Bird Cage (April(-ish) of 2020)

[Trigger Warnings: Branding, sexual assault, isolation, psychological disintegration, existential issues, persecutors, a lot of painful stuff. Sorry, this is another dark one. Also, upon researching this, I did realise and point out when DID had fooled me about what the date was in which most of the inworld portion had happened.]

Imagine agonizing, for months, about how the fuck to track down a dangerous enemy; knowing she had no known contacts and not even a known location.

And then she just fucking sends you an embossed invitation to dinner. Aberle looked at it, turning it over in his hands. “I have to hand it to her; this is the most elegant execution notice I’ve ever seen. I’m not even the one she’s flirting with and I’m blushing a little.”

I laughed. Yep, engraved filigree, a wax stamp with a cat eye, a ‘Countex’ preceding my name. My tormentor was officially giving me kinder attention than my partners combined had recently, which was undoubtedly giving me a complex. “I never did shy away from attention. I get that this is a trap, but credit where credit’s due.”

Aberle nodded. “So, what’s the plan? She’s losing the element of surprise on this one. And there’s been nothing we’ve thrown at her that has actually worked.”

“Ye of little faith.” I’d carried around this new addition to my arsenal, hoping that she would come to surprise me again. Firstly, I’d borrowed Phisoxa’s cane– a beautiful, arcane-looking silver relic that appeared to be holding a soul orb in a dragon’s talon. Because that’s precisely what it usually held. Generally, any soul would do. Or any power source that could be condensed into the size of a soul. Phisoxa preferred using one of the first non-human souls she’d ever stolen, but I’d gotten something special.

Picture this, but more ornate.

See, Demetri Lengston, the Methusilla prince, had casually mentioned that he had a sort of pocket dimension in which he eventually planned to trap his brother in the assumed eventuality that he would win the war between them for the Methusilla crown. He’d mentioned it, off-handedly, years ago. I would always remember it because it was funny to see his brother, Dominic, actually look visibly nervous at its mention. So, I’d gone to Demetri’s house some weeks before and asked him about it.

Sleep deprivation and pure stress had eroded away my tact, so I’m standing in the foyer of this centuries-old vampire that didn’t even like me, going, “How much would it be to borrow your pocket Hell?”

The Methusilla always cracked me up– it seemed as if they always had a glass of red wine, poised to sip it to punctuate their sentences in order to look more seductive/intimidating/a pleasing combination of the two. Demetri was stereotypically Methusilla vampire. Silky black hair, down to his knees, draped over him. Ice blue eyes, an aquiline face, porcelain pale skin, wearing a suit that could’ve been made for a rich man anytime between 1890 and 2050. “The question isn’t quantity. It’s what you’re willing to pay.”

Not even going to lie, I just googled ‘long haired vampire’ and I found what was almost definitely a reference image of Demetri that April had sent me ages ago.

I figured this would happen. It seemed like anyone over the age of like three hundred started role-playing a sphinx anytime a favour would be asked. I was expected to rattle off some specific forms of payment, carefully curating what I was willing to lose. But I was tired, and I wanted this over with. “Name your price.”

“You made a deal with Demetri Lengston? And didn’t even haggle? Xanthe!” Aberle didn’t even try to hide his gaping. He paused. “What did you trade?”

“He basically said that myself and my time-bending powers owe him an undisclosed favour in the future. But to worry about that, I actually have to, you know. Have a future.” I waved the cane in front of him.

I’d taken it from Phisoxa’s grave, which felt in bad taste, but the cane was such an effective conduit for my soul specifically that the earth hardly ever settled from all the times I’d had to dig the count up. “Sorry, you don’t mind me borrowing this again, do you? You could always will it to me like a reasonable creator, and yet, here we are.”

Instead of one of its usual souls, the orb of the condensed pocket dimension was a light-sucking vanta black. “He says if I just touch her and soul-bend the dimension and her together, it’d pull her in. Though I’d have to leap out of range pretty quick; he says it’s hungry for anything alive.” I shrugged. “I figure I take this as an accessory. She’ll probably recognise it to be Phisoxa’s cane, but won’t know anything about pocket Hell.”

Aberle nodded slowly. “What will she even want from you?”

“Well. I’m really hoping for a drink.”

I snapped back from my inworld when I heard a knocking on my door. As it turned out, Ash was, in fact, capable of knocking now that my ostracization had cost them contact with Sparrow/Story. “Can I come in?”

I glanced at the date and time, as was becoming habit. It was a little after eleven in the morning, two days after I last remembered looking at the date, which wasn’t a great sign. I surveyed my tiny room. The birds had gotten moved back into my room and, to ensure the cat wouldn’t murder them, there was now a hooking lock on my door. Unlike most locks, it lacked the benefit from keeping anything human out while I wasn’t there and made me feel vaguely like I were the caged bird. My rat cage and my bird cage had taken up the vast amount of floor space that wasn’t already occupied by my desk, chaise, and bed. “Yeah, go ahead.”

I was standing at the door, if that gives you an idea of perspective.

Ash came in. They had some of their embroidery that could always be seen in their hands. They moved cautiously within my room, as if picking through a structure that was on its way to crumbling, before they took a seat on my bed. “Xanthe.” They actually made a show of looking me in the eyes. “Are you okay?”

I laughed. Well, I just saw Jane making out with [March] earlier, further cementing the idea that you can’t live here unless you bed King Putrid. I’ve spent the past four weeks in my room, occasionally Googling suicide methods that make it look like an accident, while people on social media congratulate me on being lucky enough to isolate with *my* polycule. I realise that this situation is fucked, but if I’m not the scapegoat, then [Arkady] will be. And I’m just praying that it’s not sustainably fucked so that this can end soon. “Just peachy,” I said aloud.

They frowned, catching my sarcasm, or perhaps too late realising how ridiculous of a question that was. “This has been hard on [Arkady], too.”

I took a seat on my chaise again. I was trying to do the bare minimum to combat depression by making sure the chaise was my daytime lounge and the bed was strictly for nighttime. “Yeah. And I can’t do anything about it. Though I was contemplating maybe ordering him Insomnia Cookies? That way he can have a pick-me-up and, you know, not have to deal with me?”

Ash frowned. “He might see that as love-bombing.”

Well, there goes that idea. I slumped in my chaise, already exhausted with the day.

“Sometimes it’s hard when the best thing you can do in a relationship is nothing,” Ash offered.

I glanced at them. I didn’t have it in me to correct the ‘in a relationship’ part, though they knew damn-well.

They frowned again. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“If… [Arkady] doesn’t end up getting back together with you, what will you end up doing?”

Why, have you been going through my search history? Though, looking back, I wouldn’t have been surprised. I made sure to pause as if I were contemplating my answer. “I figure, take all the funds I can, sell almost everything I own, and try to move to Europe. If I find a job and can start over, great. If not, I’ll just– I dunno. Get drunk in all of the capitals of Europe until–…” I blackout and fall into a river and drown, preferably. I’ll have so many amazing and extravagant selfies that no one will think it’s what I was aiming for. “Until I’m right back where I was before I met you two, essentially. Sans Savannah, I mean.”

Ash nodded slowly. The last time the silence was this tense, they’d ordered me from the room. And I really didn’t put it past them to kick me out of my own room. “Look, whatever happens, I do still care about you.” Two sets of emotion bloomed in my periphery; acidic bitterness and cool ambivalence. Guess which was Story’s? “And… I don’t want this to end badly. We know a lot about each other, and both of us would have a lot on each other if things turned nasty.”

I stared at them. Yes, I did indeed catch the subtle threat, but this was getting into TV villain territory. Was this conversation really happening? And what blackmail material did they really have on me? Yeah, I’m apparently slowly going insane, but if people want to hate me for that, I don’t know what to tell them.

“I don’t want it to come to that.” They looked at me.

“Well,” I said slowly. “I don’t think it’ll come to that. You and [Arkady] made me promises, after all. I do trust you to keep to them.”

Ash fidgeted with their septum ring, a common move where they pushed out their upper lip and curled it to rub against their jewelry. I always thought it made them look vaguely like a rabbit when they did it. “You know, there’s a quote a really like about promises. It goes,__________”

That’s not redacted, by the way. They repeated this line to me three separate times and my brain refused to absorb it. It went something like ‘My word is true until the circumstances change but that doesn’t mean I’ve broken a promise’, but worded more elegantly and probably by some long-dead author who likely used it in response to an affair being found out.

“Mmm,” was my only reply. The threats were cast in the room like dice, but we wouldn’t see how they would fall until months later.

I dressed well for the occasion. I was reasonably certain that I could be buried in the outfit, so why not? A brocade vest, my drama-magnet velvet frock. The address was in the basement floor of a Parisian inn. Oh, yes, the fact that it was an inn made me raise an eyebrow. It was even exposed brick floors, for fuck’s sake.

I remember that there was a roaring fire. Nothing else lit the room but that. Got to give points for cinematic detail. There was already a small feast set up. I was trying not to look directly at it– I’d already made the decision not to eat. The food was likely poison. Granted, that would be a really convoluted way to kill me, but I’d feel utterly stupid if THAT took me out. There were sealed bottles of wine, lining the walls on the shelves; this must’ve been a wine cellar when it wasn’t a private dining room.

“Xanthe.” Hemachandra seemed legitimately pleased to see me. I have to admit that I felt an odd, hopeful pang. Someone happy to see me?

“Hello, hello,” I said, breezily. “All of this set up just to kill me? I’m so flattered.”

“Oh, you poor little clock. You never can tell when someone’s saving you or trying to kill you.” Would I even know? She might have a point. I didn’t like the fact that she probably did. “I do apologise, by the way, for the less than ideal meeting place. I’m sure you’ll be able to resist wine for one cordial meeting.”

One of my favourite scenes in the season 5 of Peaky Blinders featured Oswald Mosley, a fascist prick, telling Tommy Shelby to ‘drink less.’ And Tommy immediately responds by finishing both Mosley’s and his own drinks.

Perhaps the British gangster and alcoholic wasn’t who I should have taken inspiration from, but, you know, here we were.

“Little helpful hint, I don’t usually go for patronizing.” I swiped a bottle of wine off the shelf. The label was in French, but the wine was red, so I figured I would like it. “I’m humouring you, by the way. I’d love to hear how possessing my loved ones, beating Sumire into a pulp, and batting me around like a cat toy is ‘saving me.’” I took a key out of my pocket, stabbing it into the cork. My hands were shaking, but I was managing okay– fuck, I broke the cork in half down the middle.

I took a swig anyway.

Chandra took a seat beside me. A whole long table and she took the seat directly beside me, not even across from me. What a power move. “In Zeitstuck, in the book you wrote, the angel of truth makes you realise that you’re dead. Though even though lacking a pair or three of angelic wings, I’m going to tell you more of a truth than the other angel.” She was leaning towards me, now. As if we were old friends or… more. Every muscle in my body was tensing. “Xanthe, you’re dying, and you Will die unless you see the truth.”

“What is the truth?” I asked sharply.

If you’ve ever done any research on systems before, you’ve probably run into the term, ‘Persecutor.’ This is far from the first I’d encountered. Before her, it was Anifayre. Before her, Cynbel. Nebula had Selene. I now have JaK and Ritual. Essentially, persecutors serve as the antagonists to specific alters. Most commonly the host, but the general pattern is a persecutor mimics the pattern of abuse the system has been exposed to so that it can be an internal– and so we don’t become too safe, too complacent.

Hemachandra was a persecutor.

She wasn’t lying when she said she was trying to help me, but damn, she really could have gone about it any other way.

I wish I could remember most of the conversation. Bloody Archangel Amnesia over there stole away about 90% of it and refuses to give it back. I do remember that she was telling me about Xhaxhollari. I’m vaguely under the impression that she was telling me that Xhaxhollari motivations involved protecting everyone, and that he would sacrifice me to do it.

(Throughout writing this, I’d asked Xhaxhollari yes or no questions of what was said. He’ll only confirm vaguely, but that’s what we’re working here, folks.)

I remember only that I gave sharp retorts at first. “That sounds no more different than my roommates’ rhetoric,” I’m guessing I said, because I’m tempted to say it now. In keeping with the rest of my dialogue, trust that it was witty and biting. Profound, really. The world is really missing out by my having the memories of my glib comments erased. But then, something she said made sense.

She began to talk about Gaslamp, how it was there as a manifestation rather than a cause. How I was an answer to abuse, an equal and opposite reaction to April. That Story and I could have fused successfully if everything had stayed stable in our new family life, but now one or both of us would probably end up dying.

I remember that after a while, I went quiet.

This was making sense. Too much sense.

She started talking to me about this world and how it worked.

I wish I remembered what exactly what she said, what combination of words that it took to get me to come to the conclusion that,

holy fuck

Could this all be in my head?

My wine bottle was empty. I’d started panic-drinking it halfway through her talking, straight from the bottle– Kaspar might’ve fainted if they’d seen.

I wanted to afford myself a small tantrum. To stand up, to throw the empty bottle in the fireplace, to watch the shards explode and catch the flickering light. But when I tried to get up, my muscles just wouldn’t obey me.

“I haven’t–” I was trying to say, ‘I haven’t had that much to drink,’ trying to defend myself after having gotten too used to Ash. But the words were stuck in my mouth. Bewildered, I stared at the bottle of wine. Yes, sure, I’d chugged that bottle as if it were water, but there was a reason I’d made a single bottle my limit.

“Xanthe, dear.” She’d been calling me pet names all night. It vaguely annoyed me, but this was the first time it brought utter chills from me. “I’ve proven to you that I can get into even your friend’s high-security workplace. It didn’t occur to you that a winery wouldn’t be safe?”

Oh.

All the magic in her disposal, and she fucking drugs me.

“You fucking cunt.” The words were catching in my throat, but I’d like to think it was still audible. She did raise her eyebrows, at least, as she leaned over me.

Her lips pressed to mine. It didn’t even seem meant to hurt me, was the odd thing. She sighed into my mouth as if she did, in fact, love me. I tried to back away, feeling only the pressure at my back from the chair beneath me as a sign any vain effort was being made.

“I know you haven’t been wanted in a while. This must feel new to you, after so long.”

Oh, fuck you.

My lips couldn’t even move anymore.

I heard the distant ting of the silver cane hitting the floor as Chandra pushed it out of the way.

Anything that can happen in the outerworld can happen in the inworld.

Anything that can happen in the outerworld can happen in the inworld.

Anything that can happen in the outerworld can happen in the inworld.

And it feels the exact same.

If this were a film, there would be a tasteful cut away. Probably with Morgan Freeman lamenting what he wished he could tell you. But it’s not, so I’ll just let you know my thoughts.

How fucking dare you. Just because I’m heartbroken doesn’t mean I have fucking STANDARDS.

Holy fuck if I can just get that cane.

Stop.

Fucking STOP.

If I can just get to that cane.

Fucking stupid alcoholic, she probably knew from the very beginning that you couldn’t resist wine. You drunk arrogant waste of space, you dense bastard, you self-martyring piece of shit.

I looked at the mirror. There was a trick I could do– a rather risky one– wherein I opened the door to Phantasiae. I wouldn’t have to physically move my body to be able to do so.

Phantasiae– yes, literally pronounced like ‘Fantasy’ but more pretentiously, was an alternate universe wherein all of the different incarnations of Thysia resided, and where the living ones had access to. It was the space between ‘life and death, fantasy and reality.’ Basically, an afterlife. I had allies, there. And the world itself was a conduit for my abilities, so if I could just tear open a rift.

It was insanely risky. Not only did it require me to basically tear open this universe to reveal another, but it involved me staring into my own eyes in the mirror, while using my soul-stealing abilities. Which risked me basically tearing my soul apart.

But. You know. At this point,

fuck it.

Xhaxhollari:

Something jolted me awake. The room was dark, the curtains blotting out all possible light so that the birds could sleep comfortably.

I have to admit, I’d always nearly hated fronting, but with how shaky Xanthe had been, I was needing to cover the front more and more often. It was like 2015 all over again. I’m not a social person as it was and the ostracization at least gave me the excuse to start catching up on all of the Pokémon games I’d missed throughout the years.

When I say that there was an alarm going off, an inaccurate set of senses comes to mind. I didn’t quite hear anything as much as I just simply sensed it. It’s very akin to the brief second between an injury and the resulting sensation of pain.

I searched into the inworld. It wasn’t difficult to find the problem– what Xanthe was going through and discovering was practically a beacon.

I could see flashes of the situation as I made my way there. The wine had been drugged, Xanthe could barely move. Chandra was talking to Xanthe, kissing them, among other things. Xanthe’s weapon, Phisoxa’s cane, was out of reach. Chandra was discussing myself, Gaslamp, how this world works, how it all centered on Xanthe’s outerworld life– And on top of that, Phantasiae opened up.

The inworld was eating itself out of sheer stress. This was 2015 all over again.

The force of the massive amount of energy used to open up the world had acted like an explosion in that basement level. Xanthe was crumpled in a heap on the floor, just a pile of black velvet, their top hat rolling across the exposed brick floors. Hemachandra was stunned, though quickly recovering, snarling, then paused with a sudden pained look. I could see blood trickle down from her ears and nose.

Phisoxa.

Phisoxa had long-ago mastered weaponizing anything that had hurt her. Scars from a fire marred nearly half her face, so she had learned to control flame. He’d had half of his soul stolen, so learned how to steal from others. By the time he had died in 1827, he had been ailing from a blood disorder, so, of course, he had learned to control that too.

Phisoxa always looked an intimidating figure. Even when he was alive, the gauntness of his pale face and his eerie golden eyes made him look ghastly. His old burn scars were shining in the firelight as he stepped out from the mirror, glancing coldly at Chandra as her blood seized in place. He glided gracefully across the room, seemingly towards Xanthe, at first, but then I watched him pick up the cane that was still barely out of Xanthe’s reach. “I’ll be taking this back,” he said simply.

He paused for a moment before reaching out for Xanthe’s hand. I almost thought it was an uncharacteristic comforting gesture before Phisoxa reached out and grasped Hemachandra’s wrist as well. It felt as if the air in the room was being sucked away– I realized after a tense moment, especially after Chandra slumped forward, that Phisoxa was transferring the unnamed drug in Xanthe’s bloodstream to Chandra.

That’s when I made my move. The new revelations and the fresh sexual trauma were best removed, especially in the state that Xanthe had been in. I was most of the way through, locking the memories away in my own personal vault, before Phisoxa stared right at me.

No one should have been able to see me, but he did.

My memory siphoning was stopped in its tracks as he gripped my soul with his own. Phisoxa pulled me forcibly into a more corporal form, which made me honestly want to throw him and every single one of his unholy abilities out the window. Xanthe, still wobbly from either the effects of the drug or the extraction, stared at me. “What–… the hell–… were you just doing?”

Phisoxa laid a steadying hand on Xanthe’s shoulder as they stared at me. “I–”

“How long were you here?”

Phisoxa answered for me. “He arrived one second before I did.” I didn’t like that Phisoxa knew that, but at least I had a collaborative witness.

“What the fuck were you just doing?” Xanthe asked again. They were still trembling, looking positively sickly, but with more strength as Chandra slid completely to the ground. Phisoxa unceremoniously released her arm, letting our foe fall face-forward.

Almost all eyes were on me. I never was particularly good at lying. “I… You’d–… been through a lot, just now, so I thought you would be better off, if–”

“That’s not the first time you’ve done that, angel boy,” Phisoxa observed. “Far from it.”

I felt oddly irate about this. Hell, most of my role, my reason for existing, was to operate on an unseen level, and Phisoxa just comes out of nowhere to sabotage it. “As if Xanthe hasn’t stolen memories as well.”

Xanthe narrowed their eyes. “With permission!”

“Except that one time? With JaK?” This is where I fail as a gatekeeper. Occasionally, my need to win the argument overrides my duties.

Xanthe stared at me. “That was in 2014… You’ve been doing this since 2014? Or before?”

God damn it. “Xanthe, you would literally go insane if you remembered everything. This is a necessity. You have literally just been assaulted; I am doing you a favor.”

“I choose what I get to remember, asshole!” Xanthe said, about as oblivious as any host could be. “Hell, part of what Chandra was talking about was you! Was that what that was trying to do? Stop me from knowing that?”

“To stop you from breaking!” I snapped back.

“Mate, that ship has sailed!” Xanthe, of course, was laughing, but they truly had no idea. “Why is it you who gets to decide, eh? You might as well fucking lobotomize me, try to cure my personality that way!”

Xanthe was in a state and I should have realized before I started getting into it with them. It didn’t quite stop me from being just as abrasive as them. “Oh, Xanthe, believe me, there is no cure for you.”

I should stop arguing. I should really stop arguing. But hell, both Xanthe and I were distressed and our personal flaws were attacking each other like rabid dogs. I should have noticed how dark their veins stood out on their skin. I should have noticed how bloodshot their eyes were. I should have noticed the ink-black blood pooling in the gaps of their teeth. But then they said something so utterly foolish that my focus forsook everything else. “You don’t get to decide that! You don’t get to decide fuck-all, you controlling prick! In fact, I wouldn’t put it past you to even take over my own body without my permission!”

I laughed harshly. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t just say that.”

Gods, it got so tempting to tell them. That I’ve been the thin barrier between them and ruin for nearly a decade. But then they coughed up an alarming glob of blood, and well, that was quite the effective conversation killer. Xanthe curled, grasping onto Phisoxa’s arm as they doubled over onto their knees.

Fuck. They just opened up a portal to Phantasiae. That’s dangerous even on a good day. Phisoxa crouched with them, furrowing his brow as they felt along Xanthe’s sternum. “Where is your watch?” he demanded.

Xanthe was swallowing rapidly to try to clear their lungs. “I– Chandra, the– Thames. She cracked it and it stopped.” They laughed then, something that sounded both maniacal and pitiful with how narrowly they avoided choking. “My heart stopped!”

I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes. How into their own mythology they could become when they were in one of these moods.

Phisoxa looked at her creation, then towards Chandra. She nodded slowly and twirled the cane in her fingers, then suddenly struck Chandra with it. At first, I was wondering if Phisoxa was getting a few licks in on behalf of Xanthe’s suffering, but I felt a shift in the air and knew that Phisoxa was sucking Chandra into that other dimension in the cane. I knew that this paritcular weapon came with a warning. I was a safe distance from its indiscriminate capturing and Phisoxa, yes, was technically a ghost with benefits. But as those shadowy tendrils reached from the orb within the cane, blindly seeking, I realized Xanthe was still well-within range. “Xanthe, get back! It goes for anyone aliv–”

Xanthe was stunned, watching Chandra disappear into the orb, silent and drugged by her own design. The black shadows had merely leaned towards Xanthe, as if that limited sentience had thought they’d seen something living, but decided it was mistaken.

Then they just simply disappeared.

We all stood in silence for a moment.

Xanthe felt across their own chest, then neck, brow furrowed. I didn’t have to be in their thoughts to guess that they couldn’t feel a pulse. Their breathing, still present, was shallow in vague, uncomprehending horror.

“This is bad,” I whispered. I didn’t understand what was going on and that horrified me more than anything.

Phisoxa stared down at his child, expression unreadable. In a swift motion, Phisoxa removed a pendant from his own neck and looped it around Xanthe’s. It was a watch, not at all like Xanthe’s, a smaller one that was a champagne gold. Phisoxa crouched down further, taking Xanthe by both of their shoulders to stare them in the eyes. “This will help but it will be temporary. You need your own. Do not take it off or I will feel it.”

Xanthe nodded, then choked up another round of blood. They squeezed their eyes shut, then finally fell backwards in a faint. Phisoxa caught them with one arm, drawing his fingers across Xanthe’s throat. Satisfied to feel some semblance of a pulse, Phisoxa looked up at me. His pale face was spattered with Xanthe’s blood. “Don’t find a burial plot just yet. I don’t make failed projects, Angel.”

I watched as Phisoxa heaved Xanthe into his arms. I couldn’t help but feel that maybe, this time, the situation was already too far gone.

Xanthe:

I didn’t tell anyone that Chandra had branded me, at first. To be fair, I didn’t quite remember it until I’d seen it later on. I only remembered Chandra’s hand on my hip and then just blinding pain. It was shaped like an old, Victorian birdcage.

Cute.

Do I find it a coincidence that Ash knew about this brand and put it the same image in their graffiti? No.
Proof that they knew about the brand. Bonus, them talking about our shared children.

It did give me that final push I needed to rip the universe open. Or maybe the final push to stop my inworld heart.

It was that neat combination of psychological and physical pain that seemed even to bleed into the outerworld. Not that I could really get into the inworld at this point.

It happened, occasionally, that I would get so badly hurt in the inworld that my only visits of it would be hazy flashes of a friend’s haphazard sickbed, the pain, and the fuzzy voices floating over me. And that’s precisely what happened after I (okay, Phisoxa, but I took credit) defeated Chandra.

I don’t understand. They’re just not healing.”

It’s bizarre. They’re not quite dead and not quite alive. It’s like–”

Don’t tell them that, they’ll just make another non-binary joke.”

Oi! That’s a good, versatile joke, you pricks.

But I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t even have the strength to speak over there.

I could feel what happened vaguely try to process in my head. I didn’t know where to start, especially with the broken pieces Xhaxhollari had left me with.

I’d decided to cease working with Xhaxhollari altogether. I decided that when I would get the strength back, I would do whatever it took to obliterate that brand off of me.

But first, while my brain struggled to process what had just happened to me, I had to purge it from my system in another way.

Granted, I was hitting like my sixth phase of daily alcohol increase over my lifetime. I was pretty sure my roommates were monitoring how many boxes of Franzia were going into the house. So, when I was throwing up that next morning, it was probably reasonable to think that–…

“Yeah, alcoholism will do that,” Ash said, audibly, from the bedroom they partially shared with Arkady just next to the bathroom. I was positive that it was meant to be loud enough for me to hear.

But the thing is– the bitter truth of it was– I hadn’t drank last night.

Hearing that was like catching a virus, cutting through the immune system and shriveling my white blood cells. It was a special kind of pain, leaving me in a weakened, distracting fever.

Something similar happened with the inn, just before I moved. I had a migraine on shift so severe that it caused me to throw up and suddenly, I was unconscious on their bathroom floor. I’d drank the night before, sure, but not even enough to cause a hangover. I’d just been so stressed about the household I was about to move into that it had started taking its toll.

My eventual visit to the emergency room revealed that I have arrhythmia. My boss, someone who was basically a part of my found family, was given my EKG and asked if I’d drank the night before.

That fucked me up.

You know what fucks me up even more?

Researching this particular blog. Chat logs and receipts have me briefly mentioning the Chandra incident in early March. It’s like sometimes I would know it, sometimes I wouldn’t. The memory just hadn’t stuck until late April.

Gods, DID is a fucking trip.

But I do know the day that I told Arkady.

I could no longer be alone with my own thoughts. I’d caught a nasty cold weeks before. In the beginning of the pandemic panic, I was pretty sure I would give the rest of the household COVID, and then they’d really have reason to hate me. However, if I spent one more day alone with my own thoughts, I was probably never coming back from this.

I was immensely relieved when I found Arkady, by himself, playing Skyrim in the living room.

I did my now-usual and profoundly pathetic routine of asking if it was okay to, you know, exist in the same room as him. I was relieved when he said yes.

I promised myself I would behave. Just sit there with my mug of tea and my laptop and just write and occasionally glance up to see what he was doing.

And then within a half hour, I was trauma-dumping on him, which probably didn’t make me the most desirable compan–

Actually, no.

I’ll be fair with myself.

I was so desperate for contact and understanding. It was inhumane to traumatize me so and then isolate me for a number of weeks and now I could manage no socially tactful way to reach out.

“Have you been reading any of my texts about the Chandra situation?”

“No. I don’t have to read texts if I don’t want to. That goes for everybody,” he said stiffly.

“Oh, well. I feel like I need to sum it up. See, I think we were both right about Gaslamp, near the end. You thought it was a manifestation and I thought it was its own being, but I think both are true at once.”

“Xanthe, I really–”

“It’s not anything that you need to be involved in. I’ve been trying to tell you– we did fix the problem. We defeated Chandra.” I was once again locked in the stubborn, undying hope that the right combination of words might earn me some humane treatment.

“Xanthe, everything about the whole… Chaotics, Chandra thing isn’t really–”

“You realise she sexually assaulted me, right?” Some of you may consider this a low move. Is it? It might be. I honestly don’t know. I was still searching. I was still searching for the Arkady who had, when told April cracked my ribs, promised to make hers shatter. Someone who claimed that after someone in my inworld, Dream, had struck me, to have burned her hands in retaliation.

But. What could I really expect, these days? “Xanthe,” Arkady began tensely, not looking at me. “I do not want to talk about Chandra with you. I think you need to go in another room.”

I felt like I’d just been slapped. I would’ve preferred if he did.

I should have never come down here. My heart was twisting in my chest, the naive, organic thing that didn’t know we might have already been dead. I should have never moved up here. I should have never existed. I should have never–

I struggled holding both the tea mug and my cumbersome laptop in my arms as I walked back up the stairs. I could have like, put one down and come back for it, I guess. In a perfect world wherein the risk of bursting into tears in front of my kind-of-ex wasn’t registering to me as a death sentence.

My door was a larger obstacle than usual, with that stupid bird lock. I had to push a finger through the crack in the door, undo the latch, and then–

FUCK.

I watched in horror as my laptop and tea mug crashed to the ground, completely in tandem, as if allies in their downfall. I winced as the sound of my laptop, clattering with all of its weight, echoed throughout the house.

I do back up everything. And I mean, everything. Oh, yes, Ash, I have all of your screenshots backed up on about four different platforms. Good luck with that. But as I gazed upon the scrambled screen of my laptop, I realised that I couldn’t even fucking write now.

I couldn’t write. I couldn’t kiss Arkady. I couldn’t banter with Kaspar. I couldn’t go to cafes or bars. I couldn’t feel safe in my own house. What the FUCK else was there for me?

What if I was already dead?

Little did I know, help would be on the way in a weird form. Jane would turn out to be even more fitting of a scapegoat than I.