[Trigger Warning: cancellation, trans-medicalism, discussion of sexual assault, suicide, dysphoria, homelessness, gaslighting, abusive relationships, magic used to manipulate, existentialism. Anything in Italics takes place primarily in the inworld. Phisoxa’s referred to alternating by both he and she pronouns.]
September of 2021:
I’d almost wondered when this moment would come. Far from shying away from giving her side of the story, Jane had chased the spotlight until she ran into the wall with the sound of a cartoon gong. So, it was really only a matter of time.
I was alone at the Spirit Room, which is how I was spending most of my evenings off.
My summer fling and what was a good friend had been wished a happy birthday from both Xhaxhollari and myself and decided that this meant systems were scary. They and my DND group had cut me off due to it only weeks before. So, I decided to drink about it. What else is new?
You know, being a system should make feeling alone a logistical possibility, but it doesn’t.
And by consenting to Jane’s company, I knew I was slipping back into my old Savannah patterns. Jane had never been my favourite person, but she was always a constantly-chattering, persistent noise to fill the silence. I also considered her, being as she was a very familiar combination of autism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as an odd, distorted reflection it actually unnerved and fascinated me to see. “I’m at the Spirit Room if you want to talk in person,” I texted her. “It’s cancelled like us, so we’re as safe as we’re going to get.”
It wasn’t long before she was seated across from me, right on the stage behind the giant plaster elephant head. I figured, while we would be discussing the elephant in the room… “What’d you get?” I asked, conversationally.
“Rum and coke, which is why I was confused why they asked for nine dollars.” She sipped the drink, then cleared her throat. “Oh, that’s why.”
“Yeah, they don’t skimp on the spirits. So.” I wanted to cut to the point. I was having to shout a little, as Henry the piano player only had one gear. “What I was told is that you’d basically orchestrated my ostracization from the household. Considering they were like that both before and after you– I mean, I think you did more harm than good, but naming you the mastermind was hilarious.”
“What’s also funny is that you believed it,” Jane pointed out eagerly.
“I wanted to,” I shrugged. “I was told that the rift between my household and myself would’ve been healed a lot longer if you hadn’t kept goading it. And that Rowan actually stopped you at one point and said that it seemed like a witchhunt.”
Jane raised her eyebrow. “I mean, switch the narrative.”
“Right.” I paused the conversation to get myself another drink. This was the Black Mass– one of my favourite little numbers with egg white, pisco, and rose syrup. Plus, egg white didn’t give the illusion of quenching one’s thirst, so I could at least pretend I’d drink that more slowly. “I imagine they gave you the same rubbish about how you’re special and inhuman and that you’d found your long-lost magical family?”
“All of that and more,” Jane laughed. “I remember one time, I went out on a smoke break with [Arkady], and he looked at me in an odd way, and said, ‘I see through your glamour.’”
I choked on my drink. “I– Yeah, I can picture that.” Gods, this was needed. I’d interviewed people who had known this household before, but Jane had been the only one on the front lines for the very last months of the spiral.
“And now I have a question for you,” she said.
Why not? “Shoot.”
I both liked and disliked the way she talked. Her cadence was that of a gameshow host, with enviable precision of verbiage but an over-acted quality to it. She gave the vague impression that she was imitating a scene in a film. “After I was kicked out– me, who was the centre of every problem– how long did it take for the situation to collapse?”
I smiled. Or it might have been a grimace. “About a month and one week.”
“You were a good scapegoat,” I told her, honestly. “You were twenty, immature, your Facebook apology was a disaster. Everything was blamed on you, and I thought I could get my life back.”
She went outside for a smoke break and explained her side of things– that Jude, her ex, and Lizzie, her partner at the time (I think?), had ganged up on her and purposefully triggered her, then there was a mutual fight. “And I heard y’all contacted Jude?”
“Rowan did. They found him on Facebook and invited him over, along with Lizzie.” Oh. In retrospect, that was kinda fucked, wasn’t it? That line of thought reminded me of when someone had contacted my ex. “I wasn’t invited. I had to work and Rowan refused to move the date of it. Apparently, they all had a lot of fun. I was relayed details after that.”
Jane took a drag of her cigarette. “Oof.”
“All sorts of weird details came out,” I continued. “Apparently, you’d shouted at Jude in the middle of a crowded street that you were a god.” Rowan, who was the Unseelie Fae King, really had enjoyed that part of the story through the powers of astonishing lack of self-awareness.
Jane snorted. “Xanthe, the optics already being as dismal as they were, do you really think it would have helped me to do that? Even if I had thought that, I would have known there couldn’t have been a worse moment for that. Do you know how that would’ve looked?”
I laughed. The next cutaway of the conversation involved me asking them the question, ‘Have you ever considered you might have NPD?’ because that particular diatribe felt like a dead giveaway. I would know. It was after the next couple of drinks when I finally asked, “So…” I took a breath. I’ve made a career out of prodding around my worst gaping wound, and a year after I began, I still had to steel myself. “I’m not sure you remember, but [Arkady] had told me that he contacted my ex to talk about my– dubiously real friends. My alters. Was it really his idea? Or was it Rowan’s?”
Objection! Leading the witness!
“Oh, definitely Rowan’s,” Jane told me emphatically. “I remember them talking about it.”
I gave a sigh of relief. Arkady’s worst betrayal, and he was acquitted of it. It was exactly what I wanted to hear.
Which is how I should have known that it was a lie.
June of 2020:
The day of Jane’s cancellation was one of the happiest I’d had that summer. Vali, Rowan, and I had met and were discussing on how to inform Arkady of Jane’s true nature. We were all hesitant in telling him, I remember. He’d been the closest with her out of the household.
We walked on Pinnacle Hill to tell him, winding through the steep trails. My leg, still injured from my skating mishap– and my other leg, from my inworld mishap, which I was somehow still able to feel, was giving me trouble amongst all of the roots and shrubbery.
While Rowan and I made our argument (and Vali presumably had dialogue that wasn’t important enough for me to remember), Arkady was nearly silent as he led the way. Unreadable, really.
But then I felt an imperceptible shift– like the wind changing direction with only a tickle on one’s skin.
“Yeah, I’d–… figured. It makes sense,” Arkady sighed.
Rowan was the main person talking, explaining what they had learned about Jane from Jude. Arkady was mostly silent, then gradually started to add his own collaborating observations.
I don’t remember exactly what was said. Summing it up: Jane is toxic, she’s been influencing Arkady’s recent actions, and she’s getting kicked out that day.
Arkady became… warmer to me. I think we began bantering, with us pointing out those fun little red flags in hindsight. When we walked down off the hill, I was really struggling between my shredded shin and branded hip. I’d even tripped on a root or something, over a small ledge and right into Arkady, who was in front of me. He caught me with an arm around the waist smoothly and righted me back on my feet.
It was something out of a film, which meant it was probably the only thing that felt real to me all that day.
I’m sure there was a startled blush blooming on my features. I think I stammered, apologising for falling into him.
“No worries. I love it when you get like that,” Arkady said, with a long-awaited return of a smirk that left me breathless.
“Like what?” I dared to ask.
I remember very clearly that while walking off that hill, he’d turned and walked backwards just to say in a somewhat boastful yet warm tone, “Swooney.”
I remember Rowan erupted with an “Awwwww!” and covered their mouth with their hands, as if their favourite ship was starting to set sail. And with their approval, it was possible.
But only then.
There it was– a glimpse; of a life I could get back, of what I could have now that Jane was revealed. Much like the household, I was more than happy to blame everything on her, even things that didn’t make sense.
There was a series of grandstanding apologies Jane immediately made about the situation. She looked exactly like a panicked Youtuber on Twitter. I’m pretty sure Kevin Spacey reacted better to his allegations than Jane did.
But then, of course, she admitted to witch-hunting me.
I’m certain there’s some sort of alternate timeline where Jane didn’t include me in her self-flagellation and the household didn’t have such an easy goddamned excuse.
“She wanted your place in the household,” Rowan told me. “Back when we were mad at you, we told her that you were moving out. I think she wanted to make sure that’d happen. Every time she took a walk with you, or you would hang out one-on-one, she’d tell us that you were ‘double-speaking’ and doing ‘social triangulation’ on us.”
I thought about that last dinner date I’d ever had with Arkady, how I’d tried to tell him minor manipulations could be used for good. How quickly he had shut me down and avoided my gaze.
“It was worse than that,” Arkady told me. I picture those days as a blur– behind-the-scenes secrets I was now suddenly privy to. All of this is like floating dialogue in my mind. “Remember April 27th, when you wanted to sleep next to me for your traumaversary?”
I answered the affirmative. Of course I did. My rare spot of tenderness within this hellish isolation chamber.
“[Jane] convinced me that you planned to sexually assault me that night. That’s why I couldn’t sleep.” There was an unfamiliar emotion welling me at this confession. Rage. “And when it didn’t happen, she said that the planes must’ve shifted and that we were in the better timeline.”
I was feeling layers of reaction to this. One, that I was holding onto: Jane convinced my love of this.
Another, that I was refusing to look at directly: My love thought that I was capable of that.
I’m sorry about the apparent redaction of many background elements. I can’t remember the setting, nor who else was around. It really was quite the blur. Spliced between these scenes was the uneventful scenes of Jane coming by to collect her things.
I remember, very specifically, that Vali and Arkady played the song, ‘So Human of You’ by Shireen. Good song, if you want to look it up. One of the repeating lines in this song was, “You think it’s alright to be cruel, it’s so human of you.”
That was the funniest joke, the most searing insult of all. That Jane was human, and not special and fae/vampiric/elemental like the rest of us. Rowan boasted that they had never considered her anything more than human– they spoke like it was a defect, as if the worst sin within this pulsating toxicity of a being was their humanity.
That said so much to my deafened subconscious.
“We’re having Lizzie and Jude over so that we can drink or get high and bitch about [Jane]!” Rowan said. They said the day of the week it was– I frowned.
See, I was back to work, but wasn’t yet full-time. [HOTEL REDACTED] couldn’t afford to pay us to be full-time, so I was only back two days a week.
Two days I had to work a week and Rowan decides to choose one of these for this get-together. “Can it be another day?” I asked. I didn’t want to miss the tea that was being spilled. Hell, I’d only witnessed most of this drama through others and over Facebook– it’d make a difference to hear from Jane’s alleged victims.
“No…” Rowan said, their brows furrowed in a way that might have meant to show empathy, their forehead creasing. “But we’ll have plenty of times like this! You’ll be off for the next one!”
Of course, that never did happen.
But who does that really surprise?
There was a meeting between the five of them– Jude, Lizzie, Rowan, Arkady, and Vali– it was apparently a full-on tea-spilling bitch session. And I was the only one who was left out.
You’d better believe that was on purpose. Because I certainly didn’t at the time.
I kept hearing those little details– how Jane had been coming to Jude’s house for months and throwing rocks at his window. About how she’d been lying about being ‘grey ace’ to put people at ease. I still can’t tell how much were lies. Between Rowan and Jane, your dear narrator is flying blind.
I was never around for any of it. I believe I was the only one working out of that group and they somehow couldn’t reschedule.
They all had a lot of fun. Practically reveled in justice, revenge, schadenfreude, and an odd combination of the three.
I heard about it the day after.
Another odd thing that’d happened after the meeting– we’d all been discussing the fact that Lizzie had admitted to feeling violated by Jane.
I honestly cannot, for the life of me, remember the details. I want to say that there was a sleepover situation wherein Lizzie didn’t feel comfortable with cuddling, but she woke up with Jane sleeping next to her. This story was told to me through someone else, so if it’s a diminished account or not even close to what happened, I don’t know. I can thank Rowan for that.
I remembered we’d all sat in the living room as we discussed it, letting it sink in.
Then Arkady piped up. “After that night we were drinking, after we put a rock through Lucien’s place, I woke up after cuddling Jane and saw her with a boner. And now, hearing this–…” He dropped off. It seemed as if he were trying to process something. Then he let out a somewhat hysterical giggle. “I was molested.” He said that in a singsong voice, likely purposefully emulating the Ralph Wiggum “I’m in danger” meme.
We’d all exchanged concerned looks. The fuck was going on under our own roof?
After a moment, Arkady excused himself to call his mother. He went out onto the porch with his vape pen– processing.
“I’ll go talk to him,” Rowan volunteered. And of course, we let them. Out of the household, they were the only one dating Arkady. Meanwhile, I had been dubbed an entity slowly but surely pushing him towards suicide. So, certainly, they had his best interests at heart.
Vali and I watched from the living room as Rowan walked out onto the front porch to talk to Arkady. I don’t think Vali and I spoke. If we did– well, my readers know enough by now that I didn’t register it.
When Rowan came back in, they addressed us both. “Okay, so, I heard him out, and it doesn’t seem like anything actually happened. I don’t believe [Jane] actually sexually assaulted him.” Seriously. That’s what they said. They said it in the same way that a parent would say, “Now, I don’t believe his teacher is actually out to get him, maybe he’s just struggling in this subject–” Some Grade A gaslighting there that I just kinda let slide.
“Yeah, I don’t either,” Vali offered gently.
I frowned. I’d remembered what’d happened between Chandra and myself, even though nothing had apparently happened to my physical body. “It could be that he feels violated by his friend turning out to be like this. We should definitely treat it like he’d been assaulted, at least while he processes.”
That was all I heard about that. The subject was dropped.
Until two years later. Upon finally hearing the details, I blocked Jane on everything.
But it had been Rowan to first tell me that Jane hadn’t gone that far. Rowan, who I’d trusted once with Arkady, who had heard an entirely different version than the story I was told, who assured us nothing had happened.
In fact, it was only after Jane had done a podcast episode with me for the sake of this blog that Rowan made that neat little factoid clear– after Arkady finally dumped them.
Keep it classy, Rowan.
It wasn’t long after that that we went to Sage’s. I was eager to tell my good friend the tea and so was everyone else, including Arkady who had previously forsworn Sage for standing up for me. It was a hot June day– and suddenly we were gathered in Sage’s garage. We were in an inflatable pool, being filled with a hose.
Only the hose was too cold, so they and Tony were boiling water on the stove to combat the chill.
It felt like a fragile balance– between freezing and boiling to death.
We had a fun evening– Sage was recounting one instance when they had visited the house, weeks before. It was a day wherein I didn’t think anyone was home, so Sage swung by and I introduced them to the plants that Rowan had taught me the names of. When we’d stepped inside for a brief period, Jane had come running down, breathless, without a shirt. “And then she like, strikes a kind of cowboy pose and tells us that [Arkady] wasn’t comfortable with me being there. And I was like, what the fuck.” Sage looked at Arkady. “Dude, no wonder why you’ve been so out of it lately. Like when we had that talk on your porch and you started flipping out and yelling at us, I was like, ‘Who the fuck is this person?’”
I can’t remember exactly what Arkady said– but he agreed that Jane was precisely to blame, that he felt sheepish about having been so off lately.
One or both of them compared this moment to when Uncle Iroh from The Last Airbender had told Zuko he had been afraid he’d lost his way.
“No wonder you’d been treating Xanthe like that, dude,” Sage said. “Like I had Connor and Colin and Grace everyone else asking what the fuck was happening because there were so many photos of the entire household like, minus Xanthe. I know you guys wouldn’t just do someone like that.”
That day, I was drinking.
The thing is, I don’t remember drinking much.
Of course, it was within this time that Story and I were more than halfway fused. Maybe even mostly. So, it was possible that they were drinking when I wasn’t paying attention. But we do share a fucking liver, which complicates things.
But I do remember, during this joyous, cathartic reunion between friends, there was something ominous I couldn’t shake; a deep dread creeping into my veins.
I remember trying to combat the panic with drink and company.
The panic won.
The next thing I remember was throwing up in Sage’s bathroom. Then I was vaguely passing out in the driveway.
Sage took a picture and made a meme out of it.
The panic attack continued when I was in the car, on the way home. I was somewhat lucid then, trying to keep my breathing steady.
I remember keenly that Arkady was holding me.
Finally actually holding me while I was scared.
My thoughts were racing, but I chose to ignore them. I chose to ignore my pervading theory of what was to come. I chose to savour the strength and warmth of his arms and that fleeting feeling of safety, like a sandbar I’d finally found after months of drowning.
The thoughts that I tried to shut out were as follows:
“My life was nearly ruined over you having a new fucking friend that just happened to come around at the right time, I am another sentient BEING goddamnit, I don’t care how sick I was, I didn’t deserve that and I don’t know how I’d know you wouldn’t do it again. Are you going to do it again? Are you going to do it again? What made you do it now? What is going to stop it from happening again?”
I only remember part of what Arkady was saying. “It’s okay, I’ve got you, I’ve got you.”
That was the last bit of comfort I’d ever gotten from him.
The group spent the next several days ordering takeout and watching films together. They’d had beach days to vent moreso about Jane, covetously enjoying snacks of cheese and fruit beside the lake.
There was so much denial within this. I knew damn-well that the timeline of Jane’s influence didn’t quite add up to her being the cause of all of this. The correlation was stretched too thin to truly name it a causation. But if the household believed it and if Xanthe believed it, well. Perhaps everyone would be happier that way.
That’s the way of being in a system. Safety was often more valuable than the truth.
It was during one of these lake excursions wherein Arkady brought up having contacted Apollo. “I didn’t mean to. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d known he was Kirra,” he’d said, by way of apology. “But I just knew with the screenshots I’d seen, it just… kind of made sense, in an odd way?”
Of course, he’d seen what was likely only a snippet of thousands of hours communicating my system and Apollo’s characters’ interactions via chat log. A mere snapshot.
“Oh, right. That was back when Kaspar and I thought we could manipulate everything via chat,” I said, speaking as Xanthe. I was treading water in the lake as I spoke, positioning the body lean backwards in the water to appear as leisurely as possible. “We essentially role-played everything how we wanted it to turn out, through Sound’s account and one other. Anarchy Ancestry, I think it was? I’d discovered that sometimes I could influence the future with my journals, so as everything fell apart in 2015, that was one of our last resorts.” This was, of course, entirely a fabrication. But even dropping that account name, a detail that was surely available within this ‘proof’ felt like a good move.
“Oh, that makes sense!” Arkady replied.
Rowan was silent during this particular conversation, refusing to meet our eyes. To ease Xanthe back into the front, I’d began a conversation about zodiac signs. “Honestly, that Gemini Moon of [Jane]’s should’ve been a red flag!”
The other three chimed in and I was able to pass Xanthe back through with limited interruption– though with some startled splashing. I’d forgotten to return them to their previous position and they must’ve felt like their perception of the world was lagging like a video game.
The fact of it was, it was apparently resolved. Xanthe was out of isolation, being treated as a person, seeming to be lined up for getting their Safe Person back in the coming July.
Which made it all the more disturbing when I felt Xanthe continue to wither.
Let’s talk about Phisoxa. Phisoxa (She/her/he/him) was the elder child born to two barons in Freystadt, Prussia, on November 27th, 1730, shortly followed by a younger brother.
Phisoxa was a Thysia, autistic, and assigned female at birth. When his untreated condition as well as the favourable treatment given to his brother gave way to violent outbursts that nearly ended in childhood fratricide, Phisoxa was abandoned to an orphanage run by corrupted religious zealotry.
Bullied by peers and taken advantage of by clergy, Phisoxa spent most of her time and energy in the service of a domineering ‘friend’ of hers, Elodie, whom Phisoxa began to have romantic feelings for. This friend, despite being verbally abusive, was who Phisoxa sold half of his own soul for in order to save from a fire that had broken out within the orphanage. It left Phisoxa with intense burn scars and ‘half a soul.’ (Most of everyone’s definition of ‘half a soul’ in the inworld seems to just line up with having a Cluster B personality disorder, interestingly enough. Probably some mythologically-based self-loathing, there.)
Elodie was vocal in hating religion. When she later on died of consumption without aid from her zealous caretakers, Phisoxa took this out on– just about everyone. At first, he took advantage of his soul-stealing abilities. Vex helped him hone this particular gift. (Vex was honestly just stoked that she’d found a Thysia that was homicidal rather than vaguely suicidal.) In one explosion of vengeful grief, Phisoxa set fire to the orphanage, saved one other orphan (Dax) who had been kind to him, and stole the souls of both clergy and orphans.
Phisoxa then went on the run and masqueraded as her dead parents’ first-born son to claim the ‘Count’ title as well as her family’s fortune. But he didn’t exactly calm down after that.
Not that Phisoxa didn’t have hobbies. She loved tinkering with clockwork, writing music, going to the threatre, and stealing souls from corrupt clergy and politicians to make herself more inhuman and powerful. Which, altogether, were not bad past-times.
Though as his castle of lies began to crumble and he started to lose everything, there were no less than four massacres that had resulted from his bad days. It’d even earned her the title, ‘The Soul-Stealing Count from Prussia.’ But in his spare time, Phisoxa created yours truly.
He wrote a story about a puckish rogue of a blonde child with a clockwork heart. Then she sought to bring her OC to life by splicing together a piece of her own soul, Vex’s, and a smattering of others. And that’s how your Frankenstein’d narrator came into being. If anyone has a problem with my existence (And I know many do), you now know the alter to complain to!
After his life had fallen apart, Phisoxa hadn’t lost his genius, nor his fire, but he’d lost control. She’d deemed herself as an equal and opposite reaction to what she’d been through.
Within the inworld, Phisoxa was deemed too dangerous by, you know, ancient vampiric and elemental beings, (impressive) and hunted down. He died by assassination, looking no older than 30, in 1827.
Yet Phisoxa still remained in Phantasiae, where I could cross the border of life and death to visit the space that’s in between.
It was nothing too many people approved of, due to Phisoxa’s controversial reputation. Vex, of course, had told me time and time again, “Both of us were used in creating you, Xanthe. We’re both warring in you. I can see it. Do me a favour and let me win sometimes.”
It didn’t uh, help, that I date Phisoxa. I usually don’t say much about it because an author-to-character relationship seems vaguely incestuous and the relationship is as valuable to me as it is tumultuous, but why not add to the complexity?
Have you ever felt the unconditional love of someone who had written every character flaw in you? It’s definitely a boost to the ol’ self-esteem.
On this particular visit, I took Kaspar, at their request. Not that I wanted to.
I wanted to avoid worrying them for as long as possible, but word had spread how my injuries were no longer healing. My inworld body had even come up with fun new tricks, like my throat randomly bleeding and choking me with blood throughout the night, or the deep purple of veins standing out on too-pale skin.
So, it did make sense to visit my creator. “So, I’m dying, apparently.” I didn’t look at Kaspar at all as I spoke. I didn’t want to see the subtle stiffening of their posture, or how its eyes unfocused for a brief second. “I was hoping you’d have some insight. Otherwise, how have you been?”
Phisoxa’s lanky form was slouched in one of the sweetheart chairs in front of her fireplace. His spidery hand was stretched over the rim of a glass of port. “Have you gotten your watch fixed?” she rasped.
I shook my head. “Jewelry repair isn’t considered a necessary business while there’s a pandemic. I’ve looked for the crystal to try to repair it myself, but it’s nowhere to be found. And I don’t know how much damage has been done to the internal gears since the crystal’s gone missing.”
“Certainly there’s another way,” Kaspar said curtly. “You spent years crafting Xanthe– I don’t believe that you wouldn’t have had a fail-safe. For their lifespan to rely on a piece of jewelry is charming and whimsical, yes, but dreadfully impractical.”
Phisoxa’s wheat-coloured eyes drifted to Kaspar for a moment, then to me. It wasn’t unusual for Phisoxa to forget to address Kaspar entirely when in one of his moods. “I thought my book about you may serve as a warning, Xanthe. You try to fall in love, actually build a life for yourself that’s more than a story, and you disintegrate. And I’m sorry.”
Kaspar was not to be deterred. “I’ve read the story. I find it to be a reflection of your own self-pity and not a binding declaration of fate. Just what is happening to Xanthe and how can we avoid it?”
Three clinical narcissists in one room. The tension was searing. I was clawing at the arms of the chair, not really in the mood to see two partners of mine try to tear one another apart for my sake.
I was doing a very morbid sort of math in my head. See, I was more or less assuming that the destruction of my inworld body would only lock me out of ‘the other plane,’ limiting my death to only one world.
I thought of Kaspar’s four other partners– Kaspar would be fine. At least that’s what I told myself.
Aberle would be wreck for a few months, make a few playlists in my memory, but he had a solid support system.
My sons? Pretty much grown by now, and they had each other.
Vex would–… Okay, Vex would probably level a few cities.
Phisoxa– Oh christ may god have mercy on our souls.
“There’s no undoing what I’ve done,” Phisoxa murmured, his smoke-damaged voice like dried leaves scraping against the stone walls. I winced– having heard this particular tangent before. “You were created to be an affront to the gods. Fate responded by changing the year you were to be born. 1866. That was supposed to be your birth year. What are you doing in such a horrid timeline as the one you reside? You don’t belong there. You never even had a chance, Xanthe. You’re quite right to blame me.” To anyone else, she’d seem only exhausted. I knew this to be her actual sorrow. “You were created out of sight from the gods and therefore immune to their mercy.”
I heard the scrape of Kaspar’s chair as it stood. “Oh, for heaven’s sake!”
“Kaspar, he’s hardly even lucid,” I protested. I could tell by how vacant Phisoxa’s eyes seemed, as if they were just as reflective as her glasses lenses. “We’ll try again on a good day.”
Kaspar helped me up from my chair and we began to make our goodbyes. Phisoxa’s eyes seemed to snap back into focus as we reached the door. “Xanthe!”
I turned at the door to face him. Kaspar’s grip was still on my sleeve, trying to guide me away from any psychic damage within my earshot.
“Xanthe! All of that organic blood, that biological heart– As a last resort, I’ll have to cut it away from you, when the time is right. I hope for your sake, it doesn’t come to that.”
Didn’t understand what quite to make of that, but jesus, was that disturbing. Kaspar said something impolite in Czech. The door gave way to a baffling expanse of scenery seemingly stitched together from the lives of the Thysias that have come to pass. Phisoxa’s manor, two familiar structures from Marysville, Ohio, a pirate ship, a French townhouse, all crumbling structures patched together with thin, starry waters.
When we were safely out of Phisoxa’s domain, that imaginary castle in this odd in-between afterlife, Kaspar took my hand. “Xanthe. You may need a break from this.”
I shrugged. “I know what Phisoxa’s bad days are like. He doesn’t begrudge me for avoiding him during them.”
“I see your eyes as she says such things, Xanthe. You start to think that you’re just as doomed as she laments. And honestly, isn’t one abusive relationship enough for now?” Kaspar pulled my arm to turn me to face them. We were just outside of the mirror that would get us back on our side of the inworld.
I avoided its gaze still, frowning. “To be fair, [Arkady] and I aren’t technically in a relationship at the moment. And he’s been a lot better, lately.”
As soon as Kaspar’s blonde eyebrows shot up the length of its forehead, I realised my mistake. “I was speaking of AJ.” Like I’d said, Kaspar was never quite a fan of AJ. Ever since my trans-medicalist partner of three years had said I wasn’t androgynous because I was okay with my own hips, Kaspar’s references to them have remained cold. “But I appreciate the confirmation.”
Fuck. “Have I told you lately how much I love you?” I said brightly, in a facetious attempt to change the subject.
“How your eyes are like frosted glass windows in a winter’s dawn?”
“Xanthe.” Kaspar sighed. “I’m making it a priority to figure something out. In the meantime, you needn’t subject yourself to the Count’s moods. Take a break, won’t you?”
The rest of the conversation was alternating between defending AJ, defending Arkady, and defending Phisoxa. Hell, AJ was homeless, and now it looked like I might not be. Why wouldn’t they be frustrated with me? And Arkady had just been through an ordeal with Jane. It was her fault how he was treating me, damn it! And Phisoxa was–… Well, Phisoxa.
But I did agree to writing Phisoxa about the two of us taking a break. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d taken a sabbatical from romance with my author, but it has so far been the last. I also, in the letter, detailed my predicament in hopes he might comprehend my situation with clearer eyes.
I’d honestly thought the household welcoming me back within their circle would fix my deteriorating inworld situation. Why was everything still not healing?
Late June of 2020:
You can’t go to the Adirondacks without feeling some form of ancient magic in the air.
As much as I’ve tried to get away from spirituality in recent years, I’m still a pagan at heart and still stand by this. Despite this, I’ve since disavowed my inworld’s deities and now a certain sun god’s name left an unsavoury taste in my mouth– Oh, speaking of!
I happened to spot Apollo’s profile while Rowan scrolled on their phone just in front of me. My heart dropped in my chest. “Erm…” After Jane leaving, Rowan had tearfully exclaimed that we could all be a family again and invited us in for a group hug, so I thought they would have no issue with this next request. “Would you mind unfriending Apollo? After finding out who he is, I kinda–…” Want him forcibly removed from the same planet that I’m currently occupying.
“Mmm.” Rowan pushed their lips forward, playing with their septum ring. “I still want to sort of keep an eye on him.”
It was fair enough in theory. After all, I was and am still Facebook friends with my friends’ exes to keep tabs on them. With my friends’ permission and request. But I’d received no updates or even an invitation to mock Apollo for any of his recent unhinged statuses. In fact, it seemed like Rowan hadn’t wanted me to know that they were friends with Apollo at all. “I’d still feel more comfortable if you unfriended him,” I persisted.
“Hmm… No, it’s fine.” they said, deciding against my request. And I suppose that was that? The subject was changed with Rowan having justified themself staying friends with my abuser in the same tone as one would decide on chopsticks or a fork.
But anyway, we went on our first (and only) family camping trip to the Adirondacks. Finally! An outing! Wherein I was included! I was so stoked about the prospect that I’d dropped $300 on camping supplies, only some of which they ever let me keep. “It’s pricey,” Arkady warned me. “But we’ll have plenty more camping trips to go on!”
The Adirondacks are beautiful. I actually did enjoy camping and can’t wait to be back. I climbed a bloody mountain, witnessed some unbeatable views, and no one minded my day-drinking.
“It’s just what you do when you’re camping,” Rowan allowed.
Story and I apparently quite liked the experience. Sparrow still talks of his fun larks in the woods, of swimming in the lakes that were the very same colour as the body’s eyes. Xhaxhollari hated it. Most of the time he was out, it was griping about the heat, the unrelenting waves of bugs, and his lack of access to Pokémon. (He’d only just bought Pokémon Shield recently.) The four of us, still enjoying the after-effects of having Jane as a common enemy, got along nearly the entire time.
Of course, there were exceptions.
On one of the first nights there, Rowan wanted to do a Tarot reading. My first experience with Tarot was, of course, with Rayzel in 2017. Then more recently, I’d consented to Jane giving me a reading with their own deck, wherein she announced to all of my judgmental housemates that my selfishness and insecurity would be my downfall. So, it’s safe to say I was hesitant when Rowan offered one to me.
But of course, I was the only one who hadn’t been read that night. I knew the least about tarot of all of us at the time, but wasn’t I always the one complaining that I was left out?
The campfire was blazing as Rowan laid out the cards, the darkness an endless expanse that encircled us. I only really remember two cards– can’t even really remember the spread, for I understood nothing about the entire nature of tarot. One of them was the Lovers.
My heart leapt. Just as we were getting into July, the end of Arkady’s and my break! “This is honestly speaks more of a platonic partnership,” Rowan explained. “Like business partners.” I frowned. I’d remembered how disastrously myself and Arkady had collaborated on a book together– mainly on how he’d never gotten around to even reading the synopsis I sent him. Rowan drew another card; I believe this one was the Two of Cups, reversed. Rowan gasped and their tone was like an oncologist trying to be comforting with the worst set of news. “Xanthe, you and [Arkady] aren’t getting back together.”
“What?” I’d struggled to school my reaction but, given Story’s more vast emotional range, it likely got away from me. “No– I mean. Rowan. I have other partners. Hell, Phisoxa and I just took a break not that long ago.”
“Xanthe, it’s not a bad thing.” Rowan wasn’t even taking my polyamory or my other relationships into account. They’d found an agenda and they were sticking to it, goddamnit! “The first card speaks of a deep, platonic relationship. Just because you and [Arkady] won’t be getting back together doesn’t mean–”
“I don’t think that’s it!” I winced when I heard my own panic seep into my voice. Holy shit, remember the days where I used to complain about no one being able to read any emotion off of me? Where the fuck were those when I needed them? “Seriously. I took a break from Phisoxa like, last week. That’s got to be what that’s talking about. Or, hell, even AJ. Gods know that relationship has never been steady.”
I hated this. Rowan, who threatened to kill themself for Vali like a fucking year ago was chiding me as if I was being irrational in my sense of fear and loss. You don’t understand! I wanted to snap. His promises all tie-in with my entire spiritual identity, what I know of myself, my past-lives, and the other plane. If I find his word isn’t true, then I will never fucking know what is!
But then something interesting happened. If there is such a thing as divine intervention, something must have been annoyed at Rowan playing clairvoyant to further an agenda, because a moth threw itself dramatically into the fire in front of all of us.
What significance does that have?
Arkady gasped. “AJ!” See, I’d always related AJ to moths. I’d forgotten how the correlation began– maybe simple aesthetic. They’d even been ‘Baron von Mothwing’ in my phone for years. And with their constant threats of suicide, seeing an actual live moth throw itself into the campfire was one of the most symbolic moments of my entire life.
This is going to sound bad, but that was a relief. I was much more prepared to lose the one who I’d braced myself to lose since 2015 than the one who swore up and down that he’d always be by my side, who I was already trying to build a future with.
The suicidal bastard moth didn’t quite save me from the damage that the tarot reading had wrought. Arkady would go on to mention this weeks later, speaking of the incident as if I were whining about being friendzoned and that was another reason why I was toxic.
But! Back to the joys of camping!
I’d actually brought the Infernal Devices series with me. I’d vaguely remembered how Neb and I had both shared a love of the series before she died, with me essentially reading over her shoulder as I gathered a personality out of sheer aesthetic. I’d always remembered adoring the books and I’d stuck with that same genre for many years.
It wasn’t quite steampunk and urban fantasy didn’t precisely describe it. It had a specific genre, one at the tip of my tongue–
I’d forgotten how much I loved this series. Of Will Herondale, who thought his love was deadly to everyone around him, happy to play (or be) the asshole to everyone but a close confidant, who even invented a song when one of his enemies was revealed a hypocrite. Or of Magnus Bane, a bisexual disaster causing chaos and vaguely startled laughter at every turn. Or of the angel who ended up having watched after the protagonist the entire time.
As Vali and Rowan, or Arkady and Rowan, were enjoying the peaceful afternoons holding each other in the mountains, I, the odd one out, was living vicariously through Tessa Gray’s kisses. Something about these books made my soul sing in such an odd way.
In fact, one of my favourite days during this camping trip was when I was drinking copious amounts of wine and reading in a hammock a book that seemed like a childhood home to me.
One incident that happened and oh, my beloved audience, you’re going to love this.
I think Arkady and Rowan were off taking a nice pleasant walk for themself as a couple, leaving Vali and I alone in the camp.
We probably hung out and talked. I’m sure he said… something. Maybe even a few things, who knows! Then suddenly, his countenance changed– his eyes were wider, he was suddenly more hyperactive. He started running around like a human who’d learned the zoomies. “Hi!” He said in a high voice. “I’m Aspen! What’s your name?”
Swear to gods, the cadence was so much like a Nick Junior cartoon that I thought he was going to ask me to pronounce a word in Spanish.
“I’m… Xanthe.” Oh, fuck, Vali’s channeling someone! They’re inviting me back into their spiritualism! I shouldn’t blow this. “Nice to meet you!”
“Yeah! I’m Rowan and Vali’s daughter!”
I’d known that Rowan and Vali had discussed having children in Faerie, much like Arkady and Rowan had. “Oh!” I pushed away any reasonable skepticism blaring in my head. Being observant and coming at this with any manner of logic wouldn’t help anything. This did, however, mean that I had suddenly come into a babysitting job. “Why don’t I read you a story?” I always have a miniature copy of a small collection of Oscar Wilde’s children’s stories on me. I’m actually not kidding. I opened up to ‘The Happy Prince’ and began to read. “High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword–”
I don’t even think Vali got through the first page before darting out of the tent. Philistine. “Aspen? Aspen! Oi!” Goddamnit. I chased Vali across the campsite and onto the perpendicular dirt road. Vali was laughing, high-pitched and eerie. It wasn’t long at all before we’d both run into Rowan and Arkady again. I’m pretty sure Rowan greeted their ‘daughter’ with a hug, despite Vali interrupting Arkady’s and Rowan’s date.
The memory fades after that.
More than a year living with us and he’s already learned how to fake possessions like Rowan. Maybe he could take a lesson from Apollo and tell us all where the mirrors used to be.
Another odd memory I have from that vacation is how Rowan kept lamenting, “Gods, Xanthe, I wish you could smoke weed with us.”
And– feeling peer-pressured by people who actually liked me, for a change, I tried. Yes, it was still a severe olfactory trigger.
But I wanted to belong.
So, I tried, on multiple days on our camping excursion, to smoke from their bong. Then I would take the wine I had bought and gargle it, even spitting it out to get the taste out of my senses before it strangled me.
See, see! I can have a moreso approved vice! Please don’t put me in isolation again!
All in all, it was a good time. We shared jokes, we cooked meals together.
It was on the way home from this when we had the conversation that would come to cost me three thousand fucking dollars. I remember Rowan was driving and Vali was at the passenger seat. Arkady was seated directly behind them and I was beside him.
Even the way we were arranged in the car was symbolic.
We’d gotten on the subject of AJ. This was never a happy subject, but sometimes a cathartic one. Sometimes with Arkady sliding quips in about how AJ needs to shut the fuck up. Sometimes with Rowan emphasizing how they could never live with AJ, and sometimes with them outright asking me why the fuck I was even still with them.
The answer was that it was a precarious balance between pros and cons. AJ had ignored boundaries and gone on dubious rants about how trans-masc people who enjoyed certain types of sex were ruining AJ’s life. And they’d insisted that smelling like onions meant they were the most effeminate “breeder” (yep, they used that term) to have ever been born.
And when that happened, I could just make my excuses and hang up the phone. Otherwise, we continued to have enjoyable banter, fun moments. Romanticize one another. Let’s face it, that’s what we were doing.
“What if AJ moved in with us?” Rowan suggested.
Sorry, inside joke.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I know you haven’t been a fan of the thought of living with them in the past.”
Hell, it was only a year ago that I was griping to Rowan about an unfortunate misheard part of our conversation wherein I told AJ they were “the first one” to do something zany or another.
I remember being put off-guard by the resentful silence to follow.
“Did you just call me a woman?” I paused for a while, not even sure they were addressing me. AJ had an irritating habit of talking to everyone in their surrounding area while we were on the phone together, as if forgetting we were even having a conversation in the first place. “Xanthe?”
Another resentful pause. “Sometimes my voice sounds higher over the phone. It sounds like a girl. You can tell me the truth.”
“AJ, I seriously didn’t call you a woman. I said, ‘The one.’” One misconception and the entire night was unsalvageable. Fuck me.
“Just tell me you called me a woman!” AJ snapped. “I know you were thinking it.” My silence was icy in response. I’d had enough of people telling me what I thought. “I’m getting off the phone.” They said, finally. “I don’t like how my voice sounds.”
Rowan pulled me out of my own personal flashback. “Well, their other option is homelessness. Seriously, we can help them get on their feet. I’ll show them how to file for disability. And with all four of us, supporting them won’t be a problem. And since [Jane]’s moved out, we have a whole attic we’re not using.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. When asked why, by one of the three, I said, “It’s always the attic somehow, isn’t it?”
But somehow, I could picture it. We could invite AJ to live with us. They’d always been too much for me, but with four or so people for support, I could even be there for them even in my diminished state.
And hell, they loved nature and costuming. I could almost picture it, them hiking in the hill behind our house, joking with us, watching films with us. An AJ that could actually get better? An AJ that could stop ricocheting their self-hate onto everything within firing range? An AJ that wouldn’t have an inescapable meltdown over how close the word ‘one’ could sound like ‘woman’? Gods, that was a dream I hadn’t dared hope for. And four people supporting them financially when they got back on their feet?
I brought it up to AJ soon afterwards, after about an entire week of my persistent ‘Are you sure?’ questions to Rowan.
AJ was skeptical. Correctly, as it turned out. They questioned how the household had treated me, but that was all Jane’s fault, of course! They questioned Rowan’s willingness to house them. Of course they would! Who would invite someone to move halfway across the country without being willing to give them at least a leg up? Plus, Rowan was the one to suggest it.
The time I spent selling this situation alone, I should have gotten some sort of cult advertising bonus for. My only request, really, is that they would stop threatening suicide. I’d subconsciously recognised suicide as a trigger and not only that, but the biggest rift and source of resentment throughout our relationship. Hell, we might even start to build something if I wasn’t braced for being mentioned in their 13 Reasons Why all the goddamned time.
“Oh, yeah, definitely!” AJ assured me. “Once I’m not homeless anymore, that won’t be a problem.”
“Good. You have to understand that this is a hard boundary. I will not be able to do this if the consequence is your literal death.”
Yep, no problem. We’re good to go!
And sure, maybe my inworld body was dying, but it didn’t mean I had to die. Probably. Maybe. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to interact with my inworld friends again, but–
I dunno. How real were they actually?
… How real was I?