TW: medical triggers/needles, time/memory loss, blood, PTSD dreams, referenced past child 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. I should have been horrified. I should have been scared. Instead, I was letting her. She tasted like – like freezing water, so cold that it left a trail all the way down through my throat and settled in my stomach until it melted. Almost sweet, almost painful. But when I opened my eyes and broke the kiss, because I was supposed to, she was melting back into broken glass, and then eyes opened on every shard, bright and red-rimmed. The worst part was, even then, 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, still cold as ice.
That was the part where I finally woke up, I think. It was the last image that stayed with me, anyway.
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 Chandra’s living room? 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.” He came over to me, checking the bag that was hanging next to me. I probably should have been a little more worried about where he’d gotten all this equipment, but I was mostly glad he hadn’t taken me to a hospital. I would have freaked out a lot more.
“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!” The rest of what he’d said caught up. “Ch—Mrs. Chaudhury?” I clarified.
“Yeah. I was over for dinner when Jo found you. She didn’t mind, though. She’s been just as worried as the rest of us.”
I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat. I hadn’t exactly been keeping her—or anybody else—up to date. “I didn’t mean to scare her.”
“Whether you meant to or not,” he said, his voice taking on a slightly-reproachful tone, “you showed up in her house 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 you’ve been missing for two weeks.”
“Two—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 definitely 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. If I told him it was fine, then he wouldn’t worry, and I could deal with it myself—but it didn’t work that way, and people kept trying to tell me so, and it just didn’t seem to land.
“Before I get to that, first things first. Blood doesn’t work against faeries.”
“You’re not the first person to try that.”
I felt my face getting hot. “I don’t know what you’re talking ab—ow!” He’d taken opportunity of the distraction to slide the needle out of my arm, tape and all. Fucker. “You are frighteningly good at that,” I grumbled.
“I have a lot of experience with your particular brand of self-destructiveness,” he shot back. “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.
“Is that why you’re so good with needles?”
“Actually, that’s from the testosterone. Not far off, though. And don’t get me wrong,” he added. “I’m impressed that you tried. Just don’t do it again.”
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—maybe because, admittedly, Isaiah was an actual adult, not my baby sister trying to fill shoes that neither of us could wear.
“I was kinda stuck,” I said finally. “She took my knife away.”
Isaiah nodded. “We can make sure you always have something silver on you. Silver works better—faeries have gotten too used to iron for it to be consistently effective.”
“You, uh.” I cleared my throat, mouth suddenly a little dry. “You’re saying that like faeries are common.”
“Oh, they are. Kiera’s just unusual.”
“No. It was bad enough being told they existed at all. You’re not gonna sit there and tell me you go out for coffee with—with dryads!”
Isaiah burst into laughter. “I would have thought you’d hit critical mass for surprise at this point.”
“Oh, I have. I’m just annoyed at this point. 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.”
He 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 twenty-twelve, 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 two thousand two. And then Luka is our boyfriend.”
This was so strange. None of the concepts were new. I’d known people all over the polyam 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. Sulha and Ruben will probably rush you the second they hear you’re awake.”
“Sulha and—” I swallowed at the mention of her children . “I’m at Mrs. Chaudhury’s?”
“Yeah, her spare room. It seemed safer than moving you, and she was happy to keep an eye on you when I had to work.”
“You’ve been here the whole time?”
“On and off.” He must have seen the surprise on my face, because he offered his hand with a soft look. “What did you want us to do, Jamal? Leave the injured, unconscious teenager to her own devices? Let you sleep it off in your apartment?”
“I see your point,” I said quietly. I tried to push his hand away—then saw the look on his face. “Thank you,” I grumbled, and took it, letting him help me to my feet.
“Now you’re catching on.”
Fostering is weird. It’s not like you see in those movies like Little Orphan Annie or whatever—orphanages aren’t a thing anymore, or rather, they’ve been rebranded as group homes. Jo and I never landed in those. Instead, every few months to a year, we’d be shuttled off somewhere new. Some of them sucked. I learned how to use a microwave because the old lady who took us in didn’t feed us and shoplifting those microwave Kraft cups from the corner store was easier—but we were only there for a week or two before the shop owner caught us, called the cops, the cops called our social worker, and the old lady got busted. And some of them just… weren’t prepared.
The lady who cut Jo’s hair—she and her husband had thought they were doing us a favour. Rescuing poor kids from the slums, or something—which is particularly funny given that Ottawa doesn’t really have slums. She didn’t expect scissors in her feet. There was another young couple, Korean, fresh out of grad school, who quit fostering because of my temper. I didn’t mean to—but I was seven at the time. I kept trying to run away and go back to—somewhere. The hospital, I think, even though I hated it. A few of them had other kids—sometimes fosters, sometimes actual kids. Like the one where Jo—
The point is, the last foster family I was ever with was the only one that lasted long, and that was because they knew I didn’t want to be there. After I lost Jo, it was hell even making myself go to school. Bill and Alice had been in their fifties, old enough and smart enough to at least know they were a stopping point, not my future and not my family. So they made sure I went to school, and when I insisted on quitting halfway through my last year with the money I’d earned from my job, they set me up with groceries and wished me luck. No family dinners. No movie nights. No long phone calls.
So staring into the Chaudhury living room was… odd. Johara was there. That was a comfort—the tension in my shoulders released a little. She was sitting on the couch between two kids, one of which I recognized as Ruben, which meant the toddler was Sulha. Isaiah was animatedly retelling a story I vaguely recognized.
“The soucouyant closed her hand around the bone that Rajpal put through the bars. Too skinny! She cried once more, and Kanwal swept away in the background. But the day came when the soucouyant had had enough. I shall eat him up be he fat or lean, she cried, and pulled him out of the cage, ready to cook him for her dinner!”
Jo giggled as the two kids gasped, and I stifled a snort. Once he had finished, I couldn’t help but ask, “Hansel and Gretel?”
“Well, yes. With a little bit of Caribbean flair. And Punjabi.” He looked a little embarrassed. “Er, apparently the kids at school aren’t the greatest about their names. Figured it’d be nice.”
“…You are such a dad.”
“Hey, my son’s fourteen. I can’t get away with this stuff with him anymore. He just rolls his eyes at me and tells me how grown-up he is.”
I felt a little called out—not helped by the fact that Jo started snickering in the background. Then—
“Jamal Gurpreet Kaur Kaye, you are in so much trouble!”
“Sit down,” Mrs. Chaudhury ordered. I obeyed her. “Don’t you ever scare me like that again. Got it?”
“But that’s not my name.”
“Just go with it,” Isaiah murmured with a grin. “She was very grumpy that three syllables didn’t have enough impact.”
She crossed her arms, still fuming a little. “You vanish on me, for two weeks, no word, no sight of you—and then show up bleeding in my living room?”
“You know, when you put it that way…”
She scowled at me, and I put up my hands innocently. “Sorry. Genuinely—I’m sorry. Everything just happened at once.”
Chandra didn’t look entirely convinced, but she glanced over at Isaiah, who was giving her an amused look. “…Fine. But you are going to eat, and then you are going to stay here until you are actually better.”
“Awake is not better!”
…She had a point. “Okay, okay.” Then I smiled. “It’s, uh, good to see you.”
The next moment, her arms were around me in a tight hug. I was too startled to hug her back, and besides, a few moments later, she was tugging Ruben into the kitchen to help her… stir something? I wasn’t really keeping track.
Johara drifted over to the two of us, suppressing an obvious smile. “I think she’s taking my job.”
“If it helps,” I sighed, “I scared myself too. Wherever I was, it was…” I shivered a little.
“Well, you’re safe now. At least for a little while.” Isaiah ruffled my hair, and I would have protested, but I probably didn’t have much of a leg to stand on as far as ‘worrying the adults around me’ went.
I turned to sit down, then counted the chairs. Ruben, Sulha, Isaiah, Mrs. Chaudhury, me…
There was an extra chair at the table. And Jo sat down at it, the shy smile on her face telling me all I needed to know.
Yeah. Yeah, I liked it here.
I hadn’t taken Mrs. Chaudhury seriously when she’d claimed that what she’d made for me and Nathan was ‘nothing’, but eating what she made fresh at home put into perspective what most of her cooking was like. I thought I wasn’t hungry, but once I started eating, I ended up having three servings, the third mostly prompted by Sulha cheerfully telling me to stop staring at the curry and just eat more if I wanted to.
Mrs. Chaudhury watched me, mostly when she thought I wouldn’t notice. She looked… better. Still a little uncertain, but I’d expected that much. “Sulha, Ruben, isn’t your program on?”
Ruben gasped in horror. “I almost missed it! Come on, Sulha!” They practically sprinted away from the table.
I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at Mrs. Chaudhury. “Between Netflix and TVRs, I wouldn’t think that mattered so much.”
“Oh, well… a few white lies here and there never hurt anybody,” she admitted, turning a little red.
“As far as Sulha and Ruben are concerned,” Isaiah said, sipping at his water and trying not to grin, “their program is on twice a day, and if they miss it, they miss it. They’ll figure out it’s recorded eventually, but until then, they’re much easier to plan around.”
That was incredibly sneaky. I liked it. “I guess you haven’t told them much.”
Mrs. Chaudhury looked a little troubled at that, and shook her head. “I can’t say I understand much of it either.”
“Part of the great joy of our community,” Isaiah sighed, “is that there’s very few of us who understand all of it. I do alright, but Avery’s the best record-keeper we have.”
“Avery?” That didn’t really surprise me. But—“Aren’t they kind of young?”
“They broke through at seventeen and have been recording everything they learn and hear from others ever since. So they’re a little more structured than most of us,” he said with a smile. “But the Medium… that I can help with.”
I nodded, mostly following. “It… I don’t know. It felt like a bad dream. What is it?”
Isaiah was quiet for a moment, thinking it through. “There are a lot of worlds other than ours. And what those worlds are is less important—Faerieland, etc. Most of us don’t go there. But the Medium is the world between worlds. The space between molecules, or the air rushing between leaves. 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.”
This was making my brain hurt. “So it’s a—crossing-place?”
“The reason I could find you in the Medium,” Johara added, quietly, “is because that’s also where ghosts live.”
I felt a buzzing rise in my ears, and could only dimly hear Isaiah relating what Jo had said to Mrs. Chaudhury. “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 inside, an hour or a minute outside.”
“So what happened to me?”
Mrs. Chaudhury cleared her throat. “That woman, I assume.” She said it with such venom. “Whatever her name is.”
“Kiera. Once there’s a faerie in the mix, things don’t go so smoothly.” Isaiah chuckled a little. “Robin calls it ‘faerie bullshit,’ which is fair, considering they have to deal with them all the time.”
“No one’s sure. Robin is just very attractive to faeries, it seems. Literally, I mean—they’re shiny or something to faerie eyes.”
I couldn’t imagine. “Kiera’s enough trouble for me, thanks.”
“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,” he 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.”
“Great. Because being menaced by a faerie bitch wasn’t bad enough.”
“If it helps, she doesn’t sound quite like a normal faerie. Most of them are pretty harmless.”
Mrs. Chaudhury looked about as doubtful as I felt. “Isaiah, I trust you with my life, but I’m not sure about harmless.”
“I’m serious!” Isaiah protested. “Most of the trouble with faeries is them just not knowing how our brains work, or vice versa. They like rules and deals and games. Some still steal children-“
Mrs. Chaudhury stiffened.
“-but,” Isaiah continued carefully, “that’s not common anymore.”
“Glad to hear it,” she said archly.
“Stolen children?” I asked curiously.
“Changelings,” he said, then leaned his head on his hand, looking me over. “You don’t have much context for faeries, huh?”
I shrugged. “I got Disney movies and a few fairy tales. That’s about it.”
“Alright. I’m not the best person for this, admittedly. But Robin would get sidetracked into complaining about somebody in specific, and Avery would give too much detail, so probably not the worst person, either.”
I tried not to smile. I hadn’t even met Robin, but I was getting a pretty good picture.
Isaiah thought for a moment, probably deciding where to start. “There’s – so, we use faerie in a few different ways. The Courts – Seelie, Unseelie – use it pretty broadly for all of the spirits and beings that vaguely fit. So there’s a few things that fit all of them, but it’s such a broad category that it’s not the most helpful.”
“Broad as in?” Mrs. Chaudhury asked, still sounding a touch skeptical.
“Most people aren’t going to call rakshasas, soucouyants and pixies the same thing.”
Mrs. Chaudhury gave him a slightly-panicked, horrified look. “You’re not telling me rakshasas are real.”
“…I can pretend I didn’t.”
She buried her face in her hands, and I decided now wasn’t the time to ask what a rakshasa was. “Denial was nicer. Denial was fine. Denial did not have demons.”
Isaiah gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder. “Sorry.”
“You’re not selling this ‘faeries are harmless’ thing very well,” I mumbled.
“I’m – I’m not, am I? There’s just a lot of them. And a lot of what Western people talk about when they say faeries-“
“White Christians,” Mrs. Chaudhury interjected, taking a sip of water.
“Well, sort of. It depends on how stuff translates. But the specific group are the European faeries.”
This was starting to feel like stuff I’d maybe run into before. “Okay, and they do stuff like steal kids?”
“Switch human babies with their own, jinx crops, take cows for random rides in the middle of the night, seduce women, cause mysterious pregnancies…”
I raised an eyebrow, then looked at Jo. “Should I be more concerned about what you were reading?”
She shrugged with a little impish grin.
“But they don’t do that any more. Right?” I asked. “I mean, they can’t. There’s not a lot of cattle herds just lying around these days.”
“Depends where you are. But no, they do different tricks now. And that’s what I mean by harmless – most faeries, European faeries like the Tylwyth Teg and the Dwarves – they just like screwing with people. They don’t try to hurt people. They’ll make a sinkhole because they think it’s funny and if somebody falls in, then oh well.”
I blinked, remembering the giant sinkhole that had collapsed Rideau Street earlier in the year. “…Are you telling me that was faeries?”
Isaiah grimaced. “Goblins, specifically. Prank war with the dwarves.”
“There are goblins and dwarves under downtown.”
“There’s also a lot of unmarked graves, so take your pick on what’s really weirder.”
Seventeen years living in Ottawa, and I apparently didn’t know jack shit about it. “None of this sounds like Kiera. Like… fucking with people, sure. But she’s not a prankster, is she?”
“No, she’s… bizarrely singleminded for a faerie. But knowing that she’s unusual is…” He scratched the stubble on his chin. “Well, even that is more than we knew before.”
“Well, we didn’t actually know she was a faerie at first. Just thought she was a regular Mercury elemental.”
That made sense. “How do you know all this?” I couldn’t help asking. “I mean, you say Robin deals with faeries, but…”
“Both my partners have had their encounters, actually. Luka got screwed over by instability reactions with a faerie before.”
Luka was… the boyfriend, right. I still didn’t understand how that worked. But it sounded nice, I had to admit—in part because I still hadn’t quite gotten my head around Grown-Up Queer People as a concept. Let alone married ones.
“Anyway, now that you’ve gotten that first trip over with, it should be easier to navigate,” Isaiah said, then added, “and I mean easier, not easy.” I didn’t miss that he’d changed the topic.
“I have a feeling that place never gets simple.”
Isaiah pulled a face. “Absolutely not. I’ve been there twice, and both times gave me a headache.”
I still felt doubtful about the whole thing. “…What about Kiera? I mean—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.
“What if she comes after the kids?” I asked nervously.
“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Chaudhury said darkly. “She won’t.” She hadn’t shown me—but I had a feeling she’d been practicing with her powers. “If she wants any of you, she’ll have to go through me.”
I still didn’t know how I felt about imposing on her hospitality. But Isaiah was giving me such an encouraging look—and it didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
“Alright,” I said. I thought I would feel like I was trapping myself. Instead—even if it didn’t last—I did feel safer. Even just for a while.
Something was still bothering me, though. Kiera had made such a point of declaring herself as one of the Aos Sidhe. I didn’t know what that meant – faerie, Unseelie, whatever, one of those – but if there were so many faeries in Ottawa, why was she always on her own?