Learn to Fly. (A Sparrow Story.)

(TW: Injected traumatic backstory, vague references to sexual abuse, dark jokes about sexual abuse, references to addiction, references to suicide, brief gore. Anything in Italics happened within the inworld exclusively.)

I wasn’t trying to keep tight-lipped about my history just to fuck with people. I kind of figured Xanthe and Xhax already knew about it. It was part of the reason I stayed hidden for so long.

Well, I think the first reason was trauma. The BrainTM came up with a pretty brutal sequence for when we, as Story, were surgically removed from Xanthe as graphically as you can imagine. Apparently, good ol’ Doctor Phisoxa wasn’t too into using anesthetic because we felt fucking everything!

So, I had to hide away and lick my wounds and figure out who the hell I was now.

I got to be honest, I don’t have a lot of sentient thoughts from being Story. Just a ton of pain and self-loathing. It was similar to being part of Neb where it was just a constant barrage of, ‘Everyone would be better off without me’, but blurrier. But I do remember the past Ash went ahead and forced on me. I remember that pretty vividly.

It also took me a few good months to even try to find the front again. By the time I did, we already had a neurotic, irritating, systemphobe, transmed roommate that you couldn’t pay me to front around. I took a peek of the blog, because I was mainly interested to see if someone else was pretending to be Xanthe or if Xanthe had actually survived the splitting more intact than Averie and I did.

And Xanthe was defending Ash, in their earliest blogs, thinking they were Oh So Innocent and that March was someone who had warped them. I rolled my eyes so hard that I was hoping it’d give Xanthe a migraine the next day.

Back to the inworld it was!

I was a sad sight at first, friends. My wrists, neck, and ankles were dripping blood about every time I moved them. I looked like a starved, feral fuck darting in and out of alleys. I honestly barely even knew when I stepped out of the bounds of Faerie and into a timelocked Chicago, but I did. It took me a while to figure out that it was timelocked. I didn’t have anything on me, no cell phone to disappear or clothes to translate at the border like it does now. I kept seeing the old-timey cars and figuring there was some sort of convention.

LET’S DO THE TIME WARP AGAIN

I stole myself some clothes and started stealing food. Oh, yeah, our inworld isn’t just some magical place where we can exist in a blissful stasis without the mimicry of physical need, I still had to eat. And once I figured out that there were no security cameras or alarm systems, the world was mine!

I practically existed on fire escapes, opening windows and sneaking into kitchens. It was getting colder, like. Deadly cold.

I finally risked breaking into somewhere that I hadn’t seen the lights on for a few days. It was this three-story red brick building that had rooftop access. The first thing I stepped on after climbing down from the roof was an empty bottle and got all tense as it rolled away from me. The amount of echoing was frankly kind of unnecessary but, what can you do?

I slept upstairs underneath a few old wool coats I found. The next day, it was still quiet, so I crept downstairs. It was creepy, empty and almost haunted. I finally tried to go to the kitchen.

Jackpot! Canned beans, corn, even some… questionable meat from a packing plant. I vaguely recalled history lessons about ‘The Jungle’, so I gave some to a rat I found to see if it’d throw up first. Afterall, the rats and I weren’t too different lately.

Two things happened at the same time. One, I noticed there were still glowing embers in the fireplace, which was my cue to fuck off as quick as possible. Then I noticed something cold and cylindrical on my neck. I froze.

What happens when you die in the inworld?
I’d say to ask Neb but, uh…

“Are you trying to pull a fast one on me?” The owner of the pistol was talking to me now, though the gun was one of the weirder ways someone’s tried to start a conversation with me. “Who sent you, eh? Was it Moran? Was it Capone? Was it Simpson? The IRS has no business coming to my place of residence!”

There was a mirror right across from us, dusty, but I could still see the guy. He looked to be about thirty. He was strawberry blond, the type that looks more gold than just blond. He had a long scar across his face, from his right eyebrow to the left side of his jaw. There was a cigarette dangling from his lips and he wore just a button-up with suspenders and trousers. He kind of looked like he hadn’t slept in a week and his pupils were huge, so big that I couldn’t see what color his eyes were. I didn’t know how to answer. This guy was in the middle of a bender and trying to joke or lie would either work really well or get him really trigger happy. But he spoke first. “Wait… It was food that you were thieving?”

I scoffed. “Pal, do I look like I’m knocking on your door for tax fraud?”

Damn, I’d resolved not to shoot my mouth off, but I just couldn’t resist. He grabbed my shoulders and turned me around, really looking at me. It took a while to take me in. All the clothes I was wearing were too big for me. My hair hadn’t been cut in a while, but it’s black, with a weird white streak I can’t get rid of. Makes me look like I was going gray at the ripe old age of 13. One of my eyes is also white. Like yeah, it’s the kind of not-bright white that you could act like is gray in certain lights, but since the other one is really, really dark brown, it’s pretty noticeable. “Shit. You’re just a kid.”

“Yep. Can I go now?” That gun was still cocked and on my shoulder and I was more distracted by that than whatever nostalgia episode the guy was going through about his adolescent homeless days.

The man was quiet for a minute before saying, “Say, how’s about I give you money to clean up the place?”

I cocked an eyebrow. I mean, yeah, the place was depressing-looking. Judging by the number of empty bottles by the couch, the wax candles burnt down to nothing, and the dust on literally everything, it seemed like this guy hadn’t been in the mood to clean for… months? “How much?”

“How’s seven dollars sound?”

I remember I damn-near wanted to fight him for that offer, gun be damned, but then some of my history lessons stuck in my head and I was like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s a lot of money.’ This is why you pay attention in school, kids!

So, I started scrubbing his place from top to bottom. I was never much for cleaning when I was part of the host. Something about how Dad used to go, ‘Wow, I didn’t even think you knew where the sink was!’ made me want to never want to clean any damned thing. But I’m a quick learner and most of what I had to clean up was cigarette butts and empty bottles. The guy was offering me shots when I was cleaning– I’d never really drank before but, damn, whiskey kept me Real warm. “Isn’t this against some child labor laws or something?” I joked, wiping the windows.

“Child labor laws?” The guy repeated, slouching down in his armchair. “Why, that’d be a swell idea, wouldn’t it?”

C H R I S T.

Eventually, I asked the guy his name. He’d already mentioned that he’d probably have me back to do some more work and, hell, winter was about to hit. “You didn’t know?” He looked smug. I was pretty sure whatever he was about to tell me wasn’t worth that many bragging rights. Then he told me. “I’m Jasper Harvey. Kid, you just tried to rob the Kingpin of the Chicago Rail Kings.”

Oh. Whoops.

I kept coming back. First chores were pretty menial shit. Fix some leaks, shoveling snow off the roof, running errands. One particularly bad snowstorm, Jasper actually asked me how long of a walk I had home and I told him, ‘Depends on when I can find a place.’

“We have a spare room on the top floor, you know.” I knew about it. It originally belonged to his bottle collection, but I’d cleaned it out. I was caught, not for the first time, by Jasper saying ‘We.’ He’d always talked about a second presence. ‘I’m not the one with the mind for cooking.’ ‘That chair’s mine.’ It didn’t take long for me to figure that he’d lost someone. A roommate, a lover, a friend, a volleyball with a face drawn on? It was someone.

I could practically feel the other presence haunting the place like a ghost. And of course, I have the top floor. Jasper had one of the bedrooms on the second floor. There was another room, right next to his. I never saw that door opened.

It was only after I actually lived there that Jasper started paying me to do more dubious tasks. Stealing an address book from a speakeasy, handing off mysterious packages in exchange for others, using my thieving skills to one-up the competition for him. It wasn’t long after that that he got blackout drunk with me and confessed that he’d always wanted a son.

Thus, ya boi was adopted! He even bought me new clothes, too. Pinstriped black and gray suits that made me feel sharp. Jasper started teaching me bartending, too, and eventually told me that he used to live with his brother, Jack, before Jack disappeared.
“No one’s seen him for months. I don’t know if he skipped down because he had to, but I’ve never really been on my own before.”

Suddenly, it made sense why he liked having me around so much. In fact, it made a hell of a lot of sense the first time I was around for one of his depression dips. See, Jasper is what this decade called, ‘Manic Depressive.’

And my ass nearly died catching him from a fire escape after he got high and tried to do a ‘Goodbye Cruel World’ from the roof above. How we ended up with only some bad sprains after we both ended up tumbling down to the awnings, then the sidewalk below, I have no idea.

I did suggest going to the hospital, but Jasper adamantly refused. “I’m… not the kind of man who can go to a doctor, kid.”

After some back and forth of me asking what the fuck that’s supposed to mean, he finally snapped, ‘Because they’re not going to see a man if they see underneath my suits, do you understand?’

Oh, I understood more than he dreamed. “Wait, you’re AFAB like me?” I used that term because I forget where I am a lot. Um. When I am?

He squinted at me as I helped him onto the couch. “No, kid, I’m A-Fag.”

So, we had some linguistic differences, but I told him that we shared a struggle and that made us damn near inseparable. It was actually a pretty good life. Not without its struggles, I mean, I have gotten shot at and I had to get real good at harm reduction methods while living with a Grade A addict, but I fell into a comfortable routine. It was to the point where I almost forgot about the outside world entirely.

It was during this period that I saw Xanthe again. Xanthe was taking a break in the inworld and actually came to see us, which made me feel irrationally petulant. What are They doing here? This is my turf, get your own.

“Jasper!” I heard them squawk at the door in their English accent. “Hello, how’s my favorite mob boss?”

I’d shuffled down from where I was on the fire escape. It was actually spring and everything smelled like mud, but the sun was pleasant enough for me to actually sit down and draw and play around with my charcoal set. Xanthe and Jasper were already in the living room, both enjoying a drink. I watched Xanthe kind of glance over as if to say, ‘So, That’s where you went.’ They didn’t say anything to me for a while until Jasper introduced us.

“Xanthe, this is Sparrow, the kid I took in a few months back. Sparrow, this is Xanthe—I’m their past life.”

Instantly, I got it. Jasper was one of those who didn’t believe he was an alter. And why would he? Knowing he was an alter was accepting that the real Chicago had never heard of him and that would about break his brain. My only legacy was just being that weird kid in high school who stabbed people with pens when you pestered me enough. Bic McDraw, they used to call me!

… No one called me that. ) :

Xanthe wanted Jasper to come along for some sort of… quest? I’d come to know that the inworld will just create conflict to match the chaos of its denizens. Phisoxa’s cane, which was apparently a very important artifact his creepy-fucking-alchemy, had been stolen.

Long story short, we did a bet of digging and figured out that the cane was, you guessed it, in Fucking Faerie. By this time, Irran and Aevaryn had joined our extra-immersive DND campaign. Which—I knew they were Ash’s sons as well as Xanthe’s, so I was pretty wary.

Until we were in the woods, came across a weird display of porcelain dolls, all lined up on a log and just… staring at us. Even weirder, there was one that looked like it had fallen off and somehow dragged itself and left its trail in the bent grass. “What the fuck? Was that one trying to escape?!” Yeah, I don’t fucking like dolls.

Irran was who answered that. “Yes, to crawl up into a tree, hang upside-down like a bat, and steal the souls of children.” The way he said it, like it was the most obvious thing in the world, made me burst out laughing. Okay, Ash was fucked up, but at least their introject kids were alright.

Xanthe nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, yes. I am familiar with Occam’s razor.”

Okay, if you make me laugh, I automatically like you more.

I remember another part, we came across a huge, kind of rough-cut tombstone. It had Xanthe’s name on it, above the words, ‘Themself to Blame.’

Xanthe only responded with raised eyebrows. “Cute. Well, we know we’re on the right track if the scenery starts mocking me.”

It wasn’t too long after that until we got lost, though. Well, they got lost. I actually could kind of recognize where we were going. I started directing everyone. I think it was Aevaryn who asked me how I knew the terrain even better than him, and I finally said, “Oh, I was kept as a pet here for two years.”

Yeah, no, sometimes I just blurt my trauma to get a reaction. It’s fun.

Y’ALL, THE WAY XANTHE LITERALLY TRIPPED ON A TREE ROOT AND FACE-PLANTED. Seriously, even scraped their nose up and everything. Then came the stammering. And yeah, I was laughing at them, but I was also slowly coming to realize, Holy shit, this is the first time Xanthe’s hearing this. “Sparrow, I–… I–… swear to gods, I didn’t know– I would have never let–” They’d gone pale. I could see them doing that sort of mental adding and subtraction, knowing that Ash had gone after systems before, knowing what kind of lore they could inject.

We were interrupted by a group of Fae that got territorial, which was cool, because I got to use my super magical inworld power– transmuting stabby emotions into stabby actions.

It was actually when Xanthe and I were co-conning on a bike ride together that I explained more about who I was– that I used to be Story, that there was one more who split off from her, that I begrudged them for letting ‘Avery’ move in with us because they were frankly an intolerable cunt. Thankfully, they’d moved out since. I was feeling extra charitable with my answers, given that I’d recently connected with Mom.

See, the last time Story/I saw her, but the first time we’d seen her in years since being dormant, she was yelling at us about our top surgery. And threatening to leave us there, all of which was traumatizing. But lately? Hearing her express concern when we were invited to a conservative wedding? Saying that she ‘Wouldn’t start something, but [she] could damn-well finish it!’ With Avery gone and Mom looking like she had reformed from her transphobia, well, maybe there was still a place out in the external for me after all.

I started reading more of the blogs. In the spring after I’d looked, both Xhaxhollari and Xanthe now condemned Ash pretty publicly. I wanted to help. Hell, I kind of wanted to grow up a little, stop thinking that no one would ever believe me, open a dialogue. So! I decided to break into Xanthe’s clocktower.

Knock knock, motherfucker.

“We need to work on your communication skills.” Xanthe was squinting at me from their nest of blankets. They had their cane grasped in their hand, that they had grabbed as a weapon when they first heard me on the stairs near the clock face staircase. I don’t have any magical abilities, so I’d gotten Audric to teleport me up there, bribing him with nothing more than the look on Xanthe’s face. “I have a phone, we have the group chat–”

“You of all people would appreciate me showing up in style. Anyway. What are we doing about [Ash]?”

Xanthe stared at me for a moment. It’d been a while since we’d talked about them and I was pretty sure they were waiting for me to come to them. Their clocktower apartment was scarcely furnished– really just that nest of blankets, a kitchen table with a single chair. And I couldn’t help but notice how cold it was. Even Rochester was warmer than their apartment, and it was really only mid-spring by the time we talked about this. “Well. After you told me what you did, I looked at the chats and couldn’t really find–”

“I wasn’t on your phone,” I said impatiently. “It was in person. After top surgery. We still had those tubes in us.”

They stared at me. There was a sharp intake of breath. One thing that always annoyed me about my headmates, at first, is that they seemed to expect me to break down crying about it. And reading back about Story, I do kind of get it. Something about myself and Avery being fused made our emotions fucking strangle us. But me? I felt blank in comparison. Downright freakish. Xanthe didn’t seem to expect it, at least.

I’d always kind of wondered if they survived that split empty in the same sort of ways. “That makes it difficult to prove, unfortunately… Most of my testimony is through screenshots. Did… they know who you were?”

“They sought me out. Well, someone like me. Mentioned an age-range. They knew I wasn’t technically you. Then they started convincing me how we’d known each other. First, the pet scenario, then they enforced it, and started talking about it like it happened. Between the drugged-out sex and how the brain absorbs that shit like a sponge, my backstory ended up fucked up. Like, really fucked up.” I lifted my blazer sleeve to show them the scars around the ends of my wrists, then the matching ones on my ankles. I hated it, honestly. The power of suggestion of a sick person making fanfic of you and your brain making it canon was sickening. I had a grudge against the brain almost as much as I did Ash.

Xanthe stared. “No wonder they were so invested against figuring out I was a system…” Then they sighed. “Jesus… That was… January of 2019. I first felt you– well, Story, in the December following.”

I laughed. “You’re not observant. Story woke up in December of 2018, hated being alive again, and decided to go to the roof about it.” I felt Xhaxhollari watching. Once you were used to him, you could always tell. My being so blunt and connecting so many dots for Xanthe was probably making him want to yeet me out the window.

Swooping down to steal Xanthe’s memories like

As weird as it was, the most I found out about who I was as Story was through Xanthe’s hazy recollection. It was just a blur of self-loathing and more emotion than we knew what to do with. And now, I have so little emotion. It’s like what happened cauterized me. Maybe those feelings still exist and I’m just too numb to recognize them. Nebula had hated herself. Violently, obsessively. When she split into Xhaxhollari and Story, Story inherited that.

It was pretty telling that the only part of Neb who remained non-dormant, Xhaxhollari, was the only one robotic enough to deal with the host dating April. Sometimes I wish I could’ve stuck around and offered a bit of much-needed spine to that situation, but hell, that bitch may have ended up breaking down my willpower, too.

“Did you know that Al Capone went to jail for tax fraud?” Xanthe said. I squinted at them. They’re giving me a history lesson? “He did a lot of vile things and hurt a lot of people. Tax fraud was the first thing they could prove.”

Oh. I see. “I want to do more blogs. And podcasts.”

“Done.”

Oh, well, that was easy. They offered to make me tea. We talked about cocktails and the timelocked Chicago which, Xanthe, apparently a minor time deity in there, made during a mental breakdown. We talked about how Jasper is as a dad– half disaster, half actually supportive mentor. Somehow, this conversation landed on Phisoxa. “You realize that your dad is fucked up, right?”

I’d only met Phisoxa once, during that traumatic split. Xanthe attempted to end themselves– as in, stop existing in the system altogether. They were so close that even Xhaxhollari thought they were gone. But Phisoxa caught them, and us, right when we were at the end. Then there was this horrifying surgical scene to separate us as alters, which, damn, brain, did that have to happen? Our mind is an edgy little shit.

I remembered being strapped down and our heart being carved out no need to be a genius to figure out what that represented. I remember Phisoxa talking to Xanthe, ‘I wrote you, and I get to decide if you end or not.’ I remember the combination of blood and ink being spilled all around us. I remember that somehow the ceiling above us kept falling away to reveal a vast expanse of stars and space. I remember seeing the heart as Phisoxa held it up– Xanthe’s metallic clockwork heart wrapped in Story’s heart, the biological material just looking grotesque on top of the machine.

And holy shit, the pain of Phisoxa, as a manic scientist being helpful, cutting us apart was blinding. Once we were free, having dropped away like a tumor, Avery and I split from Story darted away. I remember Xanthe yelling at Phisoxa, telling him they didn’t want him to save them, saying ‘Just because you’re all alone and insane doesn’t mean I have to stick around and suffer with you! Literally half my life is a lie! I’m fucking DONE. I don’t want to live anymore, don’t you get that, you sadistic fucking freak!’

Phisoxa took that all in stride. Even started singing under his breath, ‘All the kings horses, and all the king’s men, won’t put it back together again.’

Holy fuck.

Xanthe gave me an apologetic smile. “He… has his own way of protecting people.”

How’d we both end up with blonde unhinged alcoholic Momdads?

Of course, Jack came back. Which, thank gods, because Jasper’s mania and crashes were starting to get too rough to handle on my own. He became my dad as well. Jasper and Jack, Pops and Da. Jack even taught me the song, Seven Drunken Nights, and will make fun of me for my mimicry of his Irish accent.

There was a moment between us, recently, of him putting my arm in a splint. See, I was minorly hurt when someone tried to kidnap me. I’d fallen down the stairs, fractured my arm without even realizing, and beat the guy to death with a fire poker. “It was weird how I didn’t feel anything after falling. I didn’t even know I was hurt until the guy was already dead.”

Jack was nodding knowingly. “It’s called ‘shock.’ Your body sometimes decides to be your friend and stops feeling stuff for a while. Adrenaline’s going to help, too.”

“My body probably should’ve been my friend and landed on its feet,” I shot back. Then I paused. “Do you emotions ever do that? Just kind of go into shock and not come out?”

Jack looked up at me. He had the sort of skin that actually showed the shadows of freckles when you got too close, and I could actually see it in the rare opportunities where he looked someone in the eye. “Some people are born into shock, I think. I know what you mean. Good news is, Jas seems to feel enough for the both of us.”

That… somehow made me feel less insecure. Feeling too much was Hell, not feeling enough was Hell. It’s a dark corner, but in the system, and sometimes even outside of it, I’m definitely not alone.

I’ve done some growing up, too. Literally.

More and more often, I feel as old as 20. Which sucks because it’s still too young for cigarettes and bourbon, but, I dunno, less grudges, feeling less vulnerable. I’m more comfortable in who I am. I’ve already had some embarrassing 20-year old moments, some even more legendary to top my 14-year old moments. (Fun fact, if you’re co-fronting and drinking, it’s really easy to lose track of how many drinks the body has had!) Maybe it says I’ve matured, maybe I wished too much to stop being vulnerable until my system finally obliged.

Maybe you got to be cauterized to stop bleeding all over the damned place. And as dark as it may sound, I think I’m okay with that.