Ǵ̷̟A̵͑ͅS̵͚̆̐͜ͅL̵̝̐͑Á̶̟̃͜M̵̙̊P̸̢̗̍́̂ (January of 2020)

[Mates, this is a dark one. It’s going to be right up there with August 4th and April 27th. TWs: Severe gaslighting, yelling, polycule drama, hurt, spiraling sanity, unfair social dynamics, fighting between partners, hints at possession and loss of will.

As a reminder, I was integrating with an alter named Story during this time, so I will point out exactly when my memory becomes unreliable. But unless otherwise stated, everything in this happened to the best of my knowledge. Arkady is the codename of my partner and Ash is the codename of my metamour and best friend. March is the codename of my metamour’s partner who had been both abusive and obnoxious in the past, but was actually somewhat behaving during these times. I will let you know what is happening in my innerworld as opposed to the external. I would say enjoy, but– well, if I mean something to you, I want you to know what happened.]

The very same day as Ash’s breakdown, I was recovering at Cafe Sasso. I was still applauding myself for being able to write, listen to music, and be in public to distract myself from the terrifying event that had just occurred after an attempt at a talk.

As every writer, I was procrastinating by scrolling on my phone. Kieran had posted a status. I apparently didn’t take a screenshot, but I distinctly remember that it was something along the lines of, ‘Now that my alcoholic abuser is gone, I don’t find a reason to drink like I once did around them. Really, all I’ve had over this past month was a sip of champagne.”

I squinted.

I’d seen Kieran post about his ‘abuser’ before. I’d always sort of assumed it was Buchanan. I’d known that they had dated briefly and that Kieran had several complaints about him, not limited to but included med-shaming, trans-policing, and ableism. But I’d never heard tales of Buchanan being much of a drinker. In fact, the one that Kieran always drank with was–…

I swallowed.

I felt vaguely ill and didn’t entirely know why.

As I was walking home, Arkady texted me to tell me that Ash was feeling better and that they were going to go to Naples together that night. I remembered the story Arkady had told me years before…

The language of, ‘I remember crashing’ refers to another plane, where Ash’s attempt on both of their lives was successful.

Given Ash’s earlier episode, the thought of my partner in a car with Crashy McGee behind the wheel, going to a place where they had no cell service, was more than daunting. “Are you sure? Maybe we could take the night here at home. I’m honestly uncomfortable with you two taking that kind of drive after what happened earlier.”

“Yeah! [Ash] says they’re good now and we did kind of want to spend the whole weekend there.”

There was a bit of back and forth as I slowly walked the length of Crosman Terrace from Monroe, slowing my pacing so I wouldn’t have to end this conversation when I saw my love in real life. I couldn’t quite put into words the growing ominous feeling that something terrible would happen if they went on this trip at all. I finally phrased it more as if it were a magic feeling. That actually worked.

“You should have said that from the beginning!”

“I didn’t know if you’d take a sort of magical intuition that seriously,” I admitted, somehow not aware that magic feelings are the only ones this man took seriously.

“It’s okay, Love. You can trust me with those kinds of feelings.”

They stayed home that night, and went the next day. It took another year for me to figure out how that played into it.

Ash had threatened to rescind their trust in Arkady, then had a terrifying self-endangering episode just after, then the two were going to get high and isolate themselves in a cabin.

The dynamics shifted on that exact weekend through familiar tactics of fear and isolation and I couldn’t even see it.

Xhaxhollari will be routinely scolding me within my head as I type this. It took a long time to even begin to stop blaming myself. Sparrow’s last entry was right– I was going insane and this was less of a failing on my part and more of a cause and effect.

Even as I write this, the temptation to go, ‘If only I didn’t–’ ‘If that didn’t happen, then I could have–’ No. This was a cult. This was unsustainable long before I started to fray, and it still is.

And it was about to blow up in a big fucking way.

~Inworld~

One of the larger misconceptions that I’ve had to clear up is that people are under the impression that since Kaspar is my alter, that our relationship is always perfect.

It is not.

It’s like any other relationship. We’ve had communication issues, we’ve had to work at our dynamic. Hell, the first three months of our relationship had practically legendary arguments that annoyed every single one of our friends. But we were on our fourth year of being together and had grown pleasantly used to one another.

So, it was startling when we actually started having issues again.

I applaud you for having a good amount for teetotalers to drink, my love. Mocktails are horrendously under-appreciated in social circles,” Kaspar was saying. We were having tea in the greenhouse, which was kept heated during the winter. Greenery, vines, and flowers surrounded us– Kaspar usually preferred the poison sort, as to discourage its visitors from plucking anything for themselves. The dome of glass was a frosted shroud to the icy world outside.

Picture something like this.

Mocktails are underrated,” I agreed. “Especially since so many at the New Year’s party weren’t drinkers. I had a little goblin person named [Bentley] who kept coming up to the bar and asking for ‘the good shit’ and then walking away with a wineglass full of cola.” I smiled at the memory. “It was odd, though. As we were setting up, the household kept mentioning, ‘Oh, I feel so bad for Zara to have to be exposed to all of this.’ ‘Oh, poor Zara.’ ‘I just feel bad for Zara.’ Mate, it’s a New Year’s Party. Recovery literally recommends that you avoid those types of events. She made the decision to attend and half of the sparkling non-alcoholic drinks were bought specifically for her.”

I was about to ask Kaspar if it noticed anything off about Zara, but it was checking a mobile phone.

If anyone knows Kaspar, it knows that this is the Princex of Propriety we’re talking about here. Not only that, but Kaspar didn’t have their own mobile. It had a landline phone in its office, literally one of those phones that looked like this:

Because Kaspar is fucking adorable.

If I wanted to reach Kaspar on the go, I’d have to get in touch with one of its partners. Typically, to avoid purchasing cell phone cards, it would just have people reach it through calling whatever partner that would be in the same country Kaspar was visiting. Seriously. I had several different numbers saved for Kaspar. Kaspar Turkey, Kaspar Georgia (USA), Kaspar England– all, as far as I understood it, partners or friends of Kaspar’s. So, the fact that it was pulling a mobile phone out in the middle of our teatime was doubly fucking weird. “Kaspar?”

There was an odd moment where Kaspar looked up again and seemed to realise I was there. It almost seemed startled. “Oh. Oh, dear, me, Lord Henry, I’m so embarrassed! I utterly apologise. Keita has been overset after Kristin cut ties with him. While he’s visiting family in Japan, he’s been contacting me through Marie’s mobile.” Keita’s ex’s name was actually Kirsten, but NPD loves to forget that people we don’t personally care for exist. Kaspar botched her name so often that it was practically a running joke. Kaspar would call her Kristen, Christine, Christine, Kristi– Aberle had been keeping track, for all of our amusement.

It did put Marie’s mobile away. When Keita came home only days later, I’d be well into a sentence when someone would interrupt to ask Keita a question. I’d make a witty observation, be ignored, only to watch Keita repeat it and set the room on fire with laughter.

And I had no qualm with Keita. He was a shy partner of Kaspar’s– altogether pleasant, but Kaspar’s polycule was suddenly treating him like my household in the other plane was treating Zara. It was bizarre.

While staying at Kaspar’s house, I had a dream– Well. I thought that it was a dream.

Sitting atop Kaspar’s frozen backyard fountain was Hemachandra. She was holding a copy of Zeitstuck in her hands, ripping page by page out and letting it drop into the fountain. “You’ve read this, haven’t you?” Her thinly accented voice was condescending as I stood, staring. “Zeitstuck isn’t supposed to fall in love, yet here you are, with your own little defiance. Aren’t you afraid of how the universe will start crumbling down around you? When you pretend you actually belong here?” She was referencing the plot of the book she was now eviscerating on top of the fountain. “You were never supposed to exist, and yet, here you are. A pretender.” She feigned interest at the last ten pages or so.”Oh, and Elisabeth dies at the end. And Elisabeth dies in real life, too. You’re not all that good at taking the hint, are you?”

I thought it was a dream, so I was bold enough to ask, “What does Gaslamp got to do with you?” Then I felt stupid, because Gaslamp is a codename I’d made up, and there was no way Hemachandra would know what I was referring to. “The odd… effect, that creates lynch mobs, that warps people… Is that you?”

It’s a pet of mine,” Hemachandra admitted, perfectly casually. “It wasn’t supposed to exist. Neither was I. The three of us are kin, honestly.” She snapped the injured book shut and tossed it into the bottom of the fountain, leaving it to drown like the title character. “I think I’m more of a twin to you than your [Arkady.]”

I awoke hours later, feeling startled and vaguely annoyed. No worries, though. This same day, I had a date with Kaspar. That would cheer me up!

I dressed myself to the nines– Kaspar had texted me only days before what it was wearing so that I could match its theme. We were going to be dressed in a black and white sort of theme. ‘Vaguely Tim Burton but without the racism,’ is what Kaspar commented.

I walked down their sloping, marble stairs, and– Kaspar was gushing over Keita’s outfit, talking about how much fun the two were about to have on their date.

I squinted. My heart sank.

I checked my phone. Maybe I had the date wrong, it happens.

But no, the meticulous, anal-retentive Kaspar was who was wrong about who had this particular date night.

I was not.

Combined with Kaspar’s Keita-specific disregard for me as well as the odd dream I had about Hemachandra, I was obliged to march down the stairs with a growing feeling of trepidation and outright annoyance. “Kaspar, can I speak with you?”

Kaspar already knew that ‘speak with you’ had the hidden connotation of privately. However, on this day, Kaspar actually chose to address it publicly, in front of Marie, Keita, Zakary, and some other partner of theirs that didn’t stick around long enough for me to remember the name of, decided to discuss this openly. My ears were reddening. “Xanthe, darling, I sincerely apologise for the misunderstanding, but I had promised myself to Keita today.”

I set my jaw. I had the proof right on my phone and I was fully prepared to us it. “Kaspar, my love.” I did notice I was using that phrase with a certain amount of bitterness and tried to reign it in. “We had set plans today.”

Kaspar looked legitimately confused and quite skeptical. Looking back, I couldn’t blame it. Kaspar had everything about its life so organized, all the time, and I had PTSD so bad that I sometimes forgot that I was alive. But I wasn’t wrong about this.

Kaspar sauntered up to meet me halfway on the stairway. It saw the texts of my phone, the ones that promised this exact day was for Kaspar and myself. Kaspar was narrowing its eyes, looking at my screen. I remember after a couple of seconds, it had looked at me with betrayal, as if I had falsified those texts. But as it scrolled and realised that it was its own conversation thread with me, its face straightened and sobered. I feel like I could’ve gotten drunk on the moment where it had known that it had fucked up. “Xanthe, I… I apologise. This is… unacceptable.”

Zakary was narrowing his eyes. Zakary was someone I respected without exactly liking. He was one of the first trans men who ever received HRT in the 1920’s. Not only that, but he’d also briefly dated Sumire, one of my closest friends in the inworld. Apparently, high on his new male status, he had requested a hotel room by saying “Two queens for two queen” in fucking Russia.

“I broke up with him after that,” Sumire would recall. “Little idiot could have gotten us stoned to death.”

Zak stepped forward. “Oh, so you’re going to blow off your date with Keita because Xanthe guilted you?”

I was nothing short of scandalized, mates. “I informed Kaspar that they had standing plans with me and double-booked themselves. That’s called proving myself; not guilting.”

Kaspar would have interrupted Zakary and I bickering, but it seemed to be having an existential crisis while still staring at the mobile. They were stood frozen to the spot, checking and rechecking the information, as if it would slip away the moment Kaspar tore its eyes from it.

Poor Keita seemed distressed, hovering in the doorframe. I went on frantically. “Kaspar, this is what has been happening in the other plane. This effect just… focuses on someone random, and everyone gets defensive about them and forgetful about me or whoever else it’s targeting! It’s the Gaslamp effect I was telling you about.”  

Zakary narrowed his eyes. I was actively resisting the temptation to hit him. “Well, isn’t that convenient. It’s all about you again. Isn’t that why you decided to leave your book all over the fountain?” 

I felt as if the wind had gotten knocked out of me. I could have sworn that was only a dream. I dashed through the door, past an increasingly distressed Keita, and booked it to the fountain. It was true– pages of Zeitstuck, one of the German versions, were embedded into the frozen fountain.

My bones felt like ice. And yes, this was in the middle of Czech winter, but even if it were 90 degrees, I would have still felt just as frigid as those poor torn pages. I stood for a moment, vaguely aware of my breath coming out in clouds on the air, before I walked back inside. “Kaspar. You have security footage of that fountain, don’t you?” 

It did. Despite being disinclined to modern technology in general, Kaspar had incurred a number of stalkers and did monitor its grounds and had a security system installed some years before. We were all gathered in Kaspar’s office, watching Marie speed up and slow down the footage. And there I was– or rather, my white crow was. Apparently, I had been in beast form that night. My bright white silhouette could be easily seen on the monitor. Thankfully, not doing anything to my book. I was actually relieved that the book was visibly being torn apart on the opposite corner of the screen. But here’s where it really got weird– see, the camera’s placement was behind the fountain and pointed towards the door, to where I was perched. Theoretically, we should have been able to see the intruder, or even the top of the fountain. But that corner was obscured by a blacked out spot on the feed, as if it were a glitch. Marie fast-forwarded the feed and saw that it disappeared right when Hemachandra should have. In fact, the image of Hemachandra herself was not on the video. “If the person you’ve been tasked with intruded on property, why not tell us sooner?” Marie snapped. 

“I thought it was a dream,” I half-whispered it, staring at the clump of dead pixels. “She mocked me… about the book. Said I wasn’t supposed to exist. Then I woke up.” I felt sick. 

Kaspar, too, was focused on the screen. “And what did you say the Gaslamp effect is like again, my love?” Its voice was airy and carefully neutral. It was just as frightened as I was.

Zakary was still on his bullshit from before. “I thought you said this was Gaslamp, now you’re talking about someone named Hemachandra. Make it make sense.” he said, as if he were poking holes in something I barely understood myself.

“It is, and she’s connected, but I’m not overly sure how.” Or how I’m one of them. But while Zakary seemed to be under ol’ GL’s influence, I wasn’t going to let him have that little tidbit. 

“It turns the crowds in extreme ways. One person starts getting automatic favour and another one starts getting accused of random shit and left out. It’s the same thing that happened with Koji and Romeo back in ’14 and it damn-near killed Koji. It gets extreme, gaslighty, the misunderstandings are bad, people don’t act like themselves and get hyper-defensive–” 

“How is it solved?” Keita’s voice was always so quiet, but today, it was barely audible. Poor thing looked like what I was going to suggest was tying him to an altar and undoing the curse via a blood sacrifice. 

“It’s actually very easy,” I assured him. “The past couple of times I’d seen it, just communicating extra well seems to make it dissipate. Questioning motives instead of assuming them, making sure everyone’s included– really just good polycule etiquette. And acknowledging that it seems centered around you so we can keep an eye out for it, that does a lot.” I started getting into when I’d seen it happening before– when it was centered on Romeo, then April, then March. I left out that I found it could have been gathering around Zara. 

Keita and I finally compromised to have a triple date, where we both had fun spoiling Kaspar. After all, it wasn’t the date alone I was so desperate to have– just the simple acknowledgement that we had planned it. The rest of the weekend sharply improved. Keita would accidentally talk over me– “Oh, Keita, darling, I think Xanthe was in the middle of saying something. Xanthe?” “Oh, it looks like Xanthe was the only one who didn’t get a cucumber sandwich, let me go ahead and make another! Does anyone else want one as I do?”

This was encouraging. It affirmed even moreso that Gaslamp was around Zara, in my mind. “But Xanthe!” You may say. “You said this was happening in your inworld. Why would you think the same principles applied?” 

And you know why. 

You fucking know why. 

~Outerworld~

All things considered, everything was actually going pretty well in the household, aside from that one incident that I still felt shaky about. A large part of it was that Zara had been in Florida since NYE, which actually suited me just fine. Hell, I was even able to hang out with Ash during this time. Arkady was actually spending equal time between myself and Ash. We were able to go on fun outings– but I was nervous we weren’t in the clear, yet.

With my newfound alone time with Arkady, I tried to speak with him about my inworld ongoings and my trials whenever Zara was around. “It feels like I don’t even exist when she walks through the door. You’ve literally told me you’d go on walks with me before I had to work and I’ve woken up to hear you’re having a nature walk with Zara.”

Arkady frowned. “That’s only happened once, Xanthe.”

“That specific instance, but there are others. And people will talk over me when she’s here, forget to invite me to things. Like, I don’t have a problem with her, but there’s just something about her presence… And everyone snaps at me way too much when she’s here, too.” I wasn’t yet brave enough to mention Gaslamp. After all, Arkady’s first and only experience was with March, of all people. My disclaimer of ‘Hey, the centre of this isn’t necessarily revolting!’ would have been drowned out by echos of “I SEE BONE!” “There’s… too many hints from the universe lately that I wasn’t supposed to exist. And there’s too many signs that Gaslamp might strike again. It even did some fucked up shit in the other plane.”

“Xanthe, I’ve got you.” Arkady stopped getting dressed and stroked my cheek with his hand. I was seated on his bed– he was getting ready for a date with Ash that night. “You’re supposed to exist, you’re supposed to be here with me, and we’re going to kick this thing’s ass.” His voice had softened. I leaned into his hand.

“I’m worried, though. Like… What if I’m treading water, there’s a shark after me, but you keep like, pointing at the fin and saying it’s just a dolphin?” Gods, so many of my ominous metaphors involve water, don’t they? I wished that Hemachandra were stupid enough to show up here– maybe I’d have her on camera, plain as day, for people to listen to me about.

He crouched in front of me. “I’m keeping an eye on it. And I will speak up for you the next time I see you talked over, and I will make more efforts to include you. But I haven’t sensed anything like that and I’m, you know, literally the devil.” Oh, yeah, that was a thing. I’m going to give you a moment to process that…

I am really just the national champion at going with the flow, aren’t I?

And we’re off.

“And besides,” he flashed me a crooked smile. “I’d be the first to punch that shark.”

I smiled back. Well, there would be more of a communication and concentrated effort, at least. The incident of him yelling at me a few weeks ago seemed like a hazy nightmare I’d had once. That was a brilliant start. “Oh, and– did I tell you the Keita drama in the other plane?”

Arkady frowned good-naturedly. “I do not believe I have the spoons for such topics today.” He said it in his ‘bird’ voice unique to himself. It was a gentle, odd cadence that added a fair amount of humour and charm to any old sentence.

The next weekend was January 18th. Zara was back from Florida– all seemed to rejoice but me, who felt like she was about as socially poisonous as a Marilyn Manson stan. You know, accidentally.

It seemed to be somewhat okay, so far. She was staying at her sister’s in town, this time. That at least seemed to cut down on that effect. Maybe, with any luck, this shit would fizzle itself off. Ash even suggested that they would take me thrifting that weekend.

Little did I know, even with my mass amounts of paranoia, I was being wildly optimistic.

I was on a 7am-3pm shift. I was less than an hour from ending my shift when I would receive a text that almost brings me to tears.

Part of me wants to be embarrassed by this exchange below. I want to prep you and say, ‘No, I was obviously over-reacting.’ Or ‘Keep in mind, the context. I wasn’t used to Story’s emotions!’ But as Aberle and Xhaxhollari are pointing out to me as I type, I have spent two years blaming myself for this exchange. Even knowing that this was a damned situation I was walking into, and no amount of ‘What ifs’ could have saved it, it still hasn’t… all the way worn off. And, I mean, objectively, this would hurt most people.

I don’t know what I mean in that first message there. It doesn’t make a lot of contextual sense. My best guess is that I was telling him that we were both in the house when I told him I was getting off at 3pm that day.

Well, they did indeed pick me up for thrifting. I have no proof whether this was Ash’s original plan or if Arkady had just reminded them I existed by asking about me.

And there were so many other ways this could have been avoided. Even saying, “Hey, the roads are bad, and I’m sorry we can’t pick you up. We did plan to but time just got away from us.” That would’ve been fine. Or even “Oh shit, I completely forgot, I’m sorry!”

I still felt upset when I climbed into the car and I was quiet on the way. It was only during my thrifting when I was starting to calm down. I still wanted to talk to Arkady, resolve this, make sure he at least understood that I was hurting and why.

But the tension ebbed throughout the day.

Then, Arkady’s cousin, Indigo, came over to visit. Indigo’s honestly an entire gem. I’m still sad that Arkady forbade him from speaking to me, because we got along. Between the wine and passing stories back and forth with him, I’d nearly forgotten the drama from earlier.

Until fucking March.

As per my narcissistic usual, I kind of forgot he existed until he decided to be a problem.

Until towards the end of the night, I was grabbing another glass of Franzia’s Sunset Blush from the kitchen. Then March came into the kitchen, shuffling and leaning towards me.

I physically shrank back. The fuck are you doing in my personal space? He wasn’t even grabbing anything from the kitchen. It was clear that he was coming for me at the rare times when I’d happened to be alone.

Oh, he let me know. “I know you and [Arkady] were having some issues earlier, and I’m here to help, if you two need it.” It was one of those whispers that seemed to give the illusion of tact but could easily be overheard.

See, that conversation could have only taken place when Arkady was either in the car or shopping. It was a private matter, with at least partially involved the magic of my other plane that Zara was not meant to be privy to. Not only that, but March of all fucking people? Ash, sure. I at least told myself I trusted them. But March?

M A R C H?

I frantically fought off the hot whips of anger and panic pulsing through me. Which, considering Story, that was a whole lot of emotion I wasn’t fucking used to.

I forget what I told March. Miraculously, it was nothing like ‘Fuck off,’ but I think that was only a narrow miracle.

But now I had to go to bed with that knowledge. I texted Arkady about how it was real nice to be cornered by March in the kitchen just to be informed that Arkady was more interested in talking about me than talking to me.

Then Zara would be over for whatever the fuck she wanted to be tomorrow and we wouldn’t get time to talk until the next time Arkady’s and my schedules aligned. At which point, it would already fester, be passed between no less than four people and theorized about. Assumed about.

Gaslamp would want to eat that for fucking breakfast.

My text apparently hit its mark. I was already under the covers of my bed when Ash knocked on my door. “[Arkady] says he wants to talk to you.”

I flashed back to him thundering down the stairs and screaming at me. I was actually ashamed by the flash of fear that struck through me like lightning. “I was going to bed,” I choked out. “And I’m drunk.” Not entirely true, but it was one of the first excuses I reached for. I had been drinking, but on my way to sobering up by the time March had cornered me, if the wave of not-numbed emotions was anything to judge by.

“I’ll mediate,” Ash insisted.

I took a deep breath. Ash had mediated before, during the stupid fight over or not my coat was blue. But that had actually worked out. Maybe it’d work for this, too.

I went up to the attic, where Arkady, and what was to be one of my worst nightmares, waited for me.

Here’s where things get hazy. Bear with me. This is probably in my top three worst moments of my life, tying with that time I saw my friend’s spouse’s mangled body in a river.

Ash sat in between us in this dimly lit attic, summing up what they thought the issue was. I don’t remember how accurate they were– I’m under the impression it was close enough.

I started explaining my issue with being told I was being left behind. Arkady, at one point, called me a ‘fucking prick’ with all of the disgust and violence he could muster under his breath. It felt like he’d just kicked me under a table.

I remember we’d stumbled on this day’s events, and the exact point where it turned, I remember this clearly– is when I said, “You know that’s what freaks me out about Zara weekends–”

“What’s this about Zara weekends?” Ash interrupted sharply.

“Yeah, so–” My dumbass was like ‘I’m glad you asked!’ I took a breath. “During Zara weekends, it seems like I’m always fucked over or ignored in some way. I’ve been noticing a long time before this and it basically makes me feel like I’m not supposed to exist.” I explained how odd it was that everyone kept repeating the tragedy of Zara choosing to go to the NYE party, I explained how fucked it was that she was given a whole-ass key without even discussing it with the entire household. This lasted… only thirty seconds, I wager, before I got to the part where Ash had forgotten me and locked themself and Zara in this room and came down high as a kite and–

“I’m not doing this.” Ash stood. Another flash of fear bolted through me. Arkady was far from calm and the mediating third party was fucking abandoning the situation. I think they said something else. Maybe I said something back. That part’s blurry and inconsequential. But it was crystal clear when Ash raised their hands and walked out of the room. I know, because in that odd moment, I was scared of Arkady. All of my senses zeroed in, just in time to hear Ash say this, “All I know is that our friend no longer feels welcome here.”

I froze. My eyes were wide.

Of course, Zara staying at her sister’s wasn’t a welcome fucking surprise. It was an omen. A condemnation, a judgment, something to be spat back in my face.

Not only that but– “All I know–”

It felt like I was having eight different flashbacks at once.

Cecil: “I know your husband doesn’t like you saying that” about something that was just fucking said in a session.

JaK: “I know that’s why Prosper’s been suicidal” about something that was just fucking realised when he and Sound were alone.

April: “I know you love them more than me.”

My pulse was hammering so hard that I could see the veins in my eyes pulsing.

Christ, why did the attic look red-lit on some pulses? “Did you just hear that?” I asked, panic making my voice crack. “They said they knew Zara felt she wasn’t welcome here! How could they know? How the fuck could they know? That’s what kept happening when everything was falling apart in the other other plane!”

“No, Xanthe, they said they think that Zara might not feel welcome here!” Arkady argued sharply.

I couldn’t believe what was happening. There was no audio interference. He had been the same distance as I when Ash said it, clear as fucking day; he should have heard it.

After all, who the fuck dramatically walks out of the room with two whole passive-qualifiers?

“They did NOT!” I was on my feet, walking toward him, trying to see if there was some physical sign of Gaslamp. Because otherwise, my entire world went fucking crazy, and my husband was gaslighting me about something we both fucking witnessed.

“YES, THEY DID!” He was on his feet as well, raising his voice. He seemed so fucking sure.

“YOU’RE LITERALLY LYING TO ME.” Christ, I was yelling at him. I was yelling back at him. We were yelling at each other. What the fuck was happening to us?

“I AM NOT.”

I honestly can’t really tell you what our body language was doing. He would say later that I was walking toward him while he was backing away. It’s possible, and that apparently made things worse for him. We were both scared. Terrified. Of what was happening, and that neither of us could seem to fucking stop it.

I think that was the last thing that was said before Arkady darted downstairs. Which, honestly, was the best solution either of us had come up with.

I sank to the floor, seized by a combination of hyperventilating and weeping. I was wracked with guilt and so fucking scared. Story’s emotions were pumping me through more than what I could handle– I was feeling the emotions of two people, and I was much more used to numbness than she was. It felt like it would literally tear my body into shreds. Gods, why the fuck didn’t I feel like myself?

This all seemed like a fucked up nightmare, something that’s never supposed to happen. It seemed like something I would have thought up on a worst-case-scenario only for Arkady to gently tease me and say it was absurd that this would ever happen.

I felt sick. I felt horrified by what had just happened, and what this meant for the rest of my life. Even as I’m writing this, my brain betrays me by desperately poking into where this could have been avoided. As if I can just find the secret to unravel a timeline that’s already fucking happened. What if I didn’t go upstairs that night? What if Ash had never walked away? What if I never allowed March near me? What if what if what if what if–

Arkady and Ash eventually came back upstairs. At this point, I was curled alongside the wall. I couldn’t stop crying. I didn’t know who Story was, or what she was, but she seemed a fucked up part of myself that was causing me to feel so much more fear and pain than I was ever used to.

I don’t remember what was said, really. The tones were gentle from them, I know that.

I asked for a glass of wine. See, whenever I felt Xhaxhollari– without knowing who or what he was, I felt uncomfortable with the ‘Not Me’ feeling, I’d have a glass of wine. Or five. It drove Xhaxhollari further from the front. I’d feel like me. And, you know, trial and error, I figured it’d drive Story away, too.

My personality, for whatever reason, for better or for worse, was always the most easily found at the bottom of a bottle.

I shakily asked for a glass of wine. It was brought to me and I downed half of it like it was water.

You’d better believe that was brought up later.

As much good as it fucking did me. Both Sparrow and Averie/Aelaris– who had split from Story– like to drink, so I was probably just inviting Story along.

At one point, Antari, Arkady’s cat, put his paw on our thigh. We– (And I really don’t know if it were Story or I) felt something on our bare thigh and, you know, as a sexual assault victim that was Deeply triggered quickly pushed Antari off. It was nothing that harmed the cat but, again, that was brought up later.

Ash did admit that I was who heard what they said, but failed to see how that had any significance. “All I know is that our friend no longer feels welcome here.” Arkady will either admit they said that or deny it completely, depending on who’s fronting in his system.

But– for the rest of that, I was completely switched out.

Story, I’m told, apologised for everything. I only remember vague flashes of clinging to Arkady and him clinging back, us both crying and clinging desperately to each other. Story got to enjoy most of that. I have to really focus to remember that even happening.

I don’t apologise for feeling bitter about that.

That night was probably the final push I needed to spiral past the point of no return. Because, like I said, sometimes I obsessively pinpoint things. That was my point of no return.

Because Arkady and I would have good days after that. Loving moments. Ash and I would too, actually.

But they were limited, from then on. A countdown was begun.

And I couldn’t see that. I couldn’t fucking see that. I still had hope that this was salvageable, and I would keep trying to salvage for nearly seven months after that.

But if the next day is any indication, my subconscious sure as hell already knew what would happen.