TW: medical triggers/needles, time/memory loss, blood, PTSD dreams, referenced past abuse/neglect
I drifted in and out of sleep, my memory punctuated with one- or two-line conversations that blurred into each other. Somewhere in my dreams, I kept seeing Jaylie. I kept seeing Kiera, too. One moment, Kiera was chasing me back to the rooftop. The next moment, she was kissing me, her arms wrapped around my waist. But when I opened my eyes and broke the kiss, she was melting back into broken glass, and then eyes opened on every shard, bright and red-rimmed. The worst part was, I didn’t run. I kissed each eyelid, more tenderly than I could ever remember being, and I didn’t even cry out in pain as the shattered glass cut into my hands and lips, sharp as needles, cold as ice.
Finally, I woke up and stayed awake. It took me a while to orient myself, and I found myself staring at the small picture window directly in front of me and the snow drifts starting to gather on the other side. Snow. It’d been cold but still distinctly autumn when I’d sat in the park with Kiera. I tried to fix the memory in my mind, but it kept slipping away.
Maybe I’d dreamed that part. A name that I didn’t know. A name that didn’t fit. A name that – if Kiera was telling the truth – had once been mine.
I rolled it around in my mouth. I liked my name. This one tasted strange.
Instead, I looked down at my arms. My elbows were bruised, probably from the fall back into reality, and there was a needle in the crook of my arm. An IV. I wasn’t in a hospital, though. I reached down for it, tempted to pull it out –
“I wouldn’t touch that,” came a voice from the door. Isaiah crossed his arms, leaning his head on the doorjamb and giving me a soft smile. “Nice to see you awake.”
I had to admit, I was glad it was Isaiah. I’d been half-worried Kiera had caught up with me and whisked me around somewhere. Although – I narrowed my eyes. “When was the last time we met?”
“Before you appeared in my house? Gurjas’s funeral.” Then he chuckled. “The shapeshifting is starting to get to you, I take it.”
“She’s fucking stalking me,” I grumbled. Then I tried to rotate my arm. “IV?”
“Just saline, no worries.”
“But why? I’m f-”
“Jamal Kaye,” Isaiah said with a stern face, “if you try to claim that you’re fine, I will ground you.”
“You can’t do that!”
He reached forward, adjusting the tape on my arm. “You showed up in my living room bleeding, dehydrated and concussed. The injury on your head took four stitches to close, and luckily it’s just a minor concussion, but it could have been a lot worse. And that’s all without mentioning that you’ve been missing for two weeks.”
“Two w- what? I was not gone that long.”
“Probably didn’t feel like it. Time works differently in the Medium.”
Isaiah sighed, a smile playing over his lips. He was still pissed at me, but it was all out of concern – I could see that pretty clearly. I still felt bad, and I felt even worse that all I wanted to do was shrug it off. “Before I get to that, first things first. Blood doesn’t work against faeries.”
“You’re not the first person to try that.”
I could feel my face getting hot. “I don’t know what you’re talking abo – ow!” He’d taken opportunity of the distraction to slide the needle out of my arm, tape and all. Fucker.
“I have a lot of experience with your particular brand of self-destructiveness, and I’m sad to say it, but insane troll logic doesn’t work against the supernatural.” He tossed the needle into the bin next to him, sticking a bandaid over the crook of my arm.
I subsided into slightly-sullen silence, although part of me was weirdly pleased. When Jo worried about me, there was always this overtone that I’d done it to myself – I didn’t blame her, because frequently, I had. But this felt different. “I was kinda stuck,” I said finally. “She took my knife away.”
Isaiah nodded. “We’ll make sure you always have something silver on you. Silver works better and more consistently – faeries have gotten too used to iron for it to be effective all the time.”
“You, uh.” I cleared my throat. “You’re saying that like faeries are common.”
“Oh, they are. Kiera’s just unusual.”
It seemed that I had finally reached critical mass for what could surprise me. After what I’d seen in – the Medium? It was such a weirdly simple name for something so terrifying – I couldn’t quite be shocked at the knowledge that Kiera wasn’t a one-off. “…Okay. Okay, so there’s faeries and shit everywhere. Alright.” I looked down at the IV in my arm, and the… thing from Jaylie’s corner of the Medium arose in my head again. All of those eyes, looking at me at once. “How is it that all of this weird shit is out there and nobody talks about it?”
“Oh, they do. Hellboy, Lost Girl, American Gods, Avatar – they all get it from somewhere.”
“You know what I mean,” I mumbled. “I’ve heard about like… people all agreeing to ignore weird things, but this seems a bit much.”
Isaiah gave me a considering look. “Think about it this way. How old were you when you came out of the closet?”
It seemed like an odd coincidence that I’d been talking about this with Will only a- God. I’d been about to say yesterday. Two weeks. I still couldn’t get my head around it and I started panicking when I tried, so I decided to keep ignoring it for a while. “Fifteen. I went to Canterbury, though, so not exactly normal.” Isaiah raised an eyebrow at me, and I quickly added, “Not the arts program.”
“And how often did you hear about queer stuff before that?”
“A few times? Not a lot, though. I think the first time I heard about it was something about Ellen Degeneres in middle school.” Then it clicked. “…Ohhh. So we’re like, secret gays.”
Isaiah snorted, then struggled to keep his composure. “Not how I would have put it.”
“Secret superhero gays.”
“I’m just going to assume you’re still loopy from the dehydration.”
I shrugged, unable to stop the grin. “It’s nice to get an explanation that makes sense. I mean, I didn’t even know asexuality was a thing until my ex introduced me to Tumblr. It makes perfect sense that I thought faeries were fake til now.”
“Oh, you’re ace too? That’s cool.”
I lied. I apparently hadn’t hit critical mass for surprise, because I jolted upwards. “What? You’re ace? But-”
“But what?” He had this annoying grin on his face that meant he knew exactly what I was thinking. I couldn’t take it personally, though. I was too busy being shocked. It wasn’t that I didn’t think older ace people existed. It was just… hard to think about. Older lesbians, sure. You ran into them from time to time. Older gay men. But aces, trans people, genderqueer kids, like my Canterbury friends?
“Asexuality wasn’t invented in 2012, you know,” Isaiah added with a little smile
“For somebody who isn’t a Sulfur,” I griped, “you’re very good at this.”
“I’d blame it on being a dad, but I’ve been doing it to Robin for thirty years.”
“Robin is your…” I hesitated on the word.
“Partner. We’ve been married since 2002. And then Luka is our boyfriend.”
This was so strange. None of the concepts were new. I’d known people all over the poly and queer spectrum in school, for a given value of ‘known’, but they’d all been teenagers. I guess somewhere in my head I’d internalized the idea that I’d grow out of it eventually.
“I am happy to talk about ace stuff with you any time you want, but first.” Isaiah leaned forward on his knees. “How are you feeling?”
“Feeling?” I echoed. “Um…kind of dizzy, I guess.”
“Oh god yes.”
He chuckled. “Well, I think that means you’re healing up fine. Come on. I’ll help you up.”
“I’m f-” I caught the look on his face. “Uh, thank you?”
“Now you’re catching on.”
I didn’t hang out with adults much, and most of the ones I knew were parents or teachers – not the kind of people you hung out with or got to know, and all stodgily straight and straight-laced in equal measure. So even though Isaiah had told me pretty plainly that he was queer, I still stopped at the edge of the corridor, leaning against the wall and watching the family in the living room.
Johara was there. That was a comfort; the tension in my shoulders I hadn’t noticed released. She was sitting on the couch, looking almost alive next to a boy about her age with shaggy, dark hair and black nail polish inexpertly applied on his hands. Both of them were watching a leggy, lanky man relate the plot of some movie or another with big, sweeping arm gestures.
“ – and that’s when she and Jet Girl meet the Rippers, and find out that they’re – wait for it – kangaroos.”
“Kangaroos,” the dark-haired boy repeated flatly, but he was hiding a grin. Johara just giggled into her hands.
“Zaza,” the boy complained, “Tata’s being weird again.”
“He’s always weird, Zinc, I don’t know why you’re surprised,” came a voice from the kitchen. “Now hush or he’ll decide he has to start over.”
Isaiah rolled his eyes and mumbled to me, “I’m not sure how I feel about a retelling of Tank Girl to my fourteen-year-old, but it could be worse.”
“I heard that! I’m an old fourteen, thank you very much.”
The person in the kitchen finally came out, staring in concern at the casserole dish they were holding. “I’ll be honest, I’m not sure this worked.”
“It’s mac and cheese, Robin.”
“Yeah, but I usually make it from a box. You’re a much better cook than I am.”
“Is the pasta cooked? Is the cheese melted? Then you’re fine.”
I hesitated, hanging back. I’d eaten dinner with people before, sure. But most of my foster families had never really… Bill and Alice hadn’t had kids of their own, and had lives of their own. Before that, the lines between the Real Kids and Us had been pretty clear. But if I was good at anything, it was observation. Genetics were wild sometimes, but it didn’t take a detective to tell that Zinc’s sallow, rounded features likely hadn’t come from any of these three – nor did I miss the way he stuck his hands in his pockets, hanging back that extra second just like I had.
Johara drifted over to me. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she said quietly. “You scared me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I was usually bad at being sincere, but wherever I’d been, it had been… “I scared myself too.”
Jo followed the line of my eyes to Zinc, who was sitting between Robin and Isaiah. “He’s from the system too,” she said with a smile.
“I’d guessed. Dunno how.”
“Go sit down, silly. You need to eat.”
I would have complained. Part of me kind of wanted to run away. But I decided to listen to Jo, this time. Besides, there were –
There were two chairs pulled up on the side of the table facing me. One for me. And one for Jo.
Yeah. Yeah, I liked it here.
Despite Robin’s complaining that they didn’t know how to cook, the food was good. Maybe it was just because I’d been subsisting off of Mrs. Chaudhury’s gifts and canned dishes for… too long, but I ate three servings, the third mostly prompted by Zinc telling me to stop eyeing the casserole and just eat more if I wanted to.
It was when I was almost done that he finally asked, “So what’s it like in the Medium?”
Isaiah sighed, putting a hand on Zinc’s head. “Zinc, I told you -”
“Sorry,” he grumbled. “But I wanna know.”
I glanced at Isaiah, who was looking a little pained. “…You’ve been there too. Haven’t you?”
“And you made fun of me for being a mind-reader.”
“She is a detective,” Luka added around a mouthful of garlic bread.
I still hesitated. “I – I don’t know. Like a bad dream, I guess. I still don’t know what it is.”
“Dad says it’s where dreams come from. And ghosts.”
I almost dropped my spoon. “Sorry, what?”
“I was going to get to that part,” Johara grumbled quietly.
I shot a glare at her, and she smiled innocently in response.
Isaiah cleared his throat. “Zinc, why don’t you go finish your homework.”
“It’s the weekend.”
“Get it all done today and you won’t have to do it tomorrow.”
He sighed, rolled his eyes dramatically, then picked up his plate to take it into the kitchen. Luka stifled a smile. “I remember being that kid.”
“Of course you do,” Robin shot back at him. “You’re probably where he gets it from.”
“How dare you? I’ll have you know I only teach him the best of skills -”
“Like picking locks?”
“It only takes him being locked out once.”
Isaiah fought a smile. “Sorry. Zinc’s… curious.”
“So am I. What’s this about ghosts?”
Isaiah looked at Johara, who just stared evenly back at him. He sighed, then leaned an elbow on the table. “The Medium is – well, the name says a lot, honestly. It’s the world between worlds. The space between molecules, or the air rushing between leaves.”
“Very poetic,” Luka added.
“Limbo, purgatory, the dreamworld, Wonderland – they’re all the same thing. The normal rules don’t apply, which I’m sure you noticed. Time, space, gravity – they’re all in freeflow.”
I nodded slowly. It was making my brain hurt, but somehow, I was following.
“The reason I could find you in the Medium,” said Johara quietly, “is because that’s also where ghosts are.”
I felt a buzzing rise in my ears, and could only dimly hear Isaiah relating what Jo had said to the other two adults. “What does that mean?”
“I can talk and interact and move around here. But where I am is there. And that’s what I see on the days where I’m… not fully here.”
I knew what she was talking about. Some days, she was solid and almost real, ready to tell me off or make a joke at me – be the sister I missed so much. But some days… some days she was little more than a drift of mist, an impression on the skin of the world.
The skin of the world.
It had never occurred to me that she was somewhere else. That there was a land of the dead. None of our foster families had been particularly religious, and somewhere along the way I’d abandoned my vague idea of a heaven or hell for a shrug and a nihilistic expectation of nothing.
“I never realized it was a real place,” she explained. “Not until Isaiah started looking for you. I thought it was all in my head.”
I wondered what that made Jaylie’s corner of that world. She certainly hadn’t been expecting me.
“Usually when I’m there, it’s… forests, and mist, and sometimes the stars falling to earth. I found you wandering in the mist, but that was only recently. And then Isaiah told me how to bring you home.” Johara cast a thankful look at him, and he blushed, scratching at his cheek.
“It was mostly guesswork. I know how to get myself back, but it works differently for everybody.”
“Does that mean -” I didn’t want to say what I wanted to ask – whether or not there was any bringing somebody back from the dead – because I figured I knew the answer. Nobody would have been cruel enough to sit on that. At least, I thought. I hoped. If there was a way to bring them back, I wouldn’t be one of the last Salts alive. “- Was I dead?” I asked instead.
“No, no. Salts, we – when we destabilize, we slip, body and soul, into the Medium. When we’re aware of it, we can use it to calm down, get our bearings, consult the dead. It’s one of the ways the time-slip works in our favour – usually, we end up somewhere that works the other way around. Two weeks instead, an hour or a minute outside.”
“So what happened to me?”
Robin was the one to pull a face here. “Faerie bullshit,” they said bluntly.
Luka snickered. “Can you tell Robin’s the one who has to deal with them?”
“Not by choice. They just think I’m shiny or something.” Robin chased a stray piece of macaroni around their plate, more out of frustration than actual hunger. “And I’m not even sure Kiera’s a normal faerie. But the point is, destabilization is a defense mechanism. It’s something to get you out of danger.”
I raised an eyebrow. I wasn’t sure I quite believed that.
“In theory,” they added. “Like white blood cells attacking an infection. But if you’re dealing with somebody with their own magic – somebody not human, basically – sometimes the defense mechanism gets even more out of control. The brain doesn’t like things it can’t understand. So that’s why you got dumped in a weird spot.”
“How do you know all this?” I couldn’t help asking.
Robin just jabbed their fork – now with a piece of pasta impaled on it – at Luka, who held up his hands with a sheepish grin. “You were dealing with faeries long before me.”
“And that’s your excuse?”
Luka just stuck his tongue out at Robin. “I got involved with an incubus,” he said with a casual shrug. “A hospital was involved.”
“That’s how you’re -”
“Anyway,” Isaiah interrupted. “You’re safe now. And now that you’ve gotten the first trip through the medium over with, if you end up there again, you should be alright.”
I doubted that, but I wanted to believe him. “So what now?” I could still feel the tiny hole in my arm where the IV had been, and the gnawing feeling in my stomach as my body replenished energy it had lost. “I go home and hope Kiera keeps her distance?”
“Absolutely not. I think it’s best if you stay here a while.”
My first response was to rebel against that – I can take care of myself – but then Kiera’s melting shape appeared in my vision. I couldn’t deal with her on my own. It hurt me to admit it, but I had almost died. Nobody had said it out loud. Nobody had even said the word out loud. But I knew, anyway. Maybe she hadn’t meant to, but she’d put me in danger.
I glanced up at Luka, and at Robin. They’d dealt with faeries before. I could ask them about Guthrun, about the things that Kiera had talked about, about what to do. And – and maybe, for a little while, I could pretend I’d had a family worth having.
I kept that part to myself. It was embarrassing, and selfish, even if it was true.
“Alright,” I said. It had been a long time since I felt like a kid. I didn’t like it. But I did like the warm smile that spread over Isaiah’s face, and the way he reached his hands across the table to take mine, making a promise of safety. Not a permanent one. They never were. But an honest one – and that was enough.