirt from an oval ring a few inches in diameter, hinged on something made of the same rusted metal. A few more minutes reveal the edges of a birdcage, the inside filled up with dirt. You lift it out by the handle. Some dirt slides out of the cage as you do so, and you shake it until it clears enough for you to see what’s inside.

‘What the fuck?’

You can’t help but say it out loud, voice strange against the quiet of the forest. You stare at the object in the cage in front of you.

It’s glowing softly, bright and violently red in the darkness, shaped like a paper valentine, and floating in the center of the cage. You lean your face in closer, fascinated. It’s something you’ve seen pictures of in books at school but never seen in person; the target of the morbid childhood obsession you outgrew.

It’s a soul.

You hold the cage and your face only an inch from each other, studying it for several more moments before your mind starts moving. What’s a soul doing out here? Where the hell did that kid get one? Did they kill someone? You don’t know where else it could have come from.

You stand up suddenly, still holding the cage, sparked now with real excitement. You have a soul. You have a fuckin caged soul.

You start walking. The cage is made of rusted iron, but the soul weighs nothing, still floating as though on display. Your eyes drift to the glow at the corner of your vision every few seconds. It’s pretty. It sparkles. You have a soul, a fuckin soul. You feel ecstatic. Your usual malaise has left you by miles. You light a cigarette, fumbling with your off hand, and hold the cage up so you can grin at your prize.

A real human soul. It’s the coolest thing you’ve ever laid eyes on.

You walk home. By the time you get there it’s past midnight, and you’ve stopped thinking about the soul so much and started to notice how hungry and cold and as a result tired you are. You jump the fence to your backyard with a good half hour of daydreaming of your nice warm bed under your belt. It’s late enough that you think you could get in through the front door without incident, but you don’t want to risk someone seeing the soul, and you prefer the back way anyway. You set down the soul to take off your jacket and throw it over the cage before anyone sees. You’re chilled enough that it barely makes a difference, though it does tear your mp3 player away from your head. Whatever.

It’s easy enough to scale the tree growing up behind your house one-handed and pry your bedroom window open, your mp3 player and the switchblade in your jacket pocket bouncing off the birdcage as they hit it. You’re getting a little big to fit through it these days, but you still manage, putting the soul inside first and sticking your feet through afterwards. You shut the window as soon as you’re inside and grab the comforter off the air mattress immediately to your left, wrapping it around your shoulders as you plop down onto your bed.

Your room is a mess as usual, the piles of dirty clothing and various possessions that cover the floor lit blue in the moonlight. You toe off your shoes and lift the jacket so you can look at the soul again. It puts a red cast on the carpet and dirty socks in front of it, and on the dark brown comforter wrapped around you. Your breath catches in your throat as you gaze at it. What was that guy doing, leaving it buried in the forest? It’s like finding a diamond necklace in a drainpipe.

You cover it up again, worried, all of a sudden, that someone will come in and see. You can’t let anyone find out that you have it; they’ll think you killed a human for it. You’ll need to hide it somewhere.

You look around your room desperately. The only furniture in here is your bed, your desk, a set of white plastic cubbies, and a set of mesh cubbies hanging from the ceiling. The only place where you could possibly hide anything is your desk drawers, and the cage won’t fit.

Your eyes slide to the cage. Could you take the soul out..? You don’t know what would happen. It might fly away. It might disappear. Better not risk it.

So you guess you’re going to have to hide the cage. With your blanket still around your shoulders you gather up a bunch of dirty laundry: bigger pieces, like t-shirts, and towels, and move the cage to the side of your bed and bury it. It’s not too conspicuous, you think, just a pile of laundry off to the side. You throw a couple pairs of dirty underwear on top of it for good measure. That at least will stop your sister from poking. It’s not the safest hiding place ever, but it’ll do.

Your stomach growls. Right.

You dig in the back of your desk drawers for snacks you forgot about, but you don’t find any, so you cautiously poke your head outside your bedroom door, ears pricked forwards. The upstairs hall is dark as death due to the one side of your house that just doesn’t have windows for some fucking reason, but you don’t hear anyone, so you tiptoe out, taking like a dance the long-memorised path that avoids the places where you know the floor creaks.

You make it to the kitchen alright. There’s no one on the first floor, though the absence of your dad’s snoring means he could come in at any minute. Whatever. You’ll just have to be fast. You open the fridge and are bathed in glorious light. What won’t be missed? There’s a tupperware with a third of a chicken carcass, a tub half filled with pathetic spinach, a jar of olives, a jar of mayonnaise, four cans of cheap beer, a nearly empty pack of wieners. Perfect. You peel back the drawer with a claw and take out the package. Two left. It ain’t nothing. You fish one out and eat it as you shoulder the fridge door closed.

That’s when you hear the creak and slam of the front door. You freeze, heart skyrocketing to pound in your throat. Fuck. Is he coming this way? The basement stairs are to your left. You duck down them and tiptoe downstairs as fast as you dare.

You breathe shallowly in the dark, trying to stay as quiet as possible. You can hear his heavy footsteps above you, dust falling from the unfinished ceiling and catching in your hair as the floor settles. You sip at the air, not daring to even take a full breath in case he hears. He’s probably drunk out of his mind and not attuned to much of anything, but you never know. You never know.

Light spills down the stairs with the hum of the refrigerator as he opens it. You can hear him rummaging around, the pop of a tupperware, the crack of a beer can, and the light goes away to the creak of a chair across the floor. You wait. The seconds tick by in agony. It’s the direct opposite of how you felt in the forest, where time and tiredness slid easily by in a haze of unconcern, even if you weren’t exactly having fun there either. You were alone. When you’re alone there’s nothing that can hurt you.

Eventually you hear the chair above you push back, and the floorboards groan as your father heads upstairs. You can hear his footsteps all the way to the second floor, and the open and shut of a door. This house echos, and you’re not stupid enough to think you can move yet.

After a few more minutes you can hear the toilet flush, and the pipes down here rush with water. Amidst that you hear the sink, which runs for several seconds longer. And then longer. And then it shuts off, and you hear two doors open, and one shut. You’re beginning to feel heady from taking shallow breaths. The hot dog in the plastic wrapping clutched in your claws is taunting you. You pray he falls asleep quickly.

After several minutes you hear the first distant grind of snoring. All the tension saps out of your body at once, and you let out the breath you were holding, breathing in deep now that you’re able, savouring the simple pleasure of filling your lungs. You eat the hot dog. You’ll throw away the wrappings; plastic isn’t your thing. You’re still hungry, but you didn’t see anything else in the fridge you could get away with stealing, other than a couple handfuls of spinach, which aren’t really worth the risk. You should buy some ramen for your room stash tomorrow. You think you have a couple dollars left.

You sneak back up to the kitchen, and on second thought pirate that spinach before heading back upstairs.

Sitting on your bed in the moonlight, you take one more peek at the soul. It shines brilliantly through the crack you part in the laundry, your very own ruby treasure, and it paints your grin in red light.

Chapter Text

You spend most of homeroom staring at the human.

You were actually kind of on time today, on enough so to steal a straggling third grader’s breakfast and snarl at them so they squeak and run away instead of protesting. The food did you good, but you’re antsy for more, clicking your claws against your desk and glowering while you wait for lunch. Your eyes fell on the human pretty early on and they haven’t left them since. You don’t know if they know you’re staring; their eyes are again completely covered and they haven’t looked around. Not that it matters; you’re just ready to show off your teeth if you catch them glancing your way.

You don’t know very much about them. You know that they’re the only human in your class. You know their mom is a teacher of one of the baby classes, and that said mom walks them into school every day holding their hand like they're a baby too, because everyone knows that. You don’t know their name. Overall they’re just not that relevant to your existence, or they haven’t been before. Beyond having a snicker over the hand holding thing you don’t think you’ve had a single thought about them ever. They are the least interesting asshole in this school, and here they go burying a fucking soul in the woods. It’s always the quiet ones, you remember your dad saying as he chuckled. What-fucking-ever.

But you’re still interested. You don’t really care why they did it, or where it came from, but the fact that they hold that information at all sure is something, and it’s not like you have anything better to be interested in. They hold your attention quietly in the edges of your vision like the soul does. Their brown hair brushes across the shoulders of their purple sweater as they move their head. They’ve got their own soul, rattling around in there. You can almost imagine you can see it, hear it. You wonder what colour it is.

You’re going to need a better place to hide the soul, you know you will. You only have so long until one of your parents goes poking around your room for something and finds it, and then you’ll be in deep shit. You need to put it somewhere they won’t look and can’t get into. You thought about just burying it again, but you don’t want to have to do that much work to get it back, and anyway you proved someone could just dig it back up.

No, you need to put it somewhere only you can get into. You’ve never had this problem before, never having had to stash anything bigger or more valuable than cold cash, and you’re not actually sure how to solve it. You can’t involve anyone else, even if you had someone to involve. If you put a locked box in your bedroom your parents will just find that and give you shit for it, so even though it’d save you the trouble with the law it wouldn’t be much better.

But maybe if you had a locked box you could put it somewhere your parents wouldn’t associate with you directly, like in the basement, or somewhere they wouldn’t go, like a bank vault. You wonder how much it costs to store something in a bank vault. Probably too much. And you’re probably too young.

But a locked box would at least buy you some time while you figured out a safe place to keep it. There’s a lot of boxes in your house, things your family never bothered to unpack after moving despite it having been years ago, or condemned to life in storage for reasons varied. You could slip it in the back in the basement and no-one would be any the wiser.

Which means your next step is to get money to buy a box with. Guess you know what you’re doing at lunch.

When the bell releases you you stalk not towards the cafeteria but the front doors, and around to the side of the school and past the thick bushes to the rectangle of cement under the overhang by the disused side door. You light a cigarette and puff on it while you wait. It’s chilly again today; the sky is a wall of grey clouds. You came a little more prepared with a black hoodie on under your jean jacket, making the latter tight at the joints but keeping you cosy. The air smells crisp with coming rain and dank with dying leaves and the nearby dumpsters.

After a few minutes you see a marten upperclassman heading across the parking lot. He freezes when he sees you, but you crook a couple claws in his direction and he troops over with his ears down.

‘Aww, Derrick. It’s like you’re not even happy to see me.’

He sighs, and shrugs his leather jacket into a more secure position. ‘Let’s just get this over with.’ He lights a cigarette, and then digs out his wallet, carefully thumbing through the money within to procure two twenties and hold them out to you.

You snatch them up. ‘Hang on,’ you say as he starts to put his wallet away, and he freezes. ‘You had more money in there.’

‘I gave you forty. That was our agreement.’ His eyes flick up to you, shoulders tense.

‘Yeahno. Fork it over.’

‘I need it. It’s for the gallery showing tonight.’

‘Oh, if it’s for the gaaallery showing--’

He bristles. ‘I don’t have to put up with this, you know--’

Before he can finish you shove him back a foot and against the brick wall of the school building, arm like a steel beam pinning him by the shoulder. His breath catches and he drops his cigarette in surprise. You press hard. ‘Of course you don’t have to,’ you croon, leaning your face in close and letting your tongue roll languid against the back of your front teeth. His eyes are wide with fear, breath coming in short little pants. You get your teeth inches from his face, bared lazily. ‘It’s your choice. But you should ask yourself what’s more expensive: paying me off, or paying for a new bumper on your car before your parents realise you dented it. Or all the money your parents aren’t gonna give you once they find out you’re smoking and drinking and banging your girlfriend.’

He swallows.

‘Or,’ you continue, ‘Buying a new face?’

You open your jaw wider as you lean in closer. You can smell how scared he is. Fuck, you love this. It’s such a rush.

‘F--fine!’ He squeaks. ‘God, fucking-- take it.’ He tries to squirm away from you. You reach for the wallet still in his hand, and let him go as you open it to page through. He darts away from you a few steps, catching his breath. You find two hundred dollar bills. Jackpot. That’ll cover not only a lockbox, but ramen and McDonalds for a couple weeks. You’re on top of the fucking world.

You grin as you look through the rest of the wallet and he stands there squirming. Heh, it looks like he needs to piss or something. It’s funny. Stealing credit cards is no good, he’ll just cancel them or something. He has a nearly full punch card for the Leaky Bean, though; you take that. Driver’s license, nah, he’s cooperating. You’re disappointed to see he hasn’t replaced the picture of his girlfriend after the second time you stole it. You were having fun building up a little collection.

You take all his spare change and toss his wallet back. He fumbles the catch but manages not to drop it. Fucking pathetic wimp. You threw it underhand and everything. ‘Thanks for everything,’ you say with relish, and tongue your cigarette butt into your mouth. It’s still smoldering a little and burns your tongue, which only makes your victory taste all the sweeter.

‘Fuck you, David,’ Derrick says half-heartedly.

‘Nah, pathetic little rich boys aren’t my type. Why, you into pegging?’

He glowers. You smirk and saunter off.

You aren’t going to bother robbing someone’s lunch with two hundred forty bucks and a handful of spare change burning a hole in your pocket. Two hundred forty two, in fact; you forgot about your leftovers from last time. Instead of heading back inside you sklonk down the road towards the McDonalds, putting your hood up to shake off the chill and your earbuds in to shake off your deadname. Doing pretty fine, Susie, you think, and it feels good even though you know you made that happen on purpose. Two hundred forty two dollars. You’re the slickest person in town. Blackmailing Derrick was a stroke of genius, really. You’re a fucking genius.

You nod to the beat of The Offspring’s Self Esteem as you walk, another cigarette pinned between your front teeth. That’s another thing you can buy; more cigarettes. Cigarettes and cheeseburgers and maybe even a new pair of tennis shoes. Hey, maybe you can get a fuckin skateboard. That’d be cool. But then you’d have to pay for a taxi ride to the city, and-- ugh. Why does everything cost so much fucking money?

Okay. If you only spend money on things you can’t lift, like cigs and fast food and a lockbox, and don’t go hog wild on the fast food front, then maybe you can get a decent pair of shoes for winter and a decent board. You can find better shoes in the city anyway. You know your mom would probably cover you for shoes if you asked, but you don’t want to ask. Maybe you can steal some cash from your sister.

You order five cheeseburgers off the dollar menu and treat yourself to a large soda, which you graveyard before plopping down in a window booth to wait for your food. It’s a small town McDonalds, like this small town has small town everything, with wood-print deco paper on plywood booths, and scuffed checker-patterned floor, and sticky tables. You chew on your cigarette and watch out the window. You wonder where you should go to buy a lockbox. You’ve never seen one at the thrift store, but you haven’t been looking either. There’s the CVS. Maybe you just need to find a box and a lock, rather than the two combined.

You slurp your soda. It’s disgusting; you did good. After a couple minutes they call your order and you dig into your sweet sweet borgers. Mmmn. Borgers. Seven dollars and twenty three cents off your total, but it’s worth it. It is sooooo worth it.

You drink six or seven refills, piss, and pick up another refill for the road before heading back to school, the crumpled burger wrappers stuffed in your coat pockets for later.

The day passes uneventfully. You sit in the back of class with your legs splayed chewing on your burger wrappers one at a time and daydreaming about the cash burning a hole in your pocket. You worked out how much you have left: two hundred forty two minus two is two hundred and forty minus five is two hundred thirty five and two plus five is seven, so, you have two hundred thirty five dollars left. You think. That’s how math works, right? A good pair of sneakers is gonna be like, eighty to a hundred. You don’t know how much a skateboard costs, but you’re not gonna blow your money on some fancy ass one. You just need to buy one sturdy enough to hold you, which can’t be more than like, sixty bucks. So that’s a hundred and sixty out of two thirty five. You’re not gonna try to do the subtraction.

The problem is getting to the city. A cab there costs thirty dollars one way, you know from trying it, and you don’t wanna blow sixty dollars if you don’t have to. Maybe you can talk your sister into driving you, or getting her boyfriend to drive you. Hell, maybe you can bully Derrick into driving you. The thought makes you snort to yourself, but you long for the day when you know how to hotwire and also drive cars.

So that’s sixty dollars left for you to burn how you want, or, ninety... two thirty and one sixty are both multiples of three, so the difference between them is too, right? Maybe? You hate math. But you know you need to know how much money you’re gonna have left, so... Two thirty five minus thirty five is two hundred, so that leaves...

Fuck it. Thinking makes your head hurt. You’ll spend money and then count what you have left. It’s a difference of more than fifty dollars, which is more than enough for a box and a lock and a few more burgers.

When school lets out you’re faced with a decision: where to shop. You think the CVS will be a better bet than the thrift store for a lock, so you might as well go there first. It’s raining now, sky dark. You put up the hood and earbuds you were forced to take down for class and slink off to the store.

You’re dripping wet by the time you walk the handful of blocks. It’s brightly lit inside by rows and rows of very white fluorescent tubes hanging in racks from the high ceiling. You squint and peer around looking for a sense of direction and clocking the security cameras. A lock should be small enough to steal, even if a box of the right size won’t be.

Sure enough, the combination lock they have on offer is encased in heavy plastic packaging, but is still small enough to slip in your pocket when nobody’s looking. You look around for a box next, but don’t find anything larger than a pricey makeup case, which would be big enough to hold the soul, but not the birdcage. Guess you’re hitting the thrift store next.

On the way out you see some cheap earbuds on an endcap, so you grab a pair, neon pink this time. The cashier’s station is feet from it and with no other customers they’re watching you, so you dutifully plod over to the checkout line with the earbuds. You avoid eye contact as the cashier pops their gum. You fork over one of the hundreds so you can get change while there’s no-one around to ask. You feel them hesitate, and for a moment you can hear your heart pounding, but after a moment you hear the cash register ching open and they deposit ninety four dollars and some cents into your upturned hand.

You proceed to get even more soaked on the way to the thrift store, heading back past the school and a few blocks in the other direction. It’s cold rain, too, and you really feel like stripping and curling up somewhere warm. Maybe after this you can see what’s playing at the theatre. You could even go in the front and get yourself some popcorn and a hot chocolate. You really should’ve brought an umbrella with you this morning. Oh well.

You always feel too big in the thrift store, a small space crammed to the edges with racks of clothing and stacked second hand furniture. The carpet is blue-grey and air pockets under it squish as you walk carefully around. The cashier is the same asshole as ever glaring at you, but you don’t plan to steal anything from here today. You just need to look at the boxes.

You go through the archway of the bisected store to the back where they have all the furniture. You find a stack of storage boxes behind a couple of high chairs, which you push aside. There’s a big ass wicker trunk, big enough for a person to hide in, but it doesn’t have any sort of latch, and it doesn’t exactly scream inconspicuous. Stacked on top is a couple of plastic storage containers, but they don’t have anywhere to attach a lock either. At the top of the pile is several lose drawers, which are no good either. Behind the whole stack is a file cabinet. The cashier might give you the keys for the drawers if you buy it, but it’s still too noticeable. Shit.

You push the high chairs back in place so you can escape, trying to think of what you’re going to do now. You stick another burger wrapper in your mouth as you stand there thinking. What else is lockable? Luggage? That’d work. You wander around the shop in search of luggage. The cashier is still watching you.

You find a couple suitcases, but they’re both the skinny rectangular kind. They won’t fit the birdcage. ‘Dammit,’ you say out loud, and frown around. There’s a black duffel bag hanging on a rack with some purses a few feet from you. You make a beeline for it. Someone would be able to cut it open if they really wanted in, but if you lock the zippers together it’ll at least be more secure than a laundry pile. You buy it for four dollars from the distrustful cashier. Two thirty five minus five is two thirty minus four is two... something... six. Twenty. Two hundred twenty six dollars. You step back out into the disheartening cold.

You feel anxious spending more money, but it’s a cheapie theatre and you really want something warm to drink, so you buy a ticket for the next showing in an hour and a half. Before hitting the snack bar you go to the men’s bathroom and drape your jackets over one of the sinks so you can wring your hair and t-shirt out in the other and dry them under the hand dryer. A dude comes in to piss and you ignore each other. Everything’s still a little damp half an hour later, and you’re just gonna have to live with wet jeans and squishy sneakers, but you feel warmer already. The central heating helps.

You go back to the lobby and buy a large popcorn and a hot chocolate for dinner, bringing your total down to two eighteen, you work out as you sit with your shirt back on but your jackets continuing to dry on the couchback next to you. You toe your feet free from your shoes too since nobody’s watching, and sit back, feeling like royalty as you drink your scalding beverage and look out at the lobby. It’s all geometric, that real mod furniture style, and empty except for the snack cashier, who is playing a handheld game and ignoring you completely. Warm air from a nearby vent breathes up your back. This is the life. This must be how rich people feel.

You ask the cashier if you can get a refill on your popcorn and they say refills are free, so you eat around twenty more buckets and blow another couple bucks on a refillable beverage while you wait. You’re going to stop spending willy nilly once you hit two hundred, you decide, so you’ll have enough for your shopping trip. If you only spend it on food sixteen dollars should last you at least a couple days. Still, you enjoy your pepsi, greedy for it after the salty popcorn, and with vigor now that you’re somewhat warm. You bite the packaging off your new headphones and plug them into your mp3 player, which you in turn plug into the wall to let charge. An hour goes by quicker than usual.

Once the movie opens you get a last bucket of popcorn and go to sprawl on a couple seats in the very back. You spend the evening watching movies, sneaking in and out of the bathroom while the cleaning people work, finishing off your burger wrappers and your popcorn bucket and sneaking a couple smokes. Life ain’t bad.

The theatre closes at around 2 am, after the midnight showing has finished, so that’s when you go home, hands in your pockets and duffel bag over one arm. It’s stopped raining by then, though the streets are shiny and damp. You enter via the window as usual and make a beeline for the laundry pile by your bed, toeing your shoes off again as you go. The soul is still there. You exhale in relief.

The cage fits in the duffel bag with room to spare. You follow the instructions on the combination lock, frowning, squinting in the small text in the moonlight. You’re shit at remembering numbers so you make the code two-oh-oh, thinking of the money now stashed in your wallet. You lock the bag up, and then make sure you can’t open it, and then make sure you can. It all checks out, and the soul shines bright against the black bag but not bright enough to show through the canvas. It’s all good. Now you just have to hide it.

You tiptoe to the basement, grabbing a flashlight from the pile of junk on the kitchen table on your way. You hide the duffel bag in the very back of the basement, behind cardboard boxes and underneath a set of shelves, disturbing dust as you situate it. You push the boxes back and shine your light on your handiwork. It just looks like a bunch of junk. Nobody glancing at this room would spare a thought to there being treasure here. You should be safe. You breathe in, out, looking out at the room.

You should be safe.

Chapter Text

You leave the house the next morning with the intent of pestering your sister into driving you into the city this weekend, and even made a point of getting ready on time so you could catch her going out the door. However once you make it past the front stoop you’re instantly distracted, and she heads off down the block while you’re frozen where you stand.

The human is standing across the street from your house, in front of the neighbours’ fenced in yard. It’s a grey day again, the wind playing with their hair, and they’re not wearing a jacket, just a violently orange sweater. You still can’t tell if they’re watching you or not, but they must be. They’re standing still, even as you march right up to them.

‘What are you doing here?’

They don’t say anything. They’re a full foot shorter than you are, or nearly, you don’t know shit about distances. You bare your teeth.

‘What the fuck,’ you snarl, ‘Are you doing here?’

They still don’t say anything. You lift them up by the front of their shirt so you’re eye to eye, except you’re not eye to eye, because their head lolls to the side, completely limp.

‘What the fuck?’

They hang like a ragdoll in your grip, limbs dangling uselessly by their sides, sweater only not stretching for the starched button down under it you’ve also got hold of.

‘Listen here you little fuckhead,’ you say, and shake them. They look like a muppet. It’d be funny if it weren’t so vexing. You lean your face in close to theirs, hissing in a whisper. ‘I don’t know what the fuck you think you’re doing. But it’s mine now. It’s mine. And if I catch you stalking my fucking house again, I’ll fucking kill you. I’ll bite your fucking throat out.’

You give them another shake. They look dead, and it’s only because you can feel them radiating heat that you know they’re not. You’re starting to get pissed. Prey that doesn’t react is bad news. What the fuck do they think they’re playing at. Your ears are flat to your head.

‘Bet you think you’re so clever, playing dead. You’re fucking pathetic.’

You drop them. They crumple in a heap on the ground, limbs akimbo. You kick them. It’s like kicking a lump of jello. They just squish a little and roll over. They’re barely even a hard surface.

‘Freak,’ you say, and stalk off to school.

You can’t quite shake your frustration and unease, and take it out on at least six stolen school breakfasts before stomping into class as the bell rings.

You stop to glare. The human is in their seat. Everyone looks at you as the bell rings silent with you standing in the doorway.

You go and slouch over to your seat, watching the human. The front of their sweater is bunched a little from where you grabbed it, some of the thick yarn torn and pulled. Their one side is all dirty. Their collar is rumpled. Their head is turned to face you, even as they have to turn around in their seat to do so, even after the lesson starts.

Your heebies are officially jeebied. Not that it’s implausible that they’d have gotten up and gone to school, but... something about them makes your fur stand on end. Probably the fact that they aren’t reacting to you like they should. They didn’t clean themself up like they should. It’s unnatural.

You watch as they tear a piece of paper from their notebook, write something on it, fold it up, and hold it out to you. You stare for a long moment before reaching and closing your claws over the note.

Unfolded it reads in a cramped messy hand: You have to get rid of it.

You look up at the human and bare your teeth. Like hell you’re going to get rid of it. It’s good and it’s shiny and it’s yours. They’re just jealous that you have it and they don’t. It’s their fault that they went and left it for you to find. If they wanted rid of it they should’ve... Well, fuck. You guess they did get rid of it. They should’ve gotten rid of it better. Or, like, they are rid of it. It’s not their problem anymore, they’re just making it be. What’s their deal.

You glare down at the note before crumpling it up and eating it, staring right at the human. They don’t react. Your ears are flat to your head again.

You continue to stare at each other. After a few long moments, they turn their head to face the teacher instead. They still could be watching you. You can’t tell. You keep staring at them for good measure.

With no better idea what the fuck is going on, you continue to stare through them intermittently through the rest of homeroom and as you’re all sent to troop over to gym class. The human disappears into the gender neutral locker room and you sulk into the men’s.

You actually like gym class, because it’s the only class you’re any good at. You enjoy being pointed at a physical activity. You step into your obnoxiously blue basketball shorts without bothering to take off your sneakers, and pull on the white t-shirt you got from a pack of five at the start of the school year, ignoring as usual the other people around you.

Your gaze finds the human again as you enter the gym. They’re wearing a shirt that says “fake shirt sad” and shorts that are even more dayglo than yours. Fucker.

Staring at them you walk right into someone who makes a little ‘woah’ noise and stumbles. You bare your teeth on automatic before realising it’s Noelle. She’s caught herself and looks up at you, mouth parted slightly, hair unlike usual pulled back from her face in a ponytail. The gym lights reflect in her big brown eyes. You try to unbare your teeth but realise you can’t really do that even as you close your mouth, so you settle for scuttling away in the hopes that you will disappear forever.

You bared your teeth at her. God. No wonder everyone on the face of the planet hates your guts.

Your urge to continue staring at the human wars with your urge to avoid looking at Noelle. You settle for staring at your dirty, disintegrating tennis shoes and biting the inside of your cheek. You need new shoes. Your eyes drift to your classmates’ varied shoes as you all group up for instruction. Noelle has slightly dusty white tennis shoes laced over her little hoofs. The human’s shoes are as neon as their shorts. Temmie has chucks. Berdly has fucking nikes. Jockington doesn’t have feet. Catti’s shoes, you’re gratified to see, are wearing a hole in the mesh canvas toe.

You haven’t washed your gym uniform since the school year started. You should do that. You should probably do that, eyes catching on the pristine light blue fabric covering Noelle’s freckled hips. You can go to the laundromat after school.

At least you’re better than everyone else at everything else in this rotten class. After warmups you’re grouped off to shoot some hoops, and you pointedly ignore Noelle and the human both and let yourself be paired off with Catti and Jockington, who both give you a look. You bare your teeth and you and the pair of them proceed to mostly ignore each other.

At lunch you steal a couple younger students’ food and go to sit on the front steps and smoke. The grey sky has held true from this morning, looking downright dour at this point. It’ll rain again. You can pick up a plastic bag from somewhere to carry your clothes home safe from the laundromat. It’s Tuesday, which means both your parents will be at work until late in the evening. You could do your laundry at home, but that seems like an awfully long time to be tied to the place. You can afford the laundromat. Maybe you can swing by your house first and pick up some other clothes of yours that need washing, and then maybe you can talk to your sister while you’re there. Except maybe your mom won’t have left yet. Shit, now it’s getting complicated. Ugh. You hate having to actually think about stuff.

Okay, here’s the plan, you think as you draw your cigarette stub into your mouth with your tongue. You’ll go buy some cigarettes from the gas station and get a plastic bag. Your current pack only has one left anyway. Then you’ll go home and pick up the rest of your clothes, and take the window in case your mom is home. Then you’ll go to the laundromat. Then you’ll come back home to put your clothes away and talk to your sister, and maybe see if there’s any food in the kitchen you can swipe. You can supplement your cigarette collection then, too, sneak one or two that no-one will remember not smoking from some of the packs left around the house. After that you can go and hang out somewhere until it’s late enough to go back home and go to bed.

You throw your plastic wrappings into the bushes, not giving enough of a fuck to find a trash can, and sit back, stretching your legs out. You feel small in your body, like the dark world around you is pressing in. You rub at your eyes, drawing your pose back in for a moment as you hunch up. No wonder everyone hates you, especially Noelle.

You sit there for a few minutes after the bell rings, not really seeing the point to getting up. But eventually you do, and slink back to class.

After school lets out you stop by the locker room to grab your clothes. It’s empty. You let yourself into your locker and bury your snout in your balled clothes to give them a whiff. They don’t smell too bad, really, they just smell sweaty. It’s a fine smell. But you think of clean-lined fabric the colour of the sky in spring, a white tank top tucked in like melting snow, and light brown fur on a thick thigh, strong from cross-country skiing, and the delicate hand that rests beside it. Maybe even holding a large, purple hand--

No no no no you are not going to think about this. You slam your locker door shut, glad no-one’s around to see you blushing. You are just going to go wash your clothes because-- because they need washing, alright, end of story goodbye the end. Uugh. No! Everyone hates you, especially Noelle! Why would she ever not?

You’re not going to go down this line of thinking. You don’t even know why you’re washing your stupid clothes-- but you storm out of the locker room carrying them anyway just to stop yourself thinking. It’s not hard to stop thinking if you try.

You put in your new earbuds and calm your stomp down to a hulking stalk on the way to the gas station. K.Flay’s High Enough is the first song that comes up on shuffle. You switch to the next song.

You go into the gas station and buy a pack of the cheapest cigarettes they have on offer (three fifty), and ask for a bag even though it earns you a funny look from the cashier as you take the cigs right back out of the bag and stuff them into your breast pocket. You put your clothes in the bag instead as you leave, and head back home.

You can only bring as many clothes with you as will fit in the bag, you realise as you climb through your window, unless you want to risk sneaking to the kitchen for a garbage bag. Maybe there’s some in the laundry room...? You’d rather get as much done in one swoop as you can, and your clothes take up a lot of real estate. You listen at the door to the hall. You can hear the television downstairs, but no-one moving. It’s either your mom or your sister; hard to tell. Though maybe it’s your dad for some fucking reason. Okay, well. You think you can do this quietly.

You open the door a modicum at a time, avoiding a squeak, and tiptoe across the hallway to do the same with the laundry room door. You don’t let out your breath once you’re there, instead proceeding to look around. After a couple minutes you find a pack of white trash bags on the shelf above the nearly empty trash can next to the door. Now for the hard part. You hold the box still delicately while very slowly pulling out a bag with the other. It still makes a little shifting noise as you go. You can only hope the television drowns it out.

You sneak back to your room, second bag in claw, still not breathing properly, stash your gas station bag in your desk for later, and start gathering up your clothes in the trash bag. You change out of your jeans and into the weird pajama shorts that were a gift from your grandma that you never bothered to do something better with. They’re patterned with elephants and mice and you feel like a douche wearing them, but this way you can wash both your jeans and your sweatpants. Your shirt you don’t care as much, you own like, six shirts. Should you wash your jackets...? Why the hell not. You can take those off once you’re there, though.

You hear someone walking around downstairs and freeze. The footsteps aren’t heavy enough to be your dad’s, at least, and if it’s your mom it’s not the end of the world. You let out your breath a little and climb back out the window as quietly as you can.

It starts raining on the walk to the laundromat, icy autumn rain again, and you’re pretty fucking cold but whatever. Whatever. It’ll be warm once you get there, and it is, warm and bright and with scuffed white tile and bright blue walls with cartoons of washing machines on them. You manage to fish out the requisite quarters from your wallet, and sit and watch your laundry go round and sneak a cigarette and try to make your mind go blank.

You want to check on the soul, but you know you shouldn’t do that when anyone else is in the house. Maybe if your sister goes out later. There’s no way anyone should’ve found it though. No-one ever digs through that shit in the basement. It’s hidden well and good.

And the human-- you don’t know what to make of the human. No point guessing because you don’t have a single fucking clue. They’re just weird. What sort of weirdo has a loose soul in the first place? A killer? That’s the only thing you can think of, and you’re not scared of them. People are scared of you, not the other way around. It’s how it works. Most of the time. It’s how it should work.

You don’t want to think about that anymore. You also don’t want to think about Noelle. Or your classmates’ shoes. You look down at your own shoes, lifting your feet off the ground to do so. Half the sole on the left foot flops disconsolately away from the top.

You feel like hitting something. You settle for biting the inside of your mouth until you break the skin, and hugging your elbows, sitting hunched. You tongue the cut in your mouth into oozing ichor, and taste the familiar empty sweetness. The world feels dark again, closing in on you like a tunnel. You dig your claws into your arms and hold on and breathe.

You’re just in the fucking laundromat. You’re the baddest thing outside your house. Nothing can hurt you here except you.

Eventually you realise the room is bright again, and hear the music you’re listening to. You straighten up and stretch your back, taking a deep breath, and then turn your head to look out the big front windows. It’s dark outside, still raining, and you can see yourself reflected in the window despite the early hour, dark purple hair hanging in your eyes like always, ears pricked to attention like you expect to see something other than your ugly mug.

The washing machine dings. You get up to move your laundry to the dryer.

After a while your laundry finishes drying too, and you load it up in the trash bag and don’t remember until you’re outside to put real pants back on. Oh fucking well. It’s only really cold out. Colder than October has a right to be. Jesus fuck, October. Get your act together.

You go back home and toss your laundry next to your bed, throwing yourself down on it a moment later to bundle up in your comforter and warm back up. You use that time to listen, too. You can hear your sister’s voice in the room next to yours, talking about some bullshit or another, probably on the telephone as you can’t hear anyone else and she’s not dumb enough to bring people by anyway. You’ll go talk to her in a bit. You keep listening, and can’t hear anything else besides the rain; Tuesday night held true.

Eventually you get up. Your shoes are wet enough to squish. You walk across the hallway, enjoying the experience of not having to tiptoe, and throw her door open. ‘Lydia.’

She jumps and drops the phone. She’s lying on her stomach on her bed, facing the foot so she can talk on her cheap springcord telephone, the covers drawn over her shoulders like a cave like you do with yours on many an occasion. She takes after your mom in looks, average size, covered in scales instead of fur and with spikes instead of a mane.

She bares her teeth. ‘David!’ She reaches for her phone again, and pushing up her glasses with a finger says into it, ‘Just my stupid brother.’ She holds the receiver to her chest, looking at you angrily. ‘Nice shorts, asshole.’

You look down at your shorts, then back up at her.

She rolls her eyes. ‘What do you want?’

‘You’re gonna take me to the city this weekend.’

She rolls her eyes harder. ‘No I’m not, I’m busy.’

You bare your teeth. ‘There is infinitely more I can take from you than you can take from me.’ It’s true: where your room is messy and bare, hers is messy and plastered with posters. Stacks of cds and piles of makeup litter the top of her dresser, and gossip magazines spill out from under her bed, which actually has a frame. She actually has friends, and a boyfriend, and a job. You have nothing, and she’s smaller than you.

She sighs with an edge of installed drama. ‘Fine, edgelord. But we’re going on Sunday. Don’t you have better things to do than threaten me? I let your little friend in, that’s got to count for something.’

You freeze. ‘I don’t have any friends.’

‘Well, gee, it was a real shocker for me, too.’

You ignore her, mind racing through who it could possibly be. For one wild moment you imagine Noelle, but that can’t possibly-- ‘What did they look like?’

‘I don’t know, human? Brown hair? Are you finished yet?’

You take off running for the basement before she’s even finished her sentence, heart pounding in your ears. They couldn’t’ve-- What if they--

You shove boxes aside to reveal your hiding place, and then around more, frantically searching.

The duffel bag isn’t there.

Chapter Text

You run out the front door and into the rain. You have to figure out where the human went. You look up and down the street, hoping to see some kind of sign, but there’s no-one around. Fuck.

Okay, think, Susie. Where would they go? It’s raining out, so maybe they went inside. Would they go home?

It’s the only idea you have, so you guess you’ll start there instead of standing in the rain like an idiot. You start walking down the street, but after a few paces realise you have no idea where you’re going. Well, shit.

How to find where they live? You could follow them home from school tomorrow, but they might get rid of the soul by then. So... maybe you could ask for directions? Who would know where they live? Their mom is a teacher, so maybe other teachers would know, but no way are you approaching a teacher, even if you did know where to find any. Maybe the librarian would know? Teachers and libraries go together.

Or maybe... who are the human’s friends in your class? You don’t fucking know. Shit. Well, okay. Catti is your only classmate you know how to find, so you might as well start there. Maybe she knows.

You head off in the direction of QC’s Diner. You run, both out of a sense of urgency and because you didn’t stop to put your fucking coat back on. Or your pants. Whatever. The wind has picked up from earlier. You do not feel like running in this weather, but you’re motivated enough to do so anyway.

You burst through into the diner a few minutes later, jangling the bell hung over the door frame. ‘Goodness,’ the lady at the cash register says. ‘It’s picking up out there. You need a towel or something?’

‘Catti,’ you say.

‘She’s right over there, let her finish talking to that table first. You sure I can’t get you anything?’

You shake your head and stumble over to where Catti is standing at a booth taking a family’s order. She gives you a disdainful glance and repeats the order back. After they confirm she walks away.

You catch up. ‘I need to talk to you.’

She stops, and looks you up and down. ‘I’m at work.’

‘Do you know where that human in our class lives?’

‘Kris?’ She stares at you flatly for a few seconds. ‘Maybe. What’s it to you?’

You start to pull your lips back before realising you’re in the middle of a restaurant at dinner time. Instead you get out your wallet and pull out ten bucks. You hold it up. Catti makes to grab it. You move it back out of her reach. ‘Where.’

She looks at you, looks at the money. ‘Right up the road from here. Edge of the forest. It’s the one with the long driveway.’

You give her the money. She stuffs it in her bra, and you head back out into the storm.

Shit. Up. What did she mean by up.

The road to your right you know leads to a fairly dead end with some cool abandoned lots you like to hang out at, so not that way. The diner is at an intersection, so that leaves 3 options. You came from the direction that is now ahead, and you don’t hit the forest until more than a few blocks, so probably not that way. Flip a coin, asshole.

You start walking to the left. The cold rain beats on your shoulders. You and your clothes are soaked. You spend a good half minute asking yourself why you’re doing this, exactly, but the answer’s pretty easy: because you want the soul back. Because you like it. There’s not a whole lot of things in the world you actually like. You don’t really want to give this one up to some loser who thinks they know better than you. You wish you had your mp3 player, but you left it in your jacket pocket. You play the start of My Chemical Romance’s Cemetery Drive in your head, but you keep looping the first verse accidentally. You give up. At least your new pack of cigarettes is home safe and dry.

After a few blocks you have not hit the forest and instead are approaching the McDonalds and the way out of town. Fuck. You turn around and head back to the diner, and head in the last direction remaining to you.

This time there are houses straight away. Bingo. You just have to look for one with a long drive. All these drives look pretty normal length to you, but you’re not at the edge of the forest yet. You hope Catti knew what the fuck she was talking about.

After a couple blocks you hit a less regimented street with a bunch of houses off of it and the forest spilling over the sidewalks. This part of town is vaguely familiar; you’ve been all over; it’s not a huge town. You just don’t know enough to put faces with locations. You look around. Most of these houses are visible through the trees, but there’s one where you can only see the end of the drive. That must be it. You turn and head up it against the wind.

Up a short ways there’s a yellow two story house with blue shutters on the windows, and a little matching garage. You hope this is it, otherwise you’re about to knock on a random stranger’s door. Not the end of the world if you do, you guess.

You climb the short flight of steps to the front stoop. The porchlight is motion activated, and bathes you in wet yellow light. You bang on the door. After less than a minute it opens, and you’re face to face with the human’s teacher mom.

A teacher. Who is also a mom. At that precise moment you realise you have zero plan whatsoever.

She looks you over quickly, and you squirm internally but mostly just stand there. ‘Ah-- Hello,’ she says.

‘Hi,’ you say, lamely.

‘Would you like to come inside?’

You nod. She bustles away from the door so you can. You shut it firmly behind you, the heat of the house washing over you like relief.

You’re in a warm living room, both in temperature and aspect. The walls and furniture are all in autumn colours, though significantly less rainy than the outdoors. Some paintings of flowers are hung on the walls. You’re dripping on a leaf-patterned welcome mat by which several pairs of shoes are lined up. It’s an open plan, and you can see the human sitting at a dining room table, completely still. It’s very tidy in here. Barely anything looks out of place.

You look at the human’s teacher mom. She’s a boss monster with long white fur and long ears and short curved horns. She’s both taller and a little broader than you are, which you don’t like. You feel for a moment very small and scared, but you swallow it. You’re on a mission, Susie. You can do this.

You go with the first thing to pop into your head. ‘I’m a friend of Kris’s. From school.’ Turnabout is fair play, not that you care about being fair. You sincerely hope you’re remembering what Catti called them correctly.

Teachermom’s face transforms from concerned to beaming. ‘Oh! Kris did not mention they were expecting company.’

‘Yeah, well, I, uh, decided to drop by. To ask for help. With school stuff.’

‘It is... David, correct?’ She looks at you a little warily.

‘Yyyeah.’ You hate this. You hate everything. It strikes you that she knows who you are, and therefore probably knows who you are, aka the school’s holy terror. Fuck.

‘You are not dressed very well for this weather.’

‘The rest of my clothes were in the wash.’ You’re blushing, you know you’re blushing. You chew on the inside of your lip. You want to like, die. The world presses in tight around you, your vision not quite focused on the white fluffy teachermass.

‘I see. Let me get you a towel.’

She walks away from you, towards a door at the end of the long room. Your eyes flick over to the human. They’re still sitting still, watching you. You narrow your eyes at them. They don’t react. You quickly straighten your expression out as their mom returns carrying a big pink towel.

‘Here you are, dear.’

You dry yourself off best you can. She keeps talking while you do.

‘We were in the middle of dinner, would you like to join us?’

You pick up your head at the offer of food. ‘Yeah! I, uh, haven’t eaten yet.’ You grin nervously. Oh god your teeth are big and pointy. Oh god she thinks you’re a horrible weirdo and is going to have you committed or send the cops to your house or something. You try to smile like a normal person. You have the extreme feeling that the last thing you look like is a normal person.

But she’s already heading back to the kitchen. ‘I hope you like jambalaya.’

‘Sounds great.’ You follow her, carrying the towel since it would probably be rude to leave it on the floor. You don’t normally give a fuck about being rude, but she’s feeding you. You want to eat the food.

She’s dishing up a red rice dish from a pot on the stove into a big white ceramic bowl. Fuck, it smells delicious. Your ears are pricked forwards in excitement. ‘You’ll have to forgive me,’ she says, ‘But I usually include both human and monster foods in dishes to make cooking a little easier around here. I use a mixture for both the stocks and ingredients. I hope you aren’t too averse.’

Oh, that’s right, the human would have to eat human food. Duh. You shake your head. Steam is coming off the bowl, and you would fight her for it here and now even if she had laced it with razor blades. Instead she sticks a spoon in and hands it to you, and takes the towel. You can feel the heat from the food through the walls of the bowl. It’s red and you can see rounds of sausage and pepper and carrots and onions and even little shrimps. You are this close to just sticking your snout in the bowl and inhaling all of it.

‘Please, have a seat,’ she says, as she goes to put the towel away. You do, across from the human-- Kris, right, their name is Kris. You don’t even bother to glare at them before starting to shovel jambalaya in your mouth. It’s spicy and tangy and the warmth of it spreads across your whole body. It is amazing. Forget the soul, you’re tempted to steal the rest of this food and call it a night.

Some of this must show on your face, because Kris’s mom chuckles as she sits back down next to her kid and picks up her own spoon again. ‘I’m glad to see you enjoy my cooking.’

‘It’s fu-- it’s delicious.’ You swallow and try to get your face somewhat under control, smiling and quickly swallowing that too as you remember that it makes you look creepy and she’s an adult anyway and what are you even doing.

‘Thank you. I find it is a good recipe for a cold night such as this. Please, help yourself to bread, too.’ She holds out a basket from her side of the table.

You take a slice and a bite. It’s the sort with a real thick crust and a spongy crumb, and it’s also delicious. Does Kris eat like this all the time? Fucking prick. You wouldn’t be a soul stealing murderer if you got to eat like this. You’d be too busy eating.

‘How did you two meet?’ Kris’s mom asks.

You pause your mastication for a second to eye Kris. ‘Uhh.’

Kris says nothing. Kris is staring at you.

You swallow. ‘Y’know. Class. We got paired together in class. That’s why I’m here for... class stuff.’ She’s interrogating you. She doesn’t believe your story. Your grip tightens on your spoon. You can do this Susie. You just need a chance to search. Maybe this was a dumb idea. Maybe you should come back when they’re gone, break in and search freely.

... You can at least make it through dinner.

‘Ah. Well I will not intrude with help unless you want me to, I do not want to cramp you kids’ style. But feel free to use the dining table if you wish.’

Shit. That’s not conducive to searching. ‘Uhhh maybe.’ You eye Kris nervously. They still haven’t moved other than to eat. ‘I don’t want to, uh, cramp your style either. We can go hang out in Kris’s room. Maybe listen to some music while we work or something.’ You spoon more jambalaya in your mouth to shut yourself up. You really wish Kris would react or something. It’s just freaky that they’re not. Are they like this all the time?

‘Of course.’

Bullet successfully dodged, you scrape the corners of your bowl for the last few rouse.

‘Would you like some more?’

You look up. You can have more? ‘Yes,’ you say instantly. ‘Uh. Please. Thank you.’

She pushes her chair back and gets up to take your bowl. You’re vibrating internally. You aren’t sure if you’re completely freaked or if this is the best night ever. Currently you’re hedging on both.

‘Have as much bread as you want as well,’ she says as she places your bowl, now full, back in front of you. You once again curb the desire to just pounce on the food and snarf it instantly, this time out of nervousness. She is offering you her bread! What’s the catch? What’s the catch!?

You make short work of that bowl too, as well as several slices of bread, and go dark in the face when you realise the other two haven’t even finished their first. Kris’s mom says, ‘I see you are hungry. Would you like another bowl?’

‘Um--’ It’s got to be a trap this time, right? No way is she just offering you more?

‘Do not worry. I am used to cooking for three people, so I always make too much food these days. My son Asriel has a very healthy appetite.’

‘Oh. Um. Okay.’

You watch her take your bowl again and refill it, completely blanked as to what the deal is, still anxious as fuck. Is it a teacher thing? Fuck, you don’t know.

You and Kris’s mom both eat a couple more bowls, Kris slowly picking at theirs. She says, ‘I do not believe I have met your parents, David. What do they do?’

‘Oh. Um. My dad’s a security guard. Over at the factory? And, uh, my mom’s a waitress. At the, uh. At the dinner club.’

‘I see. No, I do not think I have met them. Have you lived in town long?’

‘Just a couple years.’ You scratch at the back of your hand, nervous under scrutiny. You wish you could smoke right now but even if you did have your smokes on you she would probably flip.

‘Do you enjoy it here?’

You shrug. How the hell do you enjoy living in a town? You just... live here. ‘It’s alright.’ You’d probably like living in the city better, where there are things to do and places to disappear to. Here you just exist, day after day after day.

When you’re done eating Kris’s mom stands to start gathering the dishes. ‘You do not need to help me wash up, Kris. You may go hang out with your friend.’

You turn your attention to them, grinning softly and trying to find their eyes behind their bangs. ‘Yeah, Kris. I wanna see your room.’

Kris stays still.

‘It’s upstairs, isn’t it? I can meet you there if you wanna grab something.’ You get up, sure you’ve got them, your chair scraping on the tile floor. Sure enough they rise too.

‘Hold on a moment, Kris,’ Kris’s mom says from the sink, and you freeze too. ‘I remembered, we need to discuss our plans this weekend. You run along David. Kris can join you shortly.’

Oh, jackpot. You flash Kris a grin as you say, ‘Sure,’ and head for the nearby stairs.

There’s two doors off the upstairs hallway. You walk past a bookshelf to try the first. It’s unlocked, and opens into a room with yellow walls and two twin beds, one in each corner. You turn on the lightswitch and have a better look around. The bed on the left has a bunch of posters and gold starry wall clings affixed around it. There’s a box of sports items at the foot, and a shelf with several trophies above the head. There’s a lamp and an alarm clock and a framed photo and a stack of books on the bedside table. The other side of the room must belong to the sibling who moved out, because it’s completely bare. The red wagon, leaves still stuck in the wheels, is parked at the foot. And on top of the unmade cream-coloured covers is a black duffel bag.

You make a beeline for it, your attention zeroing in. Asshole didn’t even bother hiding it. You grope the bag; sure enough, that feels like birdcage in there. Now how to get out. You look around, trying to think of your options. There’s a window; you could just climb out. You go and cup your hands against it so you can see out into the storm. There’s no trees nearby. You’d have to scale down the side of the house.

The door creaks open again behind you, and you turn around. It’s Kris. They shut the door behind themself, and then hold out an expectant hand.

‘Not happening,’ you say. ‘It’s mine now. And if you don’t let me have it, I’ll say I found you with it. You’ll be the one who gets in trouble.’

They make a grabbing motion with their hand.

‘No! It’s mine!’

They move, fast, but not faster than you can track, and make a grab for the duffel bag. You try to move it out of their reach but they catch the strap. You yank it away but they aren’t letting go and you just end up yanking them with you, crashing into the other bed as you move backwards and falling on your ass. They fell but are still holding on, on their knees on the floor. You stand up on the bed to try to shake them off, and as you lift them off the ground there’s a loud rip and the birdcage falls.

The human falls too, letting go of the bag, but you’re more interested in the cage, which bounces, dragging the soul with it, only as it rolls away...

The soul rises up out of the door of the cage now jostled open. It moves slowly, and you watch it with wide eyes. It hovers halfway to the ceiling for a few moments, before everything starts to move at once.

The soul starts to zoom towards Kris. Kris scrambles to their feet to run away from it. You jump off the bed and chase after the soul, and after a wild snatch your hand closes over it.

It doesn’t feel like anything; your hand is a closed fist with the soul hovering in it. But it seems to have captured it, because it tries to tug itself away again and again but can get no further than your fingers.

You watch it, enraptured. Then slowly your gaze rises to Kris. They’re flattened against the back wall of their room in front of the window, arms splayed, hair askew. They look like they’re cowering. They look like they’re cowering from the soul, which is continuing to try to chase them.

Your mouth falls open as the realisation hits you. ‘It’s yours.’

Then you hear a voice on the stairs: ‘Is everything alright? I heard fighting.’

‘Shit!’ You look around desperately for something to do with the soul. The duffel bag is ruined. If you let it go free it’ll do whatever it is it wants to do with Kris, who is still rooted to the spot, which is sure gonna look suspicious. Your eyes flick to the cage, which has rolled into the corner, but the doorknob is turning--

You hide the soul the best way you know how: by shoving it in your mouth.

Chapter Text

You slam your jaw shut as Kris’s mom opens the door, and stops, taking in the two of you. You swivel on your foot to face her. Your heart is beating very very fast, but the world doesn’t feel like it’s closing in on you. In fact you’re able to focus on her better than you were through all of dinner. Her fur looks very soft and is bright white under the overhead light. She’s wearing a purple knit sweater set and a floral pencil skirt, and she looks concerned. ‘Is everything alright up here?’

{Shit shit shit shit shit--}

You freeze. That was not the voice of your internal monologue. That was not a thought that you had, though you were thinking something along the same lines. You turn to look at Kris.

‘Kris?’

{Shit fuck--}

They peel themself up the wall, swallow, and nod. You nod too, wishing Kris would just fucking talk because you have the soul in your mouth and can’t make excuses unless you both want to have some real explaining to do.

{Don’t wanna fucking talk in front of--}

You turn to stare at Kris. Could they hear what you were thinking?

{Can I-- Can you--}

‘Everything’s fine,’ they say. You’re surprised they gave in to talking; you were beginning to wonder if they even could. Their voice is soft and low. ‘We just knocked some stuff over.’

‘I see,’ Kris’s mom says. ‘Well, if you’re sure everything is alright?’

‘I’m sure.’

She closes the door and leaves the room. You round on Kris. ‘What the actual fuck,’ you hiss.

{If you can hear my thoughts scratch your nose}

‘I’m not fucking doing that,’ you whisper. ‘Can you hear my thoughts?’

‘Think about penguins.’

You think about penguins.

They take a slow deep breath. ‘The soul’s gone.’

You look down at the end of your snout. ‘Fuck-- That’s not an answer.’

‘Yes.’

‘Fuck.’

‘You can hear mine.’

‘Yeah. I think so.’

They think about penguins.

‘Yeah, fuck you.’ You look down at yourself. ‘Can I... take it out?’ You’re not exactly pumped to have some weirdo’s brain also be your brain for eternity.

{I dunno.}

‘How did you get it out of you?’

{It just... wanted to leave.} They’re remembering a feeling, a beast beneath their skin, making everything crawl and their heart heave and the world spin and scream. {It hurt so I took it out.}

You shake your head, trying to shake off the feeling they’re making you picture. ‘How do you take it out.’

They put a hand on their chest, imagining reaching in and grabbing and pulling something free like a hairball from a drain. You put your hand on your chest and dig your claws in. All it does is get you some new holes in your shirt. You don’t know how to reach inside yourself. You look up at them for guidance.

‘It’s a feeling,’ they explain.

‘Right, yeah, real helpful.’

‘Anyway, you can keep it if you want.’

‘The fuck?’ They just spent all that time trying to get it back from you and now they changed their mind?

‘I can’t feel it anymore. I don’t care.’ They’re thinking about quiet, where there used to be screaming.

‘Yeah, well, I don’t want it in me. Full offense but I don’t want you reading my thoughts.’ You don’t want anyone reading your thoughts. They’d find out all sorts of stuff.

They tilt their head. {Huh.}

‘Shit,’ you say, then low, ‘Listen here you little shitface. You better not spill any of the stuff you just saw. To anyone. I’ll find ways to make you hurt. I’ll break all the bones in your hands. I’ll find a new fucking soul and shove it in you. I’ll think about the Pina Colada song twenty four-seven.’

‘I like the Pina Colada song.’

‘You fucking weirdo.’ Shit. Now it’s going through your head. They giggle. You pull your fist back.

‘You know I don’t care if you hurt me, right?’

You grumble and lower your fist. ‘Like I said. I will find ways to make you pay.’

{I’m not gonna tell anyone.}

You glance at them. They shrug.

{I’m trans too. I’m not going to fucking out you.}

... ‘Oh.’

{Besides, I get up to shit too. You don’t tell on me and I won’t tell on you. Deal?}

‘Yeah, fair enough.’

They consider shaking on it.

You spit on your hand and hold it out for them to shake. ‘Don’t be a coward.’

They spit on theirs and you shake on it. Their skin is warm, and their hand is dwarfed by yours.

‘I still want this thing out of me,’ you say as you take your hand back and wipe it on your shirt.

{I could punch you in the stomach til you puke.}

‘Are you kidding? I can punch myself in the stomach, I don’t need you.’

They snort.

‘Look-- you feel that feeling you were thinking about coming off of me, you tell me, okay? And then I can try to get it out.’

{Sure.}

Fuck. It’s not a very good plan. You go and slump down on their sibling’s bed.

{That’s my bed.}

You look around the room and snicker. ‘You don’t own shit.’ In all honesty it reminds you of you and your sister, but like hell if you’re gonna say-- oh. Fuck.

They tilt their head.

‘You fucking stop that. I’ll break your neck.’

They go and sit down on the stripey bed, which you guess is their sibling’s then.

{Brother’s. Asriel.}

‘Don’t care.’ You sigh and look at your nails. They’re long and dull, and a shine passes along the dull black curves under the ceiling lamp. You run your thumb along each one. This is not a good plan. You need a better one.

You look back up at Kris. They’re leaning back against the wall, slumped back. {Don’t care.}

‘You seriously are fine with hearing my dumbass thoughts forever?’

They shrug. {Soul’s gone.}

‘And that’s all you care about.’

{Basically.}

You try to think of the stupidest thing to think about you can, but then realise they can hear you thinking about that. Fuck. ‘Well I’m not fine with it. I want my fucking head back.’

{Not my problem.}

You blow out air and stand up. ‘Fine. Asshole. This is your fault you know. You got us into this.’

{Still don’t care.}

‘I could make you care.’

{You can try.}

You look around the room. The only thing that seems to be theirs is the red wagon. You go and poise your foot over it to stomp.

{Oh boo hoo I’m so scared, not my precious precious wagon.}

They manage to be deadpan in their fucking thoughts. You put your foot down hard, not out of a decision but out of anger, and put a big dent in the center of the wagon. ‘Fuck you. You’re sitting there all high and mighty thinking you’re immune to everything cause you’re all cool and disaffected. Well I’ve got news for you. You aren’t going to get a moment’s peace until we work this out.’ Being in your brain should be noisy enough, and you can up the traffic easily enough. You only hope they cave before they find out about Noelle-- Fuck. Fuck.

{Literally don’t care.} They slide further down on the bed, shirt rucking up and displaying a soft light brown belly.

‘Fuck you! Fuck! You!’ You’re not sure why this is so infuriating, you should be glad they don’t give a shit and are leaving you alone. Maybe it’s because you shouldn’t be glad about this scenario at all! You snarl, showing your teeth, and stand there breathing heavily. Of all the fucking useless... This is why you can’t rely on anyone besides yourself.

Fine. If they won’t help you, you’ll have to do it on your own. You storm out the door and down the stairs. The table has been cleared except for the sunflower centerpiece. Toriel is sitting on the rounded, rust orange sofa in the living room.

‘David!’ Toriel says, looking up from her knitting. ‘Are you sure everything’s alright up there? I heard shouting.’

You shake your head to clear it. ‘It’s fine. We finished our school stuff. I’m leaving.’

Before she can reply you open the door and let yourself back out into the storm.

It hasn’t died down at all, in fact it has only gotten darker and colder than how you remember it. You sigh and slump your shoulders. You don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re going. You shouldn’t stand in front of Kris’s house though, so you pick yourself back up and walk down the gravel drive. More than a few pointy little rocks take your ruined shoe as an open invitation. You kick them out as you go.

The streets are black in this weather, street lamps diffused into dull yellow glow making the pavement glisten under the pounding rain. Toriel is knocking on Kris’s door, and pushing it open to ask if everything is alright. Kris is answering with a noncommittal noise. You decide to head for the abandoned building down from the diner, because it’s very wet and cold out. Toriel strokes Kris’s hair, which feels nice, and then exclaims over the broken wagon, which does not feel nice. It feels bitter. She asks if you did that. Kris answers noncommittally. She’s going to take that as a yes. You wish you were wearing a jacket.

Toriel invites Kris downstairs to watch a movie, and makes them some hot kool aid, which everything else aside, sounds boss as fuck. You’ve been doing kool aid wrong. Hot sounds very nice right now. Kris sits on the rough fabric of the couch and plays with the seam of one of the cushions. Toriel has asked them to pick a movie. They aren’t thinking about movies. The diner is invitingly bright as you pass it, but you don’t want to go and sit in the corner and feel like something the cat dragged in. You’re not hungry, anyway. For once you’re not hungry. The neon sign casts a pale pink glow into the night.

You reach the abandoned building, and go around the side for the window you know is unboarded enough for you to climb through. Inside the building is mostly dry if still drafty. You move away from the window and into the center of the open plan first floor, which is covered in debris mostly of the crate and plywood variety. Kris is drinking strawberry hot kool aid and listening to their mom suggest their favourite movies. Your throat feels tight.

You yell and throw a crate against the wall. It shatters into broken planks where it hits. You kick up dust and rubble and scream, and your eyes sting hot with tears. Kris is fucking watching you do this. ‘This is your head,’ you yell, and throw another crate at the wall. You’re more wild than powerful this time and it just bounces off. You yell in frustration and stamp your foot and go and get the crate and bite it and stomp it and throw it around until it’s nothing but stray pieces of splintery wood, and you can’t hear Kris reacting, and you kick up more bits and throw them and keep yelling and fall to your knees in tears.

You kneel on the floor and sob, doubling over. Why does it have to be like this. Why when you got one good thing did it turn around and bite you. Why do you ever--

You bite down on your wrist, hard, just trying to get the pain out, and taste ichor leaking sweet and empty into your mouth, and your arm is sharp with pain but Kris is still fucking ignoring you. You choke out sobs, shoulders heaving. The world of leaning your forehead against the floor is black, curtained on the sides by your thick dark hair. You hiccup for air.

{If you like pina coladas... and getting caught in the rain...}

Fuck. You tip over and lie in the rubble. It’s in your fucking head too now. Outside the sky wracks bright with lightning and booming thunder. There’s a movie on, but Kris isn’t paying attention to it, the screen just a series of indistinguishable colourful blobs. You breathe in; breathe out. Your eyes sting. Your arm stings. The floor is very bumpy and you are very wet.

Kris says, ‘David didn’t break the wagon. That was me a few days ago.’

‘Oh. I thought you seemed out of sorts. We can still buy you a new one if you like. You do not have to be afraid to bring these things to me, you know.’

They shrug. ‘I know. I wasn’t. I just... didn’t want to talk about it.’ They pick at their pants leg.

‘I understand.’ She rests a big white paw on their shoulder and pulls them in for a hug. It’s tight and warm and soft and secure. They wrap their arms around her too, though they can’t reach all the way.

You sniffle. Are you really doing this? you ask yourself. Are you really lying in the dirt crying because your mommy doesn’t love you? Fucking pathetic.

{I’m not doing... right.}

Go fuck yourself.

Slowly you push yourself up on your good arm. There’s dust coating your entire right side, and splinters in your mouth from biting that crate. There’s enough light outside to see the grey-brown room by. You're painfully cold. You get to your feet, staggering a moment before righting yourself, and wipe your hands clean on your shorts before wiping your eyes with them and sniffling. God. Whatever. Whatever.

You reach for your mp3 player to check the time but then realise you don’t have it. Fuck. Guess you’ll just have to wait and hope you don’t go home too early. You’d just fucking sleep here but you want your jackets and your tunes and your cigs and some real fucking pants.

There’s a window near where you’re sitting. You watch out it at the pounding rain and try to get the splinters out of your mouth, and try to ignore Kris’s evening, and feel nothing.

Chapter Text

The next day you go to school with monkey gloves made from a cut up pair of socks covering the makeshift bandage wrapped around your wrist. You’re wearing both jackets on top of it, but you’re still paranoid about it, paranoid someone’s going to see and talk behind your back or worse, talk to you about it. Kris’s morning routine haunts yours, and you do your best to ignore it. That’s the best way to handle this, you decided last night. Ignore them and let them ignore you until you can figure out how to get this soul out of you.

Which is now your main order of business. You’re even going to go to the library after school to see what books can tell you. You didn’t think souls could be removed without killing the person to whom it belongs. But you were wrong, clearly, so there must be a way to take it out of you, too. You just need to find it.

Right? Right.

You do a good enough job of ignoring Kris’s morning that you’re surprised to see them sidestep in front of you as you approach your school’s front steps. Their sweater today is candy pink. It’s still grey out, though slightly less so today, the sky instead solid white with clouds. You bare your teeth at them. ‘What.’

They hold out a paper grocery bag. {My mom said to give this to you. You didn’t notice?}

‘I have my own fucking life to worry about.’ You snatch the bag. ‘What is this, anyway.’

{Dunno.}

You rip it open. Inside is lined with a plastic bag and in the plastic bag there are six ham and cheese sandwiches.

You blink. Something very odd is happening in the region of your chest and shoulders. You feel like trembling. Instead you make yourself hold still, mouth parted.

{Huh.}

Fuck off. You push them aside to walk past them, not entirely sure of where you’re going, which ends up being into school. You stop when you notice you’re inside, surrounded by dingy warm yellow hallway instead of pale outdoors. You’re blocking the door.

You head down a random side hallway instead, the nearest of which brings you by the baby classrooms. You find yourself suddenly in the midst of people who come up to your waist, meticulously loading lockers, or lining up for class. They all give you a wide berth and wide eyes. You duck out of the way again to lurk halfway hidden by the end of the row of lockers. In all honesty you still stick out like a sore thumb, but you don’t really have any idea what you’re doing here, so here is as good a place as any to do it.

You crouch and crack open the paper bag. Yep, still sandwiches. You take one out and consider it, your mind swimming. You don’t know what to think or feel about it so you shove it in your mouth instead. It’s delicious. Kris’s mom buys the good cheese, and some kind of brown mustard. There’s this strange feeling in your chest around where you think your heart should be, this strange grief. You ache. Why is she doing this, you finally think to ask yourself. What’s going on.

Instead of curling up on the floor (and you definitely didn’t even entertain that thought) you eat another sandwich, breaking this one up into three bites. You can’t think why anyone would want to act like your mom. You don’t need anyone to, in fact. You don’t need a fucking mom, especially not a big scary one, especially not a soft nice one.

Then it hits you: she’s a teacher. She knows who you are. She knows you’re a chronic lunch thief. Now that she has an in, she’s interceding in your wicked hungry ways.

You don’t actually mind; you only ever stole people’s food because you didn’t have your own, and this stuff is so much tastier than the cafeteria fare. In fact you’re very much down for this mutually beneficial relationship. You eat a third sandwich and decide to save the rest for lunch. You roll up the paper bag and stand up.

As you look up your eyes meet with a blonde head of hair mere feet from you, soft brown antlers parting the smooth grain. You freeze where you stand. ‘Alright, run along now,’ Noelle says to the kid she’s with, and lets go of their hand to give them a pat on the head. Their little white-tipped tail wiggles excitedly as they run into class. Her little sibling, probably.

She turns to go and to your horror spots you. ‘David!’ She chuckles nervously and brushes a few stray hairs out of her face. Her thick sky blue sweater has snowflakes patterned on the front and sleeves long enough to cover the ball of her hand. ‘What are you doing here?’

Her accent is so cute. ‘Nothing,’ you say, very eloquently, and add, ‘What are you doing here?’

God. Fuck. What are you doing. What did you just do. You can’t believe you fucking did that. You want to die.

‘Just dropping my little brother off for class. We were running a little late this morning. Do you want to, um,’ she bites her lip for a moment, drawing your eyes and your breath against your will. She has perfect buck teeth. ‘Walk to class together?’

It’s all of three hallways. You nod without thinking, without needing to think. The hallway light is softer where it falls around her, like it knows what it has. She smiles and starts walking and you follow, thinking now too much about trying to stay in step by her side and not walk too fast with your longer legs.

‘Pretty awful weather we’ve been having, huh?’ she says with an awkward smile. Oh god. She’s talking about the weather. She hates you.

‘Yeah,’ you say. Fuck. You’re the dumbest person ever to walk the face of the planet. You try desperately to think of a follow up statement to redeem yourself but you can’t think of anything and then a few seconds have passed and it’s too late and you still very much would like to die. This doesn’t stop you from saying, ‘It’s, um. Been kinda wet.’

You’re going to take yourself out back and shoot yourself. She nods. ‘I can’t wait til that’s snow instead so I can get out on the slopes. Here’s hoping for an early winter.’

‘Here’s hoping.’ You’re going to punch a cloud into submission for her. You both come to a stop in front of your homeroom door. You both stand there. She has her hand in one of her pigtails, fingers twisting idly. Kris is probably watching you watch her. You feel something sour in the pit of your stomach. You look away and push the classroom door open, realising only after you’ve entered that you should’ve held it for her.

School is even less fun than usual. You spend most of it trying to ignore Kris sitting in the seat ahead of you, which is very hard knowing they know you’re doing it, and also because thinking about ignoring them involves thinking about them, and you have nothing else to think about. For their part they never look round or otherwise acknowledge you. Your vision keeps slipping into a shorter, closer view of the front of the classroom and the back of Berdly’s head. It’s weird and trippy and it might be cool if you didn’t not like it but you don’t.

Noelle’s presence in the front corner of your class’s little desk array taunts you to no end. Kris’s eyes slide to her whenever you think about her and you want to strangle them. How dare they think your thoughts about her. How dare they even come close to that part of your life with their callousness and their apathy. She deserves so much better than that. She deserves so much better than you.

You wish she was the only thing you could think about. You wish this whole fucking business had never started.

At lunch you go and sit outside for a smoke and the rest of your sandwiches. It hasn’t started raining yet, and in fact doesn’t yet look like it’s going to, sky pure white and air chilly with a light breeze that picks up your hair and cigarette smoke. The cement front steps are cold. You hate winter, but Noelle loves it. She must be an endotherm. You imagine holding her hand, and how warm it would be. She has nails like your dad-- like a lot of hoofed monsters do, big and hard and black.

You wish she was the only thing you could think about.

You snarl at nothing in frustration, wishing you had a target, wishing you had your goddamn brain to yourself instead of having to cower in the corner of it like it’s your house. There’s not even a bedroom door in there to shut.

Actually, fuck this. You’re not going to be edged out of your own fucking brain. You ball up the paper bag and throw it as far as you can. It lands somewhere across the street in the bushes. You’re going to think what you fucking want. Kris can just fucking deal. You’ll just fucking deal with whatever they do. You stand up and eat your cig and go back inside. You’re going to beat Kris up after school, you decide. They don’t even react to the thought.

On the way out of class at the end of the day you snatch up a piece of chalk from the little end of the shelf at the bottom of the blackboard as a treat to yourself. You let it dangle from your mouth like a cigarette as you place your hand on Kris’s shoulder. This might actually be fun. Not every day you get to beat up yourself. They don’t look up at you. You can’t tell if they’re that good at hiding their reactions, or if their head really is that empty.

‘Come on,’ you say. ‘Or would you prefer I held your hand like your mommy?’

They don’t react. You didn’t expect them to. You herd them out the door with the throng of leaving students, only once you’re outside you turn left around the side of the building, back behind the trash cans where people go to smoke and where you like to threaten Derrick. It’s still pretty nice out, relatively speaking. You bite half of the chalk off, savouring the texture, hard and then powder, and the dry rocky flavour. Hey, you have money. You could buy yourself a box of the stuff. This evening is shaping up. You grin evilly down at Kris.

‘When is mommy expecting you home?’

{Dinnertime.}

‘That should give you some time to lick your wounds.’ You grab their face and tilt it up so they’re looking at you, smooshing their cheeks together to give them fish lips. ‘Let’s see what you really look like. Now that we’re brain married and all.’

You push their bangs back from their face. Their irises are red, and under the shade of the overhang their eyes are devoid of both light and emotion. They look the way they feel: utterly calm. You feel a stab of annoyance. ‘You ever gotten pounded to a pulp before, Krissy?’

{Should be fun.}

‘Oh, it is. It’s my favourite.’ You’re listening for everyone leaving school to finish doing so, for the chatter and footsteps to all fade away, and be left in blissful solitude with just you and your limpet. You chew up the rest of your chalk. ‘You nervous?’

{Stop pretending you have to ask.}

‘Aww, but the rapport is my favourite part. You’re an awfully quiet little fucker you know. Slipped right in to talking in my head. You know I bet you were so fucking desperate for company you don’t even mind who you got attached to. I mean, you have to talk to people to make friends.’

{This is fun for you.}

‘Yeah, didn’t I just say that, moron?’ You let go of their face to grab their hair instead, a nice tight grip twisted up still with a couple free inches to pull on their scalp. As you do that though their face slowly splits into a grin. The fuck? ‘You’re fucking batshit, you know.’

{Yeah. Let’s have fun.}

You bash their head against the side of the brick building. A thrill of exhilaration runs up your arm and sparks something into your heart and eyes even as splitting pain crashes into Kris’s temple. This is living. Kris is still grinning, this dirty, ragged grin, blood sliding down their face from a scrape against the rough brick. Fuck, they can feel what you’re feeling, can’t they? You don’t know how you feel about that so you elect not to and instead bash their head again.

Then a high-pitched voice from somewhere to your left says, ‘Excuse me. Might I interrupt?’

You freeze and look around, heart still pounding with adrenaline even as ice floods your veins. Kris looks around too.

Standing a few feet away at the edge of the concrete is a short white boss monster. Their fluffy, curly fur puffs out from the neck and sleeves of their slick, well-fitting black suit, and their pinkish horns stick up through holes in the wide-brimmed black witch hat they’ve chosen to accessorise with. A pair of perfectly round green-framed glasses is perched on their stumpy snout, and they’re wearing a pleasant smile and an earnest light in their eyes.

They look like a fucking nerd. You let go of Kris, who promptly doubles over and vomits on both of your shoes. ‘Oh, um--’ says the stranger in dismay.

You feel the tug of sympathy vomit in your throat but force it back down. ‘Who the fuck are you?’ Looks like you’re going to get to beat up two twinkies today.

‘My name is Ralsei Prince! I’d like to talk to both of you.’

Chapter Text

You stare. Kris reappears at chest height.

Ralsei continues, ‘If it’d be better to speak to you separately, that can be arranged..? It might throw a little bit of a wrench in things if you two don’t get along.’

‘Throw a wrench in what,’ you demand.

‘I will explain everything if you would come with me.’

‘What’s wrong with here?’

‘Well, for starters, there’s a puddle of vomit on the ground. Kris, even if you do not wish to humour me on the long term, and I really think it would be better if you did-- may I have a quick sidebar?’

Kris shrugs and walks over to them. The two of them walk several yards away. You can hear everything they’re saying via Kris. You try to wipe your shoes off on the concrete while you eavesdrop.

‘Are you alright? Was he attacking you?’

Kris holds up a thumbs up. Wait a second. How did they know their name?

{Dunno.}

‘Are you sure? I can cover for you, or help you talk things over.’

Kris keeps the thumbs up steady.

‘Well. Alright then.’

They return. Your shoes are marginally less disgusting.

‘So where do you wanna talk,’ you ask. This whole thing feels... weird. Kinda like Kris going limp in your grasp as you threatened them. This doesn’t feel like a thing that should happen. Ralsei looks your age give or take, and furthermore looks rich, and furthermore looks like an absolute dingbat. The witch hat doesn’t even go with their outfit.

{Also they’re not from here. We’d’ve noticed them at school.}

Right. You’re helping me?

They shrug internally.

Whatever.

Ralsei answers, ‘My car is waiting for us.’

‘I’m not getting in your fucking car. Next you’re gonna offer me some fucking candy.’

‘Where would you prefer to talk?’

‘There’s a McDonalds a couple blocks from here.’

‘I would be more comfortable with somewhere more private.’

{My... house..?}

Your funeral, but what the hell, why not. ‘Kris’s house.’

{Mom’ll freak if she sees me injured.}

So don’t let her see you. Spoiled brat.

Ralsei looks surprised for a moment, but quickly recovers. ‘Very well, if you’re alright with that, Kris.’

Kris holds out a thumbs up. {Give me your hoodie so I can hide that I’m bleeding.}

When we get there. It’s fucking cold out.

Ralsei says, ‘Then lead the way.’

Kris does. You follow, making sure Ralsei walks ahead of you. You have a hell of a lot of questions once you get there, and your switchblade in your jean pocket if they try anything fishy. Hey, maybe Toriel will make you an after school snack. The thought is somewhat less appealing with shoes that smell like vomit, but whatever. Ralsei gets out a cell phone and calls someone, saying, ‘Idle somewhere out of the way, I’m meeting them somewhere else. Yes, it’s alright. I’ll call you later.’

You light a cigarette and hook your thumbs in your jacket pockets. That was probably their ride. You’re a frickin genius. What sort of rich bitch has a car on beck and call? What sort of rich bitch has a car on beck and call and also walks around looking like they hired someone to describe what halloween was to them and then got the date wrong? You’re stuck on the witch hat. It’s such a weird look.

You walk in your odd little procession several blocks through town and up to Kris’s house, too on edge to put in even one headphone to pass the tense silence. Ralsei is trotting at attention. They have freakishly good posture. Kris is singing the Pina Colada song in their head. You refrain, gracefully, from punching them, if only because that would divert your current mission.

Once you hit the drive up to Kris’s house you take off your jackets and pull them apart. You have to spend a few moments disentangling the sleeves. The entire side of Kris’s head is stained with blood by this point. You hope you didn’t kill them, though like, that would solve your current problems. You toss your hoodie at them. They catch it with their face.

You put your jean jacket back on while Kris spends a whole minute trying to figure out your hoodie. It’s nearly as big as their entire body. You stand there snickering while Ralsei looks worriedly between you and Kris. Eventually they get their arms in the sleeves and the hood over their head covering it completely with your ear holes sticking out somewhere around their chin. ‘Good enough,’ you say, and grab one of Kris’s hands because they can’t see.

This does mean Ralsei is now following you, but you make it to the front door without incident. You wait for Kris to grope around the door and let you all in.

‘Hello, Kris,’ Toriel says as you all troop in. She wrinkles her nose. ‘What smells like vomit?’ She looks up from the houseplant she’s watering. ‘Oh. Hello again, David. I am surprised to see you again so soon. And who is this?’

‘This is Ralsei,’ you say, not about to wait for Kris to talk or let the weirdo control the narrative. ‘He’s visiting his, uh, cousins in town.’ Shit, you grabbed he on automatic from talking to a parent. Oh fucking well. Ralsei can deal.

‘It’s nice to meet you, dear.’

Ralsei catches the story ball like some kind of pro story athlete, not even batting an eyelash. ‘It’s nice to meet you too, ma’am.’ They offer Toriel a paw to shake. She does with a kind smile.

‘How long are you in town for?’

‘Oh, actually, my family recently moved to Perdue City. My parents let me drive down here to visit for an evening or two while they deal with the real estate papers.’

Kris is sneaking towards the stairs while their mother is preoccupied. You sneak after.

‘Well it’s very nice to meet another one of Kris’s friends. Do you children want anything to eat?’ She looks around for the two of you and spots you both on the stairs. ‘Kris? That is you under there? What are you doing, you look like a fitted sheet.’

‘I was cold,’ Kris says from beneath your hood.

‘I see. You need to start wearing your coat. Does it still fit?’

‘I’ll try it later,’ they say, and start climbing the stairs again. You take them two at a time after them and are shortly followed by Ralsei. Kris disentangles themself from your hoodie once they’re safely in their room and tosses it aside. You wait for Ralsei to enter and then shut the door with a loud snap.

Ralsei looks around at you leaning against the door with your arms folded, then Kris standing by the window. ‘Right,’ they say. ‘Would you two like to remove your puke shoes? And maybe do something about the fact that you’re bleeding? I’ll wait.’

You glare at them but toe off your shoes. ‘Start talking. We can multitask.’

‘Very well. Well, as I said, my name is Ralsei Prince. And I believe you two are the Heroes of Light.’

Silence follows this pronouncement. ‘The what now.’

‘Prophecy foretells of--’

‘Yeah, no, we did not walk like six blocks and get past Kris’s mom for this. You have five seconds to tell me something that’s gonna stop me from throwing you out that window.’ Oh your god this is bullshit. You should’ve stood by the instinct that told you from first glance that this guy was a nutjob.

Ralsei stammers for three of their five seconds before reaching for the inside pocket of their jacket. Your hand goes to yours too on instinct, claws closing over the handle of your switchblade, but what they pull out is a billfold. A very full billfold. You stare. ‘Five hundred dollars,’ they say. ‘Each. Does that buy me a conversation?’

Your hand shoots out open palmed in an instant. Five hundred fucking dollars? This guy is an idiot, but hell yeah you will listen to them blabber. They count out the money for you and then Kris and give it to each of you. You get out your wallet and tuck it in safe.

‘I was gonna let you talk anyway,’ Kris says, ‘But thanks.’

Ralsei gives them a sharp look, mouth pressed in a ridiculous grumpy line. You snicker. Nice one.

{Thanks.}

Ralsei sighs. ‘Okay,’ they say, pocketing the billfold, ‘Fine. There is more where that came from if you entertain me.’

{Do you want us to juggle?}

You laugh, but say, ‘I’m listening.’

‘As I was saying-- I am a magician. I study, among other things, prophecy.’

They glance between the two of you as though waiting to be thrown out the window. You wait for them to continue.

‘One has become of particular relevance to my family. The prophecy of the Heroes of Light.’ They clear their throat with a little fist to it. ‘A-ha-hem.’

‘Oh my god are you going to recite it to us? Did you just say a-ha-hem?’

They bristle. ‘Who’s paying you?’

You snort. ‘Fine, loser. Go ahead.’

They take a deep steadying breath. ‘No. I won’t waste your time. What you need to know is it speaks of three heroes. A monster with a human soul, a human without one, and a prince who would unite them.’

You stare. How the hell do they know about that?

They continue, ‘These three heroes will appear at a time when the balance between the light and dark magics had fallen out of sync. They alone will have the ability to restore this balance and prevent the world from being ripped asunder.’

You cross the room in two strides to grab the front of their suit and pull them up to eye level with you. Your injured wrist protests but you ignore it. You snarl, ‘Who the hell are you. How the hell do you know about that.’

‘So you believe me,’ they say, quite calmly.

You’re getting really done with creepoids who don’t react to being threatened like decent people. ‘Sure. How the hell do you know about the soul thing. And how the hell do you know our names.’

‘Please unhand me, and then I will answer your questions.’

You drop them. They land with a soft oof and their knees buckle. They right themself and carefully rearrange their suit where you rumpled it. The shirt thereof is hot pink and you are pleased to see no longer as pressed.

‘I was able to find you,’ they say as they dust off their arms, ‘Because you released a large amount of magical energy when you absorbed Kris’s soul. I knew what you looked like from scrying the source of said energy. And I know your names because I found your pictures in your school yearbook.’

‘Oh my god loser you could’ve just asked.’

‘I did successfully locate you!’

‘You did.’ As much as you're laughing at them you feel very strange about the whole situation. Kris as expected feels nothing about it. ‘So now what.’

‘So now I am offering you a job.’ They take another deep breath. ‘A family of magicians rival to mine has discovered a way to artificially create a source of dark magical power. The world is not meant to support such a change in its natural balance. There will be death. Destruction. I come to ask you for your help in destroying this source before it permanently damages the world we know.’

You snicker. ‘You said cum.’

They look stupidly grumpy again. ‘There will also,’ they say pointedly, ‘Be reimbursement.’

‘How much we talking?’ you ask around a grin.

‘I’ll have to negotiate an exact number.’

‘Gimme a ballpark.’

‘Well, at least several hundred thousand.’

Your jaw hits the floor. Several hundred thousand? You could buy your own house for that. You could run away from home for good. Your heart starts pounding. Here it is, Susie. Your way out. Kris is thinking, {Huh.}

‘Deal,’ you say. ‘But I want some up front.’

‘That can be arranged.’

‘Great. Just point me at it. I’m great at destroying things.’ You feel giddy. Bless this stupid prophecy. You’re saved.

‘Oh. So you’re in?’

You grin. ‘I’m in.’

‘Kris?’

Kris appears to take a moment to think, but you know they are thinking about nothing at all. They are thinking about sitting in their bedroom. They are thinking about their mother.

After a few moments they say, ‘Why not.’

‘Well-- good! Fantastic! Will you allow me to drive you somewhere now?’

‘Sure,’ you say.

‘Alright. Will you need to make an excuse to your family, David?’

‘Nope.’

‘How long can each of you be away?’

Kris shrugs. You shrug.

‘I see. Well, we’ll just make it the evening for now. Kris, please put on clean shoes, that smell is awful. And we’ll need to do something about your forehead.’

Kris kicks off their shoes. Ralsei dodges them with some dismay. You laugh at them. ‘Hey, so, are you like a dude or what?’ you ask as Kris digs out a pair of flip flops from under their bed. You know Kris isn’t.

Their dismayed expression turns to you. ‘Yes, I am a “dude.” I could ask you the same thing.’

You’re not going to answer that. ‘Cool, cause I was totally guessing earlier. Okay, nother question.’

‘Yes?’

‘Once we do your thingy for you, will you help me get this soul out?’ A magician has a good chance of knowing what the fuck is up with that, right?

‘Oh... David, you know, having a human soul gives you access to tremendous magical power.’

You blink. ‘Uh. Hate to break it to you, but I don’t know any magic.’

‘That's no problem. I can teach you!’

‘Yeah, no. I just want rid of it.’ You don’t need tremendous magical power. You have your fists. ‘You can have it if you’re that into it. But that’s part of what I want in exchange for fucking up your neighbour’s power generator or whatever.’

‘... Yes, of course. I don’t want to get your hopes up; I’ve never done anything like that before. But I will help you in any way I can after the threat is neutralised.’

‘Great.’ With a wad of cash in your pocket and your mind as your own again you could ride off into the sunset. This sucker’s gonna make your life.

... You’d have to leave Noelle behind. But oh fucking well. Not like she gives a damn about you.

Kris has put their shoes on - fucking astroturf lined flip flops, why and how do they have such cool clothes - and wiped the blood off their face. They still have a big scrape on their forehead. ‘You need a hat.’ You go to put your hoodie back on.

They retrieve from their closet a baseball cap, and also a winter coat. Fuck, maybe they’re not as bad at this as you thought. You’d forgotten about the coat. It’s a little small on them. They hold up a thumbs up.

You look at your peeling, puke-imbued sneakers, and think about the now seven hundred dollars burning a hole in your pocket. ‘Hey, wherever we’re going, can we stop at a shoe store first?’

Ralsei follows your gaze to your shoes. ‘Yes, alright. You don’t have any at home you’d like to pick up?’

‘Nope.’ Fucking asshole rich person.

‘Then, yes, it wouldn’t hurt anything.’

‘You’re the height of generosity. So where are we going?’

‘My home. We can eat dinner and I can debrief you further.’

‘Where’s that?’

‘Perdue City, like I said.’

‘Oh, I thought you were lying.’

‘I was lying about having moved there recently. Are you two ready to go?’

‘Yup.’

Kris gives the thumbs up.

You all troop downstairs. ‘Ralsei’s taking us out to dinner,’ you explain to Toriel.

‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Have fun!’

‘We will.’ You leave before she can further comment, and Kris shuts the door behind you with a loud click.

Chapter Text

Once you’re outside Ralsei takes out their-- his, you guess? cell phone. After dialing he says into it, ‘We’re ready to leave. We’re in the north of town, four blocks left and three blocks up from the school.’ He hangs up and closes it with a snap. ‘Let’s wait at the end of the drive. Our ride should be here shortly.’

 

You walk in silence, scraping the pebbles that embed themselves into the bottom of your bare feet off with the opposite foot as you go, and then stand in silence on the side of the sidewalk. It’s still early, the solid wall of clouds greyer but not much darker. The air hums with the promise of more rain. You alternate between watching Ralsei and watching for cars. Ralsei stands with his hands held in front of him, watching the street with attention, shoulders perked and straight.

 

After several minutes an honest to goodness limousine turns the corner and pulls to a stop in front of you. You stare. ‘Are you serious?’

 

Ralsei smiles. ‘Yes indeed. After you.’ He opens and holds the door for you. You look at him; look at the limo. Kris is already getting inside. This guy is honest balls to the wall rich. You shake off your feeling of unease as you climb inside. It’s only to your benefit, after all. Why should you be nervous? This is boss.

 

It’s roomy inside, done in black plastic and red carpeting and silver accents. It’s tall enough for you to sit comfortably, too, which is a problem with some cars. Instead of usual car seating there’s a wrap around velvet sofa along the sides beneath the tinted windows, and a little bar on the left. Okay, yeah, this is fucking sweet. You take a seat across from Kris, arm resting on the back of the sofa while Ralsei closes the door behind himself and presses a button to talk to the driver. ‘Home, please, but we need to stop at a shoe store on the way there.’

 

A man’s voice says over the little intercom, ‘Any particular shoe store?’

 

Ralsei turns to look at you. You shrug.

 

‘No, any will do. Thank you.’

 

Ralsei goes and sits down at the end of the sofa in the curve of the U. The car starts to move. ‘Hey, can we help ourselves to the bar?’ you ask.

 

‘Yes, go ahead. But please don’t get drunk, we have much to discuss tonight and it’d be better if you had all your faculties for it.’

 

‘Sure thing.’ You get up and crouch down in front of the bar, seeing what they’ve got. It’s got this slick internal lighting system and is full of ice. Just open ice! Damn! Most of it looks like alcohol, which you don’t actually have that much interest in. You’ve stolen a beer or two, it’s overrated. Kris appears next to you also with mild interest. You find a bottle of grenadine syrup. You don’t know what a grenadine is, but you do know what syrup is! Kris picks up a bottle of vodka with a {huh}.

 

You leave them to it and sit down with your prize, uncapping it to pour some in your mouth. It’s very sweet and fruity. You don’t even know which fruit. Cherries maybe? It’s red. It doesn’t have that usual cough syrupy taste of cherry stuff, but it’s the closest you can think of. Doesn’t really matter, anyway. The grenadines taste like grenadines! Ralsei is watching you in dismay. Kris takes a sip of vodka from the bottle, which burns and you pull a face. Kris puts the vodka back and picks out something else.

 

‘Why are you drinking that if you don’t like it...?’ Ralsei asks softly, looking at you in bewilderment.

 

‘Fuck you,’ you say, and drink more syrup. You’re not going to explain shit to this bozo, least of all your shiny new telepathy. He’d probably get all sorts of magic boners about it and you’re not willing to put up with that. ‘You have more stuff to tell us, right?’ You gesture vaguely. ‘We’re in private. Start telling.’

 

‘Some of it will have to wait until we arrive-- I have schematics for the enemy location, and I need to introduce you to my parents, get you outfitted, talk with some people about the actual plan.’

 

‘Wait,’ you say. ‘No-one said anything about parents.’

 

Kris drinks a mouthful of blue curacao. It burns too, and tastes more bitter than the vodka, clashing weirdly with the syrup taste in your own mouth. You wrinkle your nose, ears agitated in their direction.

 

‘I assure you, they have no intent of getting you in trouble with yours. Their motivations are the same as mine: to close the dark fountains and restore balance.’

 

‘... Fine. As long as I get paid.’

 

‘You will be.’

 

‘Good.’ You take another swig of syrup. Fuck you love syrup. ‘So who’s this enemy we’re dealing with?’

 

‘The Spades family. They’re a criminal organisation of darkeners with their fingers in a lot of pies in Perdue City. And they’re dark magicians to boot.’

 

‘Hold up, hold up,’ you say. Kris is sitting there with their hand in the ice pile admiring how cold it feels. You ignore them. ‘Darkeners are fake.’

 

Ralsei chuckles infuriatingly. ‘That’s what they want you to believe.’

 

‘You’re telling me we’re gonna go fight some real actual darkeners?’

 

‘That’s exactly what I’m telling you.’

 

Your instant thought is he’s crazy, but then you remember he’s paying you a lot of money to go along with it, so what the hell. ‘Okay, fine. What are “real darkeners” like?’

 

‘Well, these ones are rather unpleasant, though I don’t feel that’s fair to use as a descriptor for their entire race.’

 

‘I mean like--’ you gesture vaguely. ‘All that shit. They really don’t have souls?’

 

‘Oh. Yes. I mean, no, they don’t. They’re made of dark magic, which cannot support souls, so they cannot absorb other people’s, either.’

 

‘What do they look like?’

 

‘Anything. Unlike monsters their forms are not a reflection of the world around them, so they have a wide variety of appearances. But they do have the usual, a face, a body, some way of moving around. I will show you pictures of the people you’ll be up against once we get there.’

 

‘Do they really drink ichor?’

 

‘No, that’s made up. So is the thing about them not being able to enter a circle of light. They’re not very different from monsters at all, other than being made of dark magic.’

 

‘So what’s the difference between dark and, like, regular magic?’

 

‘Light magic. It’s very hard to explain without a lot of technical background-- essentially, the difference between a positive and negative charge. For a layman’s purpose they function very similarly, but are opposite.’

 

‘Opposite like how? Like, what does it do?’

 

‘They’re perfect counters of one another. One can undo nearly any action done by one by performing it with the other. A spell that heals in the hands of a light magic user will hurt in the hands of a dark magic user, and vice versa. They create an absolute zero sum.’

 

Another shot of alcohol shoots through your sinuses. You turn to bare your teeth at Kris for startling you like that. Ralsei perks in alarm. ‘What is it?’

 

‘Nothing,’ you say, turning away as Kris continues to ignore you. ‘So, uh, darkeners use dark magic then, and monsters use light? Cause we’re made of it?’

 

‘Exactly. Humans use light magic because they have souls.’

 

You turn to look at Kris again. Ralsei picks up on the question. ‘Ah. That’s part of what makes the pair of you so interesting.’

 

‘You’re saying they can use dark magic now? I thought you needed magic in you to use magic.’ They don’t have any anymore.

 

‘Ostensibly, yes, but you also “need” a soul to be alive, and they’re here with us today. I said please don’t get drunk, Kris.’

 

Kris ignores him too. You feel vindicated. ‘So... what?’

 

‘Well, we don’t really know. We don’t have any record of a human without a soul living more than a few minutes without assistive technology. Sometimes people are born without souls, but they either receive transplants or die shortly after their birth. And monsters cannot exist without their souls at all. But when I tracked you down, I saw that they were as magically potent as you are now. Somehow, lacking a soul has increased their potential for power exponentially.’

 

‘Huh.’ Fuck. Kris snickers at you in their head. ‘Bully for them I guess.’

 

‘The two of you are surprisingly uninterested in possessing astronomically powerful abilities.’

 

You shrug. ‘Money’s the real power in this world. That’s all I care about.’ You can’t eat magic. Idiot.

 

{You can eat money?} They reach for a different vodka.

 

Uh, you can’t? You knew what I fucking meant. And fucking stop that booze is gross.

 

{Why do you think I’m drinking it.} They take a swig.

 

Ralsei opens his mouth, and then closes it again. ‘Right. You can get plenty of that too.’

 

‘You’ve said,’ you say, and drink more syrup. Kris sticks their face in the ice pile.

 

The driver takes you to an enormous shoe store that takes up a chunk of a mall surrounded by parking lot and highway. It has its own exterior entrance. You know all this from looking out the window as you pull to a stop.

 

‘You two can go ahead,’ Ralsei says. ‘I need to make a few phone calls. Just make sure you’re back in a reasonable amount of time. I’m in no rush, but we have things to talk about tonight and I assume your families would eventually miss you.’

 

You assume a hell of a fucking lot, you think but don’t say, and instead stand and head for the door. ‘You coming, loser?’

 

Kris gets up from the floor in front of the bar. {Let’s go buy some shoes.}

 

You exit the limo, which drives off after you shut the door. You turn your head to watch it pull away, then look up at the store entrance. Right. You have seven hundred fucking dollars. You want some fucking shoes. You guess this means you can let your sister off the hook for this weekend.

 

You walk in the door. A chime sounds. It’s a very large store inside. It has dark grey carpeting and a stupidly high ceiling, the kind of ceiling that stops bothering to have walls two thirds of the way up and instead just has lighting rigs hanging in the void. There’s a display of shoes immediately inside, next to two circular sofa things, and beyond, rows and rows and rows all of different shoes.

 

You have seven hundred dollars. And you’re going to get more.

 

Excitement thrills through you. Holy shit. This is more money than you have ever even thought about having at once in the past and you are going to buy shoes! You are going to own shoes! You are in shoe fucking heaven! You stride further into the store, a huge grin spread across your face, looking around the store for where to head first. Kris stays behind you. Whatever, they can go wherever.

 

Your smile falls as you realise the store is split between men’s shoes on one side and women’s on the other with gender neutral in the middle. Fuck. Oh well. You’ll just start with gender neutral you guess.

 

You walk in that direction, putting some purpose back in your step. Nobody cares what genders shoes are as long as you don’t wear like, high heels or dainty little sandals. Which you wouldn’t want to do anyway. Would you? Fuck. Maybe. You don’t know. Something in you is trembling bitter. You receive from somewhere a mental image of yourself in little woven sandals and a little girly romper patterned with flowers, warming yourself in the summer sun with not a care in the world. Or in a pair of skinny jeans all rumpled around your ankles showing off a pair of hot red heels and a loose t-shirt.

 

Fuck. You didn’t need this right now. You need to buy some shoes for reality, dammit. And you can get some really good ones. You just can’t get those ones. They aren’t even winter shoes, so it’s a moot point. You shove everything you’re feeling right now deep down inside yourself like you’re stepping on the contents of a trash can to make more room. You should be fucking ecstatic right now. You have cash. You are going to have more cash. You’re going to get some rad ass shoes that are going to make all the assholes at school jealous.

 

That actually does make you feel a bit better, thinking about everyone’s shoes in gym class, and your pristine new tennis shoes which you are going to buy today. They’ll be like, cool and brand name and Noelle will totally notice them.

 

You start looking at the shoes, and navigating to the ones that will fit your feet. They even have a section of shoes that are lined to stop claws from ruining them. You walk along that section picking shoes out, piling up boxes in your arms. They have a whole row of chucks, mint green chucks and see through chucks and chucks printed with panels of superhero comics. They have the chucks that lace up to your knees. They have dayglo nikes. They have slick-ass black air jordans. They have shoes that you don’t recognise the brand of but still are cute as fuck, like these black and white plaid sneakers and these solid red ones.

 

And then you see them. At the top of a tower display mere rows away in the women’s section are the most beautiful boots you have ever seen. They are ankle height and hot pink and shiny vinyl with an inch high black sole and the black docs tag flicked out the back like a purposefully stray lock in the quaff of a greaser butch lesbian. It’s like a beam of light has fallen from the ceiling illuminating the holy land of footwear. You can practically hear the angels singing.

 

You make a beeline for them. They come in monster sizes, thank fuck. You crouch down and grab a box. You do not care how well these boots fit or how much they cost. You are buying these boots. But first you are putting these boots on your feet. Like, immediately. You only stop to grab a couple pathetic little foot condoms because you don’t want to be thrown out of the store and prevented from buying those boots.

 

You sit down on a nearby bench and get the boots out of their box. They’re so shiny! You dig one out of the tissue paper wrapping and tilt it under the bright overhead lights, admiring it. And then very quickly you start moving again, undoing the round black laces enough to get your foot in. It’s a little tight so you go to get the next half size up. You guess your feet grew? Whatever. Those are still a little close so you go up a half again and those, those fit like a dream, not the perfect shape for your foot but good enough, because when you stand up with them laced you’re taller than you were before and all the light and good in the world is shining right down on your feet, your bright pink feet with your jeans scrunched up around the lip to make sure you can see every glorious bit.

 

You pose with them in front of the little foot mirror at the base of your bench. The planets are in fucking alignment as you look at these shoes. You could die happy with these on your feet except nothing’s going to fucking kill you because you’re immortal now. You try to moonwalk and fail miserably and don’t care.

 

You spend a couple more minutes just walking around the display and posing, and then sit back down to put the shoes back in the box and check the price. They’re two hundred and thirty dollars. That’s a lot of fucking money but you have more fucking money. Enough to get a pair of tennis shoes too, and actually spread out which shoes you wear so they both can last longer. You try on your haul, including running back for larger sizes, and decide on the comic print ones on the merit of they pop. You don’t bother to put the shoes you aren’t getting away because you’re a rich bitch now, and also you would probably just fuck it up somehow. Hey, you should get some real winter boots. Since it’s going to be winter and shit.

 

You go to do that and, heart soaring, decide to actually look around the women’s section. You won’t get anything with heels or anything knee-height or anything otherwise super obvious. No-one has to know except you. But you’ll know. And Kris will know too, but that’s a moot point.

 

You wind up with a sturdy white pair lined with black fur, and with black laces and pom-poms. You don’t think they look too obviously feminine. Unisex boots have pom-poms too sometimes.

 

You realise as you go to check out that you don’t actually have anywhere safe to keep the shoes you aren’t wearing. This wasn’t a problem before now, when you didn’t own anything you actually cared about that couldn’t fit in your pocket. But if you leave your shoes in your room your parents could find them, or Lydia could have a target on which to exact revenge. Hmmn. Maybe you can leave them in your locker at school, and just switch out shoes once you get there. Yeah, that’d work.

 

As you fork over five hundred and fifty dollars for your haul you realise something: you feel happy. You feel happy, and have been feeling happy for like, at least the last twenty minutes. Really, actually happy, not just content and dry or shot with adrenaline but good, something ballooning in your chest, and the world around you is vibrant and solid and real. You feel like smiling, and you are smiling, and you think the cashier probably thinks you look creepy but she smiles back and that makes you feel good too. This is getting ridiculous, but you don’t care! You have shoes, and some hundred and fifty dollars left, and you’re gonna be free, sooner or later you’re gonna be free.

 

The overhead lights shine and the world is perfect.

 

You take the big plastic bag from the cashier and sit down by the entrance to put your new boots on. Kris glides up. They got heelys! Fuck, you could’ve gotten heelys. Well, heelys probably wouldn’t look as fly as your new shoes anyway. And you’re still planning on getting a skateboard. You don’t need a skateboard and heelys, that’s just fucking overkill. They bump to a gentle stop on the circular sofa and turn around to sit next to you. They have their grass flip flops on their hands.

 

{Cool shoes.}

 

The thought feels like they’ve had it before recently; they probably did while you were distracted shopping. They saw these already, anyway. ‘Thanks.’ Grudgingly, and because you’re in a good mood, you add, ‘Yours are pretty sweet too.’

 

{Cool shoes!}

 

‘Cool fuckin shoes,’ you say, a smile once again tugging at your mouth. You finish tying your laces. ‘Did you pay for those? Can we leave?’ They have a bag like yours though smaller, anyway. They nod with the brief memory of exchanging money with a different cashier. ‘Great.’ You get up, almost dancing as you walk, wanting to see your new hot pink boots in every angle possible. Bitch! You’re cute!

 

Outside you realise you have no idea how to find Ralsei, until you look around the parking lot and see the limo idling off to the side. You start to stride towards it. Kris imagines being pulled by you on their new set of wheels. You stop, and hold out a hand to them.

 

{Wait, really?}

 

Yeah, why not. You’re beginning to think you don’t actually hate the little weirdo. They’re a freak, yeah, but you eat cigarettes, and it’s not their fault their mom is nice. Also they were pretty into being beat up earlier, which could be a very mutually beneficial relationship. They take your hand and you pull them behind you while you walk over to the limo. When you focus their mind all you see are your own thoughts and happiness as they take it in like an echo.

 

Ralsei opens the door for you as you approach, and you get inside. ‘Did you get what you needed?’ he asks.

 

‘Yeah,’ you say, rocking back onto your seat. ‘Check em out.’ You hold out a foot to show off. The underseat lighting reflects off the perfect shiny surface.

 

‘Those are beautiful! They’re very eye-catching.’

 

‘Thanks.’ You sit back, spreading your legs out with your arms on the back of the sofa. ‘We going to the bat cave now?’

 

‘Wayne Manor would be a little more apt.’

 

Huh. Well, not like you’re actually surprised. Ralsei presses a button by his seat to tell the driver to ‘Take us home, please.’ Kris has sat down across from you again.

 

Something occurs to you, as the car starts to move and you look into the thick, brown hair covering their eyes. Something that feels like it should’ve occurred earlier.

 

You haven’t felt them feel a single thing.

 

You’ve heard their thoughts, you’ve heard frequently and either picked up on or ignored the voice in your head which isn’t yours. You’ve sensed their senses, seen through their eyes, felt physical sensations through them, like a big paw carding through their hair, or their head hitting a brick wall hard. You’ve seen their memories. You’ve even felt the memory of feeling, that horrible sensation they associate with wanting to tear out their soul. But the only thing you can remember them feeling is a faint bitter thread as their mother asked about their broken wagon.

 

You watch them. They watch you. Even now they aren’t having thoughts, just listening to yours, giving you a playback of every little thing you think. Why are they so vacant? Is that what happens when you lose your soul?

 

{It happens--} But they don’t continue the thought. Instead they try to remember something, and fail. Instead they remember themself as a kid, only they imagine it from the outside, like a picture someone else took. They’re playing video games with a boss monster nearly twice their size but a kid themself. Kris’s hair is cut short and away from their eyes, and they’re wearing a headband with a pair of fake horns in the same shape of the horns of the monster beside them. They’re sitting on the orange sofa still in their living room today, lit blue from the television. The screen is reflected in their red eyes.

 

The memory scatters quickly. It sure does, you think.

Chapter Text

You spend the ride watching Kris bask in your lazy contentment like you like to bask in sunbeams. It makes sense, you guess. They can’t produce their own emotions just like you can’t produce your own heat. They’re just a sad little shadow with bangs brushing the bridge of their nose and plush lips gently parted. You definitely don’t hate them, you think, or pity them for that matter, or feel anything towards them at all. They’re just here, glued to you because you were fucking stupid and ate something you shouldn’t have. You more mind the idea of having someone share your headspace than you mind them in particular.

 

But, you’ll do this shit for Ralsei, and then he’ll solve all your problems, and your life will be made. And Kris can have their soul back to do whatever with, or Ralsei can absorb it and grow a giant wizard dick and Kris can hang out with him instead. He seems like a better sunlamp of emotions anyway. All you are is a giant hairball of rage and apathy. Except today, you guess. ‘Mind if I smoke in here?’ you ask Ralsei.

 

‘No, go ahead.’

 

Several hundred thousand dollars is gonna be a hell of a lot of cigarettes. Yeah, you feel good, you think, as you breathe out smoke. You don’t got a damn thing to be sad about anymore. Kind of miraculous, really. No wonder it took you an hour or two to start actually digging it, it fell out of the fucking sky. But shit’s gonna be good now. Shit’s gonna be good. The despair of this morning feels years away.

 

The limousine pulls to a stop. Ralsei says, ‘We’re here.’

 

You follow him out the door into a massive garage. The big circular overhead light is already turned on for all of you. It reminds you of a halo. These people must think an awful lot of their cars.

 

You look around. The floor is cement and the walls are white brick. The limo is parked alongside a bunch of like, fancy person cars, shit you don’t know the brands of but they sure as hell look expensive, with their perfect mirror-polishes and their weird outlines and the little doohickeys at the end of the hoods. All of them are either black or white or silver. The whole place feels weirdly drained of colour, right down to the greyscale modern art hung on the walls and the sofa and table off to the side and the pure white halo overhead. There’s a big curved staircase leading up out of sight against one wall of the room, and a door off to the side.

 

And who hangs art in their garage? Seriously?

 

A bulky blue lizard monster gets out of the front of the limo. Must be the driver. ‘Anything else I can do for you or your guests, Mr Prince?’

 

‘No, thank you Mr Bigsby.’

 

‘You’re welcome sir.’

 

Ralsei turns to you and Kris. ‘Come with me, please.’

 

You follow him up the large staircase, leaving Mr Bigsby making a call on his cell phone below. At the top of the stairs is a door. Ralsei takes you through it. The room on the other side is also very white, and the ceiling ridiculously tall. The floors are polished white tile, though at least the wallpaper halfway up is blue-grey and the two sofas to your left are icy blue. ‘We’ll be more comfortable in the drawing room, I think,’ Ralsei says. ‘But please, hang up your coats.’ He indicates a wall with hooks upon which several coats are already hung.

 

You get your belongings from your pockets and shed your outer layers, feeling awkward. Wait a second, that wasn’t just the living room you were in with the sofas? Does this place have two living rooms? Is that what rich people spend their money on, limousines and extra living rooms? Is that even what a drawing room is? What is a drawing room? You hang up your jean jacket and hoodie. Your monkey gloves are the only thing hiding your bandaged wrist now. Whatever. Whatever.

 

Kris has to reach to hang their coat up. The other people who live in this house must be fucking giants. Kris has a brief internal debate about hat vs no hat. Ralsei’s leaving his on, you point out. Kris has already decided to leave it on because they’re too lazy to think about it. You can admire that method of decision making. ‘Ready?’ Ralsei asks. ‘Right this way.’

 

The hallway is also white, white wood floors, white wood walls. Even Ralsei’s fucking fur is white. You feel like an errant stain. Kris sedately heelys behind you through the zig zag hallway, through another door to a marble-floored room with a sweeping grand staircase, and then through yet another door to a room with the biggest windows you have ever seen. They’re floor to ceiling which is really a lot here, showing the yet darker grey sky outside. The floors are marble here too. It’s all unnaturally clean. Even the potted plants including a literal actual tree are spotless, shining dully under the overhead lights. There’s a fucking grand piano in the corner. It’s white.

 

An enormous modern portrait of what must be Ralsei’s family is hung above the wide fireplace: three boss monsters, all in black and white. Ralsei is a young child in the painting, eyes bright behind thick-framed spectacles. His parents are intimidating even in effigy: a broad-shouldered man in a suit and a glamorous woman taller than he is draped in jewels. His father looks serious. His mother looks like a real bitch.

 

Ralsei leads you over to the pristine white sofas in front of the fireplace. ‘Please, have a seat.’ He gestures at the longer sofa. You plop down, and Kris sits next to you. You’re not going to mind yourself. If he wants to invite you to his nice clean fancy-ass house, he can deal with the consequences. Still, a current of tension runs up your shoulders as you put your feet on the pristine coffee table. You pick at one of your monkey gloves. Kris is thinking about heelying. Their head hurts. ‘Would you like me to light the fire?’

 

You’re never gonna say no to more heat. ‘Sure.’ While Ralsei busies himself with that you light a cigarette.

 

‘My parents won’t be home til later tonight,’ Ralsei says, and fear twangs your body. That’s right, isn’t it, you’re going to have to meet them, the giants in the painting. Your heart pounds in your ears. You puff on your cigarette to cover it. It’s just more weird wizards. You need to stop being such a pansy. ‘So before then I thought we could order something for dinner, and I can show you who we’re up against.’

 

Oh fuck, you’re the one who has to respond, aren’t you? After several awkwardly silent moments you say ‘Sure,’ and go back to hiding behind your cigarette. Come on, Susie. You’re getting paid. You can do this.

 

Ralsei coughs awkwardly. ‘Um... What would you like to eat?’

 

Okay, fuck this. You can do this. You take your cigarette out of your mouth. ‘What are my options?’

 

‘Oh, whatever you like! I can get you the takeout menus we have on hand.’

 

‘Sure.’

 

Ralsei gets up and leaves the room. You drop ash on the rug. The fire feels nice, crackling gently mere feet from you. You wish you had a fireplace in your bedroom. You’ll have to make sure the rich person house you get once you’re a rich person has one. Something instinctual in you draws you to it magnetically. You’d like to move closer, but you feel compelled to stay where you were put, even though that’s stupid. Hey though, if you focus on Kris you can feel twice the warmth. They’re staring absently into the flames.

 

Ralsei comes back with a fucking ridiculous stack of takeout menus, which he hands to you. ‘Holy shit.’ You thumb through the stack as a fan. ‘We can get any of these?’

 

‘Yes, you and Kris can pick.’

 

‘Fuckin sweet.’ Kris isn’t gonna give a shit. You feel the empty reflection of agreement with that thought as you look through the food categories. Pizza, Chinese, subs, sushi, steakhouse-- aw fuck yes. You want steak. You haven’t eaten steak since you were a little kid, when your parents took you out to a nice restaurant for your sister’s birthday one year. You still can conjure a vivid mental image of the low-lit room with heavy brown tables despite it being years ago.

 

You take the steakhouse menu and hand the rest to Kris just to do something with them. Kris takes the stack, beginning to page through them themself. You aren’t really paying attention. You’re focusing on reading the menu. ‘Good choice,’ Ralsei says. You ignore him too and find the slabs of meat section. There’s a few different types of steak listed, but you don’t know the difference between any of them, so whatever.

 

You fold the menu back up and pass it to Ralsei. ‘I want three steaks. And shrimp. And mac and cheese.’ A place like that probably has the good mac and cheese. ‘And like, a blooming onion.’ Blooming onions are the shit.

 

‘Alright.’ Holy shit, you thought he was gonna like, comment or object or something. ‘Kris?’ He holds the menu out.

 

Kris has dropped most of the other menus all over their lap by now. They reach out and take the new one and unfold it, beginning to look over it without reading. Do you even give a shit? you ask.

 

{Mac and cheese...}

 

‘Kris wants mac and cheese,’ you say, plucking the menu back out of their hands and handing it back to Ralsei, who looks between the two of you uncomfortably.

 

{Crouton}

 

‘And croutons.’

 

‘Croutons,’ Ralsei repeats. ‘Um, Kris?’

 

Kris holds out a thumbs up. You watch them do this, then flop your head back in Ralsei’s direction, grinning roughly. Fuckin nerd thinks you don’t know what you’re talking about.

 

‘Um. Alright then,’ Ralsei says, looking bemused to the point of distress and unfolding the menu before looking down at it. ‘I’ll have seafood pasta,’ he says as if you care, and then gets out his phone to call for delivery. You lean your head back on the back of the sofa and look up at the ridiculous ceiling. The ceiling is also fucking marble. Kris is gazing into the fire, your own retinas burning bright as you stare at nothing. Ralsei makes a couple more phone calls, then coughs. You ignore it until he clears his throat and you realise he’s trying to get your attention.

 

You look up. ‘You could just say “hey assholes” like a normal person.’

 

He frowns. ‘I’ll take that under advisement. I was wondering if you wanted to go over the target.’

 

You sit up. Step one to making it. ‘Sure. Gimme the deetz.’

 

At that point the door opens and a pale purple rabbit dressed in a suit and carrying a tray bearing a pitcher, some glasses, and a very large black binder walks over. They set the tray on the coffee table and pour you all glasses of ice water with lemon slices floating in it. You stare, not sure why it keeps taking you off guard how rich this guy is, and shake it off. Ralsei has moved the binder closer to himself and begun flipping it open.

 

‘As I said before, your target is the Spades family. We have traced the dark fountain to their manor, but we don’t know where it is exactly on the property because they have magical wards that prevent scrying.’ He spins the binder and pushes it towards you. You and Kris both lean in to look. It’s open to several photographs of a-- the first word to come into mind is castle. It’s an enormous blue and black old-looking construct, covered in wrought iron and gargoyles and spires and those little castle roof teeth, whatever they’re called. Verdant gardens spill out all around it. You wonder if this is what this place looks like from the outside, too; you weren’t paying attention driving up.

 

‘Your first task,’ Ralsei says, ‘Will be to infiltrate the grounds, locate, and place sensors on the fountain. We can then use these sensors to figure out how to destroy it. After that you’ll need to sneak in again and finish the job.’

 

You look up at him, frowning. ‘Can’t we just throw dynamite at it or something..?’

 

‘Well, possibly, but it’s more likely than not that you’ll need to use magic to shut it down. As a magical artifact it might be impervious to physical attacks, or continue to work even after the physical part of it has been destroyed.’

 

‘Right. Okay. I don’t know how to use magic.’

 

‘Like I said, I’ll teach you! It should come very easily to you now that you have a soul boosting your power.’

 

‘Okay, sure.’ Not like it would hurt anything for you to know magic, even if that’s like, the nerd way of beating people up.

 

‘Kris, do you know any magic?’

 

Kris holds up a thumb and forefinger indicating a little. Their father taught them fire magic, big white paws with big dull claws guiding their wrists as they and their brother throw little balls of flame using piles of dead leaves for target practice. Their brother is a preteen, beaming with excitement and dressed in a folded skirt and a hoodie with the sleeves pushed up clear of the fire growing in his confidently poised hands.

 

... Is your brother trans too?

 

‘I’ll teach you too.’

 

{Yeah, like, my whole family is.}

 

Your mom too? Shit. You didn’t really ever think about trans moms being a thing. You mean, duh, but... mom. How do you have something in common with someone’s mom.

 

Unbidden you imagine, for a moment, telling her you’re trans too. But that’s not-- what would that do. Would she put her big white paw on your shoulder and call you the right name? Would she feed you more jambalaya? Would she sneer and tell you that’s not her problem? Would a deep purple fist lob a blow at your head?

 

{Nah.}

 

Kris is looking at you. You bare your teeth at them.

 

‘David, there’s enough training to go around!’

 

You forgot Ralsei was in the room. ‘I wasn’t talking to you,’ you snarl, and get up and storm off for the sake of getting up and storming off. You don’t have anywhere to go, though, so you just pace back and forth across the stupid living room. God. A mom. A fuckin mom.

 

You don’t want a mom.

 

Your hands are balled into fists. You stop where you stand and yell and kick the nearest piece of furniture, which happens to be a potted plant. The pot hits the wall a few inches away and bounces back more or less into place. Fuck you too plant.

 

‘David!’ Ralsei exclaims when you yell, though you mostly ignore him to storm back and forth a little more. ‘David, what’s wrong? Was it something I said?’

 

‘It’s not about you,’ you sneer, whirling to face him. Fuck. That’s not your name. That’s not your fucking name.

 

To his credit he does cow a little. ‘Ah. I apologise. Please, take your time.’

 

You snort and keep pacing. ‘“Please, take your time,”’ you mimic to yourself. Jesus fuck. You’re having a tantrum like a fucking baby in his fucking marble living room and he has the audacity to be polite to you about it. At least the fucking servant has left. You shout and pull the potted plant off its balance and onto the floor. Dirt spills out. You breathe in; breathe out. Kris eats some ice. They’re still fucking ignoring you. You don’t know which is worse.

 

{Lol what do you want me to do.}

 

‘I don’t know!’

 

Fuck. You said that out loud. The silence rings.

 

After a few moments Kris eats another ice cube. {Cold. Crrronchy.}

 

You run up and grab them by their hair from behind the sofa, pulling on it so they have to bend backwards and look up at you. Ralsei is on his feet instantly but you continue to ignore him. ‘You don’t know how good you have it. You don’t know what you have right in your stupid little hands that you won’t even do anything good with, you--’ You shake their head back and forth violently, feeling the pull as though it’s your own scalp, feeling the nauseous rattling. They ragdoll again making their arms wiggle comically with the force of their body.

 

‘David!’ Ralsei says. ‘That’s enough!’

 

You look up and bare your teeth and drop Kris. You have a new target.

 

‘I don’t know what’s going on between you two,’ Ralsei continues, ‘But please, we can talk it out.’

 

You grab the front of his suit and lift him to your height. ‘The problem, bitch, is that Kris doesn’t know what’s good for them.’

 

You have a sudden mental image: large deep purple hands with big black nails. Large white paws.

 

You drop Ralsei, feeling sick, feeling sick with yourself. How did you get here. You want to go home. You don’t have a home.

 

You settle for leaving for the hall outside and taking a few deep breaths. Inside Kris watches Ralsei pick himself up and straighten his suit and his witch hat. ‘Are you okay?’ he asks them.

 

Kris holds out a thumbs up.

 

‘Right,’ Ralsei says. ‘Is there anything I can do to help with all of this?’

 

Kris shrugs. You look at them instead of what they’re looking at, trying to see if they’re thinking anything, feeling anything. They aren’t, though they’re watching you watching and wondering what they ought to think or feel.

 

I don’t know. You bury your face in your hands and press the balls thereof against your eyes and watch the bright darkness. Heh. Balls.

 

You take your hands away and look at the right one, the one with the uninjured wrist. Maybe that would make you feel better.

 

You strip the glove off that hand and bring your wrist to your mouth and bite, and bite harder. Ichor leaks into your mouth as pain overtakes your arm. It tastes good. It always does.

 

You lick the wound clean and put your glove back on. You were right, you feel calmer, more able to deal with the situation. You’re here to make money, it’s not happy fun kindergartner play time. Who the fuck cares if you get upset. You just need to get enough money to get out of here for good. Then you can worry about your silly little feelings.

 

You turn around and push the door behind you open, and pain jabs at your wrist.

Chapter Text

You’re well used to the awkward silence that swallows you as you walk back over to the sofa and plop down. Your ears are pricked to each side of you, tense for reactions. Ralsei clears his throat. You look over at him.

 

‘David,’ he says. He’s sitting neatly, knees together, paws clasped in his lap. ‘I think you should apologise to Kris.’

 

You sneer on instinct. What is he, your fucking mom?

 

Thinking that feels like prodding a sore spot. You swallow your sneer.

 

{For the record I don’t care.}

 

Yeah, but twinkle toes here does. God, it’s weird how much Kris doesn’t care what you do to them. Like. That’s weird. You breathe in and out, trying to get your wires straight. Ralsei is waiting, which infuriates you. Kris is slumped on the sofa.

 

But the fact of the matter remains that Ralsei is paying you, and if you want to pull this off you’re gonna have to play nice. You take a deep breath. You can imagine yourself in an empty apartment in a city miles and miles from here, light streaming in the windows. Sprawled on a futon in the living room at night watching television and eating all the food you want and not having to worry about anything. You swallow your anger and your pride.

 

‘I’m sorry,’ you say. ‘I just... got upset.’

 

‘It’s okay to get upset,’ Ralsei says. ‘It’s okay to yell and knock over furniture. But please don’t take it out on us.’

 

You nod, looking down, a small knot of shame tying itself in your throat. Fuck. You’re gonna play nice, sure, but you’re not going to feel fucking ashamed, like you’re the one doing something wrong when they’re sitting there with their perfect houses and their perfect families--

 

{Do you wanna sleep over at my house.}

 

You look up and turn your head to look, shocked to your core. You just got done tossing them around like a crash test dummy, and they want you at their house?

 

They shrug. ‘Apology accepted,’ they say out loud.

 

You stare. Why are you doing this.

 

{Does it look like I know why I’m doing this? It’s called being nice, bitch.}

 

Being nice. To you. Do you even mind when I beat you up?

 

{Not really. It’s kinda fun.}

 

Despite yourself a smile quirks at the edge of your mouth. You are some kinda batshit.

 

They smile. It’s one part calm and one part wicked. {Yeah. I know.}

 

You look at Ralsei, who is looking hopefully at the pair of you. The fire crackles warmly. Shit ain’t so bad, you guess. ‘So, uh. You were showing us a castle?’

 

‘Yes! We don’t know much about the internal layout,’ Ralsei says, leaning over to flip the page of the binder to a map which he folds out to cover the whole coffee table. It shows a large garden with buildings outlined and labelled but only partially filled in. ‘But we think the fountain must be somewhere with at least partial exposure to open air, because we were able to pick up on its existence, and it’s much harder to ward an open space. So that gives you a lot fewer places to look.’

 

‘I’m guessing we can’t just show up and walk around.’

 

‘Well. No. But they won’t know that you’re working for us, which will make it a lot easier for you to infiltrate! My thought is that they will have also noticed the magic you gave off when you absorbed Kris’s soul, and will also be interested in speaking with you. When they do, you can play along. They’ll practically hand you an excuse to look around!’

 

Sounds easy enough. You light a cigarette. ‘Okay. Sure.’

 

‘That was why it was so important that you come with me tonight; I didn’t want them to have a chance to see us together, and we need to outfit you before they approach you in case they also want you to go with them right away.’

 

‘What are they gonna want us for anyway? I mean you don’t have a magic whoever, so your little prophecy’s moot to them.’ You wave your cigarette as you gesture your point, drawing a trail of smoke through the air.

 

‘David,’ Ralsei says in a patient voice that ticks you off, ‘I don’t know what part of astronomical magic power you still aren’t understanding. They will want to recruit you.’

 

‘Oh.’ For what, you think, but you don’t want to get told off again. Personal wizardry? Crime? On second thought it’s probably crime. Well. You’re good at that at least.

 

‘You should know that they will not take kindly to learning we’ve spoken to you. I’ll try to teach you some defensive magic tonight, and we can make sure you’re properly defended, but ultimately your best defense will be not letting anything slip.’

 

‘So y’all are arch nemeses or something?’

 

‘Something like that, yes. I believe I mentioned they were rival to my family.’

 

‘I probably wasn’t listening.’

 

Kris accidentally dumps the contents of their water glass on their face while drinking. You cackle at them. Tonight’s fuckin mood whiplash, you reflect. Oh fucking well. Kris is sitting there holding the water glass while Ralsei looks concerned. ‘Um. I’ll call for a towel, shall I?’ He gets out his phone and dials a short number.

 

Put the cup down, genius, you think at Kris, still snickering. They don’t. Instead they start shaking gently, face splitting into a smile as they silently laugh. The cup slips from their hand. It shatters on the ground, but they don’t stop laughing, which makes you roar up with laughter too and Ralsei hastily add, ‘And a mop, please-- oh dear...’

 

You slap Kris heavily on the shoulder. They pitch forward and catch themself by crashing sideways into you, leaving them lying across your lap. They really don’t weigh much. You pick them up by the hair and set them back up to be sitting. They grin at you.

 

Their emotions are humming with something pleasant and wonderous. It’s not loud, but it stands out vividly that they’re feeling something right now, even if it’s just the brief joy of a stupid pratfall. Your smile falls to calm as you consider them, and theirs does too, though lingers in their serene expression.

 

You ruffle their hair up on impulse, thinking again about mood whiplash but not really seeing why you should care. They scrunch up your nose and move with the force of your hand so in addition to mussing their hair you wind up pushing them sideways onto the arm of the sofa. You pick them up again. They start laughing again. ‘Dingy,’ you say, and flick them in the side of the head.

 

But something in you feels good. Something in you feels better.

 

The rabbit in the suit comes back in and hands Kris a towel before starting to mop the glass shards into a dustpan. Kris wipes off their face, this weird little bittersweet knot forming in them. {I made her feel better,} they think, and for once it feels like something you weren’t supposed to hear. They think of their brother, their tall, teenage brother in his city-school letter jacket decorated with the spoils of war, his now longer horns curved halfway behind his head, the early autumn light catching his fur in a golden aura. He’s smiling softly. He’s not looking at them.

 

You don’t know how you feel either now, something twisting in you to a similar shape. Instead of thinking about it you turn back to Ralsei. ‘Where were we.’

 

‘Preparing you for a potentially dangerous mission.’

 

‘Right. Well. I have teeth and I’m not a coward.’

 

‘That’s not going to be much help if a magician wants to hurt you. Or someone with a gun.’

 

‘I can take a magician. I just gotta be fast.’

 

Ralsei frowns at you. ‘That’s really not the case. You need to learn defensive magic, and you need to learn it tonight.’

 

You frown. You’re not actually opposed to the concept, you just don’t like being corrected.

 

Ralsei continues, ‘I can demonstrate if you like.’

 

But like hell you’re gonna let him make a fool of you. ‘No, it’s... fine. Not like it’ll hurt. But what do we do about the guns, genius?’

 

‘Defensive magic can help with that as well. So can bulletproof vests.’

 

You get a bulletproof vest? Fuckin boss. ‘Do I get a gun?’

 

‘No.’

 

‘But what if they shoot at me?’

 

‘That’s what the bulletproof vest is for.’

 

‘But wouldn’t it be better if I could shoot back?’

 

Ralsei sighs. ‘If you have a gun on you it will look suspicious. Also, I don’t think you have the gun training or ability to outshoot these people.’

 

‘Won’t a bulletproof vest also look suspicious?’

 

‘No, because I’m going to give you ones that are slim enough to be concealable.’

 

‘What if they pat us down?’

 

‘Then they will definitely find a gun and think it suspicious!’ He takes a deep breath. You grin at him. ‘May I remind you that your goal is to not get caught? If you do you will probably have to run and your entire mission will be scuttled.’

 

{Scuttled is a good word.}

 

‘Keep your stupid hat on. Fine, no gun.’ Damn. You wanted a gun. Maybe later.

 

‘I will teach you how to disarm people and defend yourself with magic.’

 

But that’s the neeeeeerd way of doing it. ‘Fine, okay.’

 

‘Thank you. We’ll start on training after dinner.’

 

Oh, fuck, that’s right, dinner. Your ears prick up at the word. Ralsei chuckles. You don’t punch him.

 

‘It will be here soon, I think. In the meantime, do you have any more questions?’

 

‘Uhhhhhh.’ You try to think. So far your understanding of the plan is you’re gonna get some magic and some tracker shit, then you’re gonna go home and wait around for these assholes to contact you, then once they let you in their castle you’re gonna find their magicky thing and stick the tracker on it. Then the tracker will tell you how to wreck it, and then you go wreck it. And then you get paid. ‘Yeah, how much money do I get?’

 

‘We’ll need to discuss that with my parents.’

 

Oh. Fuck.

 

Well. If a couple of giant fuddy-duddy assholes are the only thing standing between you and a way out, you can go through them if you have to. Ralsei said they wanted to hire you anyway. You’ll make it work out.

 

You swallow. ‘Ok.’

 

‘I promise you, they really aren’t that bad. There is no need for you to be concerned.’

 

You bare your teeth at him. Easy for him to say, they haven’t met you. He blinks back unperturbed. You look away, growling under your breath, ‘I’ll be concerned if I fucking want to.’

 

Ralsei opens his mouth and then shuts it again. Maybe he’s not as stupid as he looks.

 

You all sit in silence just shy of awkward. Kris is blank again. You think about their mom and her big white paws and her short white horns and bowls of red rice. The mental image slips through your fingers like water, and you’re left looking at the white stone fireplace.

 

You don’t have to go home tonight, though. That’s something.

 

The rabbit in the suit returns. ‘Your food has arrived. Would you like it in here or the dining room?’ Your ears and spirits both prick up.

 

Ralsei looks at you and Kris. ‘Do you have a preference?’

 

‘I want food,’ you say. Kris is thinking about nothing.

 

‘Right,’ Ralsei says. ‘Erm-- in here is fine.’

 

‘Very good,’ the rabbit says, and turns, leaves, and returns with a tray laden with plastic bags full of carryout boxes. You’re excited enough for dinner that you only barely notice how ludicrous the little setup is. Ralsei moves the book off the coffee table. ‘Would you like something to drink, sirs?’ the rabbit asks as they unload the tray.

 

Your eyes are busy following the styrofoam boxes so it takes a moment to catch what they said. Kris just gives a thumbs up. ‘Do ya’ll even have soda?’

 

‘Yes indeed.’

 

‘Then get me and Kris the grossest sodas you can make.’

 

‘Ah-- of course. Mr Prince?’

 

‘Lemon San Pellegrino please.’ Ralsei shakes out a cloth napkin with a flourish and spreads it in his lap.

 

‘Right away sirs.’ They turn and leave again. You look at Kris because you can’t look at Ralsei to share a look of this is weird, right?

 

{Yeah, pretty sure that counts as weird. Yay gross soda!}

 

You snort. Of course you like gross soda.

 

{You like gross soda.}

 

Eat your damn mac.

 

‘--And these must be yours David,’ Ralsei continues from a food sorting you were distracted from, and slides a tall stack of styrofoam containers across to you. Your mouth is watering. You crack the one on top open to reveal a glorious, juicy brown steak set in a bed of lettuce with a large handful of fat grilled shrimps on the side.

 

Fuck these fancy men and fuck silverware, and in fact fuck everything that isn’t meat. You pick up the steak and hold it in both hands to take a huge bite. It is delicious. It is warm and rich and tender and fucking meaty, and pleasure fills you like smoke fills a room. You’re glad your hair hides your eyes because they’re probably rolling back into your skull right now. You could die happy eating steak. Kris’s mac and cheese is hot and thick and light and the cheese comes off in strings and when they crunch the croutons between their back teeth they feel like their skull is rattling. Their pleasure doubles on your pleasure and they feel you feeling both of you and you feel that and it expands forever. Your worries are forgotten, the whole world is made of steak and mac and cheese. You didn’t know it was possible to feel this good.

 

You polish the first steak off and suck your hands and monkey gloves clean, savouring every second. At some point during that the rabbit comes back with your beverages and puts them out on coasters and everything but you don’t care because it isn’t steak. The shrimps, too, beckon, glistening under the overhead lights. Hands clean of meat juice you pop one in your mouth. It is buttery and divine and the tail goes crunch. Doing shit for these weirdos is gonna be so worth it if only so you can eat like this always.

 

Kris interrupts your shrimping by drinking some of their soda, which manages to be actually disgusting. You’re impressed, and also laugh at them because they agree that it’s disgusting but also like it. Of course, certain people in your life drink alcohol which is empirically disgusting, but you shove that aside. You’re in shrimp heaven now. No bad thoughts allowed in shrimp heaven.

 

You even eat the lettuce bed because why not. It’s a fine piece of lettuce, especially because it’s been sitting in steak juice. You drink the rest of the juice out of the styrofoam container leaving only a small pile of white stuff in the corner. You scoop some up with your claw and try it. It’s spicy, but not like peppers are spicy. It goes straight through your nose and you cough in surprise. ‘What the hell is this?’

 

Ralsei looks over to see what you’re indicating. ‘Horseradish.’

 

You snigger. ‘You said horseradish.’

 

‘That’s not even dirty!’

 

God, he’s so fucking indignant! You eat the rest all at once. It feels like being punched in the face. What a fucking fancy person food. What a fucking meal.

Chapter Text

After dinner Ralsei leads you up three flights of stairs and down several hallways to an octagonal tower room with padded floors and a lot of windows. For the first time in a long time you feel too full, a slight unease accompanying the nausea accompanying the satisfaction. The mansion is huge, and ludicrously so, and all of it continues to be white: white doors set in white-panelled walls and the pat pat pat of your new boots on the white marble floors echo in the too-empty halls. The sun has all but set outside the floor to ceiling windows, casting the room in blue light that swells into whiteness as Ralsei turns the dial on the dimmer switch.

 

‘I think we should start by just doing magic,’ he says as he pads to the middle of the room with dogged enthusiasm. ‘I think you’ll find that once you get going, shaping it will come naturally to you.’

 

Kris gives a thumbs up. You feel more intimidated than you’d like to admit. You’re generally not good at things. And his house is fancy.

 

{Don’t worry, it’s fuckin easy.}

 

You ruffle. Says you. Asshole.

 

They shrug internally.

 

Ralsei gives a little nod, and then goes over to a closet that blends seamlessly with the walls and drags out a large dummy shaped vaguely like a person with a target on its chest. He closes the closet behind him and stands the target in the middle of the room. He then goes back over to where the two of you are standing. ‘Stand back,’ he says, ‘And observe.’

 

You humour him, going to stand off to one side while Kris goes to the other. Ralsei raises one hand, and around it, a glowing white shape begins to form. It swirls and dances around his hand for a second before solidifying into a long strip of vibrantly pink fabric. He moves his arms to make it spiral down one and up the other, before aiming his hand at the target. Quick as a flash the fabric shoots across the room towards the dummy, and before you’ve realised it there’s a loud ripping noise and then the fabric is back and spiralling lazily around Ralsei’s hand again. The dummy now has a huge slash across its chest, from which stuffing is puffing like ichor. As you watch a small cloud of it drips loose and falls to the floor.

 

Huh. Though you’ve still never been much impressed with wizards. Your claws can do that just fine.

 

‘You see?’ says Ralsei, as the fabric glows and disappears again. ‘That’s my natural bullet patterning that I’ve learned to do a few more things with. I can do it much faster than that, I just slowed it down for you to see.’

 

...That was pretty fucking fast. ‘Show me,’ you say.

 

Ralsei flicks his hand, and in a flash of light another slash appears across the dummy’s chest forming a large X.

 

Okay, you’re beginning to see the applications.

 

‘Since you’re a monster, David, you’ll have a bullet pattern too: a natural shape for your magic to come in. Kris, you’ll probably find it easier to stick to typed magic, though you do have a very unusual magical profile now, so let’s just see what happens.’ He retreats several steps closer to the edge of the room, leaving the two of you room to take a shot at the dummy. ‘Kris, why don’t you go first, so David can have another example.’

 

Wait shit are they going to set the room on fire? You glance at Ralsei as Kris’s hands light up in two blazing fireballs.

 

{COOL}

 

Ralsei does not look concerned in the slightest. On the contrary he beams. ‘Very good! You see what I mean?’

 

Kris is grinning maniacally. They throw their handfulls of fire one after the other at the dummy and even though their aim is shit the fire is drawn almost magnetically to the target, clinging and burning before a little sprinkler pops out of the ceiling and puts it out. You stare.

 

{COOL}

 

Hot. Duh. You continue to stare at the destructive potential you were tossing around like a ragdoll less than an hour ago.

 

They beam at you.

 

‘Your turn, David,’ Ralsei says.

 

You stumble over to stand in a direct line with the dummy. ‘I don’t know what I’m doing,’ you admit.

 

‘Magic comes from inside you,’ Ralsei explains. ‘It’s something you feel. Think about your feelings, and where they come from, and try to push it all out. Push your intent out and into the world.’

 

Right now you’re mostly feeling awkward and stupid. And... your intent is to not be awkward and stupid. But the only thing you’re not really awkward and stupid about is hitting things, which you’re not allowed to do here.

 

You try throwing a punch midair. Nothing happens. Your face flushes dark.

 

‘That’s a good place to start,’ says Ralsei. ‘If fighting motions feel natural to you, they’ll be a good basis for casting. Try again.’

 

You throw another punch. Nothing happens.

 

‘What’s something you feel strongly?’ Ralsei asks. ‘Feelings aren’t the only way to access your magic, but many find them to be the easiest.’

 

‘Um.’ You think, face still burning with shame. Shame is strong. Anger is strong. Anger at having to be here, at not having the resources to throw his money back in his face, because he gets rich parents who like him and you get--

 

You let out a breath. ‘Uh. Anger I guess.’

 

‘Anger works. It can be stressful in the long run to conjure negative feelings every time you want to conjure your magic, but it can work well as a starting point. What makes you angry?’

 

Lots of damn things. ‘This line of questioning.’ You rub your hand furiously on the thigh of your jeans, agitated.

 

‘Well then. There you go. Focus on your anger, and where it comes from. Follow the frustration back to its source.’

 

That one’s easy. This is all stupid and it’s making you feel stupid and you don’t want to be here. You don’t like feeling stupid. You do enough of that already. You don’t say anything, silently glowering.

 

‘Your anger is a beast that wants to be let out. Let it build, and then release it.’

 

You shoot him a glare. Now that you’re actually being told to go the fuck off you find that you don’t know how to do it on purpose. But you hate this, you hate all of this, and hate is anger so you throw another punch at the dummy. Nothing happens. Fuck, this is stupid.

 

‘You can do it, David! Keep trying!’

 

You do not need to be deadnamed right now. You snarl and throw punch after punch like you’re boxing something intangible, trying to force out excruciatingly the will to succeed and put an end to this humiliation. Ralsei’s just watching, Kris is just watching even knowing straight from the source what this feels like--

 

{idk you just sort of set your hands on fire}

 

You stop, staring at your hands and breathing heavy, imagining them covered in flames like Kris’s just were, trying to find it in you to make it happen. It doesn’t happen.

 

‘Fuck this.’ You walk over to the dummy and push it over. ‘Tadaaa.’ Kris does jazz hands to punctuate. You appreciate it.

 

Ralsei hurries over to set the dummy back up. ‘I think you can get it David, if you just keep trying. Maybe we should try a different tack.’

 

You cross your arms, scowling. ‘Maybe we shouldn’t.’

 

‘If you’d rather just try again that’s fine too.’

 

‘I’m not going to be able to do it,’ you spit, loudly in case that helps him get the picture. ‘So we can all keep standing here watching me punch nothing like an asshole, or we can go do something useful with our time.’

 

‘What makes you so sure?’

 

You very nearly punch him. He at least has the decency to wince, probably at the look on your face. ‘I only mean,’ he continues, ‘That most people are able to do at least a little magic. I understand that you’re finding it difficult, but that’s why I think we should take a different approach. Please give it another try.’

 

You snort agitatedly and shake out your hair. Take a deep breath. Imagine an apartment in a big city, a space that's all yours. ‘Okay, fine. What am I doing now?’

 

'Since a passionate emotion didn't work, how about we try a meditative approach? I'll walk you through it.'

 

You puff out a breath. 'Okay, sure.'

 

'Close your eyes.'

 

You do that, rubbing your hand agitatedly against your thigh again and trying not to feel resentful.

 

'Try to relax. Just breathe in and out. Don't worry about getting it right. You have plenty of time, plenty of chances.'

 

You're pretty sure you're gonna blow them all anyway, but you do want to do this, so you try to do what he says. You focus on your breathing: in, out. In. Out. It sure is noisy when it's the only thing you're thinking about. In, out. Just relax. God you're bad at doing that on purpose. Fuck, just breathe, okay. In and out and wait for Ralsei's next instruction.

 

'Find your center,' he says. 'Your soul is at your core. Reflect inwards. See it inside you. It's glowing, full of white magic. White cloth winds around it. It dances and spirals up and down.' You listen to his voice, imaging, inside your dark closet body a glowing white heart, and trying not to think or feel. 'It's the fabric from which your bullets are cut. They unfold like a string of paper men. Like a snowflake.'

 

They're snowflake shaped in your mind, like you bet Noelle's are. You imagine her throwing one like a shuriken, dressed in her gym shorts and skidding like an action hero, before you remember what you're supposed to be doing and go back to picturing your soul. Your bullets wouldn't be snowflakes, would they -- 'They hang and hover around your soul. Casting rests at the core of you--' maybe like, you don't know, dinosaurs? Horseshoes? None of your family are casters, which is terrible at this exact moment but otherwise are very grateful for because oh god that would be terrible-- Ralsei's fabric cut the dummy like a pizza, and you can't do this, you can't defend yourself, you aren't good enough, all you have is your fists, and those can't help you when it really matters, a hulking dark figure trapping you between it and the living room wall--

 

You can't think about that. You're never supposed to think about that. Your mind slips off the particulars like they're buttered and the before and after stick to the roof of your mouth. Snatches of darkness and fists with all the pain and noise and everything you did to fight back erased; floating in your memory like an out of body experience. Your hands clench into fists. God, you're in this stupid bougie magic gym, that's where you are, that's what you're doing.

 

'David?'

 

You've been ignoring Ralsei. You open your eyes and look at him. The room is bright; the world outside the windows is dark. 'Sorry,' you mumble. 'Uh-- can we start over?'

 

'Of course. Take a moment to try to relax again.'

 

You close your eyes and breathe slowly in and out. You're not going to think about that this time, because you're a giant pansy who can't remember a little pain without falling apart. The shit talk centers you, grounds you in reality. You may be a stupid ass bitch, but you're gonna do this. 'Shoot,' you say without opening your eyes.

 

'Look inside yourself. Your soul hovers at your core, at your heart, pumping magic through your veins. As you feel your heart beat, your soul beats in time with it. You can feel it. It's a real thing. And it's ready to help you.' You go back to the dark closet inside yourself, veins stretching like circuit from a glowing white heart. It beats, pumps, and beats run down the circuits and disappear into the darkness.

 

'It's ready to pull magic through you. Here it goes. White fabric pulls out of it. Can you feel it?' You can imagine you can. 'It pulls steadily out. A nice long strip ready to cut into bullets. They peel away from the whole and flutter out like butterflies. They fly around your soul as they charge with energy. They're charging, crackling like sparklers. They pop like electric currents. They're ready. They're flying into your shoulders.'

 

You roll said shoulders, picturing glowing cabbage butterflies fluttering down a dark, circuit lined tube. 'They're flying down your arms. Can you feel them crackle with energy?' You roll your shoulders again.

 

'They're ready to escape. Ready? Aim.'

 

You lift your hand slowly, aiming straight ahead where you know the dummy stands.

 

'Fire.'

 

You imagine pushing a lightning storm of energy out of your hand, butterflies erupting and spilling in every direction, a cascade of white. You open your eyes.

 

Nothing's happened. You stare blankly at the unchanged dummy, and let your arm fall. Your mind flickers between anger and defeat, unsure of how to proceed and mostly feeling quiet, and numb.

 

'That's alright,' Ralsei says. 'Keep trying, David! I'm sure you can get it!'

 

You don't even feel like telling him to stuff it. What if you can't get it? You'll be stuck here forever.

 

God, when was the last time you tried to do something?

 

Ralsei's phone rings. He fumbles and answers it. You watch stuffing drip from the dummy onto the floor. 'Oh! Thank you very much; please have them meet us in the drawing room, we'll be right down.'

 

He hangs up and pockets his phone. 'My parents are home! We'll have to return to this later. Don't worry; it'll all work out fine.'