tw: ableism/ableist language, self-harm, possessive/stalkery language, unreality, world-warping
“This is a joke, right?” I laughed nervously after a few moments. “Like, you’re not serious.”
Kiera just raised an eyebrow. “I just asked a question.”
I swallowed, my mouth dry. “Okay, uh, past lives. I don’t know much. They’re like, an Eastern thing, right? Reincarnation and karma and stuff.” I’d taken the Religion intro class at school, but it’d been the same term I’d eventually stopped going. Most of what I remembered was my ex pointedly ignoring me.
“You’re not one of those hippie types, are you?”
She snickered, leaning her elbows on the back of the bench. “No, it’s just—something that comes up,” she said dismissively. “Humans live more than one life, they just usually don’t remember them. It doesn’t happen often with faeries. We live too long.”
“Oh yeah? How old are you?” I shot back.
“Uh, what year is it again?”
“Right, like you forgot.” When she didn’t respond, I fumbled with an answer, trying not to let my eyes roll out of my head. “Twenty-sixteen.”
“Huh, longer than I thought. I’m…” She tapped her chin, clearly doing mental math. “Nine hundred? Somewhere around there?”
All the breath left my body. “That’s not funny,” I managed to squeak. You should really call Avery. Now, some part of my brain was still yelling at me. But—“How?”
“Didn’t you get raised on faerie stories?”
“Not really, no. All my knowledge of faeries comes from that one Sleeping Beauty movie.” When Kiera didn’t show any recognition, I tried to course-correct. “Basically none. I don’t, um—how does that work?”
“I might as well ask how you lot are so squishy and fragile.”
“Point taken. So you’re actually a different—what, different species?” I was gathering information, I told myself. For some reason, she was telling me things. That wasn’t bad. That was actually useful. I could ignore the slight prickling at the back of my neck for long enough, especially since…
…Especially since this felt normal. It felt like a real conversation. She wasn’t cornering me, or demanding anything from me, or taking somebody else’s face to fuck with me.
Something strange crossed her face at what I’d said, though, and the prickling got worse. No, please, I begged the paranoia, feeling selfish the whole time, let this feel okay for a little while longer. I could pretend she was something other than what she was, just for a bit, for as long as she just looked like a real person.
“Something like that,” she said.
The air had changed. She looked the same, but I’d experienced this a few times now; I still started when the tree-leaves blowing behind her began to turn into prisms, but I wasn’t surprised, not really. There was a weird kind of beauty to it—like she was taking me somewhere else, another world.
Sometimes I believe things that aren’t real, I remembered from earlier in our conversation.
“No, wait, I—” I shook my head. “Past lives aren’t—this is you being crazy again, isn’t it?”
The moment it came out of my mouth, I realized what I’d said. The look of hurt on her face made it worse, the light in her eyes dimming and a red flush of humiliation spreading over her cheeks.
One of the trees in the park burst into flames, then another. I started backwards, falling off the bench, and another went up in flame. More hallucinations.
“What are you seeing?”
“You really can’t—you don’t see it?”
“No,” Kiera replied, getting to her feet. She was taller now, limbs elongating and chin and cheekbones sharpening. The difference between human and faerie was only a few millimeters, a few shades—but they made all the difference. “I cause it, but I can’t see it. What does it look like?” She reached out for me, cold hand wrapping around my wrist and burning like ice. “What do I look like?”
I fought the urge to look away, kaleidoscopes leaving marks on my vision. She wouldn’t stop moving, liquid-metal flesh undulating on her bones, the image of her as I knew it a shimmering projection layered over—I couldn’t tell what, exactly. Then the movement paused, just long enough for me to realize what it was I was reminded of.
“A mirror,” I managed to get out from between my numb lips. “A broken mirror.”
She flinched, stunned into silence. Shards of glass nudged each other, points distorting the shimmering holograph of her face. “That’s not—there’s more. What aren’t you telling me? What else is there?”
I didn’t know what answer she wanted. I could have punched her, torn myself away, screamed for help—who would they assume needs help—
And. And, and, and. There was always an and with me, wasn’t there? (you overthink everything) I was scared, but so was she. Mirrors back and forth. I was afraid because she was white, because she was older, because she wouldn’t let go of me, because she wanted something from me I couldn’t give (you dismiss the unreal so quickly)—
“What are you so afraid of?” I asked, without completely meaning to.
A breath left her lips, shards coming back together into a person again, the background coming back together into a fractured whole with light glinting along the seams. Her hand left my wrist, although the ache stayed, and her fingers brushed over my cheeks. She was too close to me again, desperation in the sharp line of her jaw, and breath warm on my chin.
“I can’t lose you. Not again.”
“What happened the first time?”
It was like she didn’t hear me. She flexed one of her hands over my shoulder, staring at it. “Being here… helps.”
“Being here? On… Earth?”
“Here with you.” She inhaled, exhaled again. “It’s still bad. But it’s easier when you’re here.”
“I’m not—” I’m not a therapist, I wanted to say. I wasn’t anybody’s lost love either, because I wasn’t stupid enough to think that whoever Kiera had lost had just been a friend. Not with the way she was looking at me. “…Why are you chasing that girl? Jaylie?” I asked instead.
Her fingers closed into fists. Her eyes closed. If I was good at anything, it was saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
“Is that her fucking name?” Kiera said from between gritted teeth.
“According to Gurjas.”
I was tempted to believe her. “Just answer the damn question.”
“You don’t know when to fucking stop, do you?”
“You’re the one paying me to find her. That means I report to you, right?” I probably should have been less sardonic with a faerie’s hands so close to my throat, but my last two encounters with her had made me bold. Or stupid. One of the two. “I don’t see anything wrong with knowing why.”
“You couldn’t just let us have a moment—”
“What moment? I don’t even know you.”
There it was. The cruelty I knew was still there, in the back of her eyes. People didn’t change that fast. She reached out into thin air, and I reached back into my pocket—past the phone, to where my knife was… to where it was supposed to be. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Where was it?
“Looking for this?”
I looked down at Kiera’s hand, now at her hip. She was holding my knife—still closed—and she tossed it gingerly out into the field. “I’m not letting you pull that trick again. My leg still hurts from that nasty iron.”
Iron. Iron. I thought it’d just been the knife. Anybody would scream that much being stabbed.
Kiera’s hand. It didn’t look right. It looked—it looked burned. Not a lot, just reddened at the tips, like when you caught your hand in steam—
The bits of research I’d done were the farthest from my mind, especially when I couldn’t separate true from false. But that part sprung out at me suddenly. Iron and silver. Iron and silver.
I knew where else I could find iron.
“Let go of me,” I hissed.
“Why? So you can run off and tell everybody how crazy I am? Get yourself into trouble and get hurt and then I’m stuck here all over again? Do you think I’m stupid?” The world, which had started to settle, turned ultraviolet.
I could still see the bench, though. And the trees. Neither of those were quite right.
“Okay. Okay, I promise I won’t. But you gotta let go, okay?” The lie stung, because I almost meant it. Almost. Part of me wanted to stay. It would have been easy. Just don’t fight her, urged the voice in me that was tired of pain—
The concrete walls. There was a concrete wall shoring up the side of the park. We were standing between it and the bench. One pace away.
“I really don’t think that’s a good idea.” I could hear the quieter part of her from earlier trying to reassert itself, but her eyes flickered with uncertain light.
I had to time it right.
There. Her grip loosened. Just enough—
I tore myself away and threw my head into the concrete wall. Hard enough to hurt. Not hard enough. One more time, ignoring Kiera’s yell behind me. I felt my scalp tear, felt something in my nose crack, and there it was, the warm drip of blood—
“Guthrun!” Kiera screamed, and I thought for a moment she was shapeshifting again, or distorting my vision of the world some more. But no, my vision was just woozy.
“Can’t touch me now,” I slurred. She certainly seemed to agree. I didn’t even know if it’d really work. But blood was iron.
Except this time, the world really was tearing itself apart. I would have blamed Kiera for this, too, but the universe was cracking apart at the seams, and taking her with it.
I was falling backwards, through the concrete wall that was no longer there.
I was falling.
I was falling.
I was falling.