An Unexpected Turn

She dreamed. She dreamed of the white-sand beach, the flawless blue of the sky. She dreamed of Delfine, bare feet running alongside her own in the surf. She dreamed of a pure and unbridled joy, of feeling free from the burdens of life. She dreamed of dancing in the ocean breeze, spinning together under the golden sun without a care in the world. She dreamed of laughter as they fell together into the wet sand, arms wrapped around one another, waves lapping at their skin. She dreamed of love, and of holding so tight that she might never let go. She dreamed of a kiss.

No, that wasn’t quite right. The beach, the sand, the surf — these had been a dream, Megan was sure. The kiss, she was present for. It did not come amid the cry of birds and the smell of saltwater. Her lips did not meet Delfine’s under the cloudless sky. It was here, on her sagging couch, through the dim light of gray morning that edged its way past the blinds. It was here, in the same arms that had held her as she slept, now wrapped tightly around her in the morning cold. She felt her cheeks burning again as their lips parted.

She was surprised, but not unpleasantly so. “I, um. I’ll make us some coffee. Do you drink coffee?” Her voice was timid; it was a silly thing to be shy in a moment like this, but her head was swimming with a rush of emotion and still-settling confusion. “I’d love some,” came Delfine’s quiet reply. She planted another quick peck on Megan’s lips before loosening her embrace. Megan untangled herself and stepped to the kitchen, aglow with pleasant lightness as she started the pot brewing.

“How d’you like it?” she called to her guest.

“Well, I can’t say I saw it coming, but no complaints from me!” Delfine grinned as she strode into the kitchen. Megan’s cheeks felt like they might catch fire.

“I meant the coffee,” she said flatly, trying to bury her obvious fluster.

“Oh, I know what you mean,” Delfine laughed. “But where’s the fun in that, hey? I’ll take it black, though, thanks.”

Once the coffee was poured, they returned to the couch. Megan toyed with the idea of turning on the TV, but decided against it; instead, she thought, perhaps it would be good to learn more about the woman who’s arms she’d woken up in. They began with the basics. Delfine grew up in California’s East Bay, the daughter of two decent parents who had come from Greece. She said no more of them, or the rest of her family, for the rest of their talk. She’d done well enough in school, though not without a few scrapes along the way. Among these was a short-lived but fierce phase of drug use when she was fifteen; this, in turn, led her to Lillian.

Delfine spoke fondly of her second upbringing within the world of magic. Things were less dire then, and she’d begun as an acolyte, instructed dutifully by the Five in all manner of what they could do. She was shown how each of them could focus their energies in unique ways, and which ways they shared between them. She learned with them in secret meetings; short lessons in places outside of time, or incantations practiced in a dream. She had time to train her mind and spirit and prepare for whatever Lillian had chosen her for.

“I’d been with them, guided by them, for a full decade when it happened. By then, I was one of their most trusted assistants. I saw firsthand more than one tense moment and shouting match between Lillian, Olivia, and the others. I was there, in the council chamber, when Olivia’s fury spilled over. I was there when she screamed her rage, and lashed out with a blinding flash of lightning. It tore straight through Ingrid’s chest, right through her cloak…” her words trailed as pain washed over her face.

Megan wrapped her arms around Delfine as tears welled. “I was there, Meg,” she choked out between growing sobs. “That bitch is the reason I’m here now, that I’m wearing this cloak. It was- it was Ingrid’s.” Saying the name again broke her, and she collapsed against Megan; she tightened her hold in response, surprised at the sudden show of emotion. Most of an hour passed before Delfine regained her composure and asked for another cup of coffee.

After the brief episode, the conversation picked up in pace; of course, Delfine did not have the answer to Megan’s most pressing question — why, if there were other acolytes and allies nearby, had she been chosen for this role? They’d lost two of their number that day, and only allowed one of their own to don the cloak, trusting a stranger with no training or experience to fill the last seat.

“That’s Lillian’s doing,” she told Megan. “Not that she stopped anyone else from making a suggestion, but — well, she felt so strongly about your potential, we simply could not argue. I — well. I’m glad.”

“I still don’t know what the hell this is, what any of this is,” Megan admitted. It seemed that the more questions she got answers to, the more she had to ask. A sudden transition from waiting tables for the same faces day after day to keeping the company of beautiful strangers with wild tales of magic and treachery was no small feat, and she felt a weariness begin to weigh on her. She swallowed the last dregs of her coffee and leaned in, resting her head on Delfine’s shoulder.

“When Lillian first told us about you, I had this … picture in my head. You know, the way you imagine someone’s going to look without having any idea what the reality is. Can I tell you something?”

“Anything,” Megan replied.

Delfine hesitated, a silence hanging in the air while she seemed to collect her thoughts. She slid an arm around Megan’s shoulders.

“This is really stupid, but — I feel like, I don’t know. Like I’m supposed to be here, with you. Like this is where I’ve been going my whole life, even when I was learning about this whole world, even before that. Like this moment, right here, is where I’ve always been trying to get to, and now I’m here and — I don’t know. It’s … I’m really, really happy that I’m here, and that you’re here, and that we’re together.”

They sat in silence, content to rest in one another’s company; like nothing outside of Megan’s dingy apartment meant anything. The frigid rain falling outside created a steady and quiet noise that drowned out any intrusion, and Megan could want for nothing more than to remain here. She turned her face upwards, her eyes meeting Delfine’s. They gazed at each other in perfect stillness and happiness that seemed to draw minutes into hours. Raising a hand to Delfine’s cheek, she leaned in close to share another kiss.

A sharp knock at the door shattered the silence, breaking both of them from their trance.

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An Unwelcome Guest

A flurry of motion. Megan all but leapt from the couch, springing towards the sudden interruption to press her eye against the peephole. Delfine hissed a quiet profanity and swept her cloak over herself, practically sprinting away from the living room; a wordless glance told Megan she’d have support if it was trouble that had come to her doorstep. She took a sharp breath and peered outside.

An unfamiliar face, but sporting an all-too-familiar blue uniform. Why the hell would there be a cop knocking on her door on a Sunday afternoon? She mutterd an echo of Delfine’s earlier epithet. Another knock. “Miss Adams? I’ve just got a couple of questions.” His voice was rough, like someone who’d had too much whiskey for too long. Trembling, she turned the deadbolt and opened the door enough to show her face.

“Uh, can I help you, officer?” She was afraid it came out sounding suspicious, like she had something to hide. Maybe she did; she’d never been good at feeling these situations out.

“I sure hope so, miss Adams. You mind if I come in?”

“Oh, god, it’s a mess in here. Let me grab my jacket, and we can talk out there?”

“It’ll just be a few minutes of your time, I promise.” He put a hand on the door, pushing it open against her half-hearted resistance. It was probably easier not to push back too hard, and to get this over with. Reluctantly, she stepped back inside and allowed him to follow; she made a mental note of the name on his badge. Harris. Easy enough.

She suddenly remembered that the morning’s pleasantness had distracted her from getting dressed. The best part of wearing magical clothes, though, was that this could be an afterthought without presenting a problem. She appeared to be wearing a pair of worn-out light grey sweatpants paired with a plain white t-shirt. It was a sufficiently Sunday look.

“So, uh, what can I do for you?” her voice trembled slightly as she tried her best to keep her nerves in check.

“I hear you served some, ahh, let’s say unsavory-lookin’ kids a couple days ago. Out-of-towners, out here causin’ some ruckus. Was wonderin’ if ya might have caught where they was headin’.” His voice had a curious quality to it, like he was forcing an accent that he thought was appropriate for the setting. His breath smelled like milk left out overnight, not quite curdled but certainly on its way. Everything about him seemed to set off a warning sign in the back of Megan’s thoughts.

“Well, let me see,” she responded slowly. “I think I remember, kinda. Party kids, right?” She tried to smile, but worried that it looked as insincere as it was. She’d never been a good liar, so it was easier to be vague than to create some other story. Harris nodded.

“To be honest, officer, I wish I could help. I don’t like hearing there’s trouble here, but my job starts and ends at the table. I didn’t catch much of what they said.”

The officer reached into his pocket and extracted a small card. “Well, you think of anything, miss Adams, you be sure and let me know, alright?” He held the card out for her, and she gingerly plucked it from his fingers. It seemed for a moment that he might grab for her hand, but perhaps she was just being paranoid. Without another word, he gave a slight nod and left as abruptly as he’d come. She bolted the door behind him, shaking.

“Megan?” Delfine’s voice floated in from somewhere behind her. She was still wracked by nerves, paralyzed by the feeling of an unwelcome man barging into her home with prying questions. Maybe she was overreacting; it had been quick, he’d accepted her responses easily. Too easily? Maybe. Whatever the case, she was still frozen by the door when she felt Delfine step up behind her, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“Who was that? Do you know him?” There was concern in Delfine’s voice now; she was worried, too. Something about that set Megan even more on edge. She was fighting back tears. Trying to stay calm and collected, trying not to collapse in a pathetic heap, trying to maintain some sense of composure. Trying. Failing. Falling.

Delfine caught her around the waist. “You’re alright, sweetie. Let’s, uh, why don’t you come lay down?” Megan was barely aware of walking as she was guided through the hall, into the bedroom. No tears came, but her whole body shook, her legs unable to hold her up on their own. Delfine helped her sit on the bed, taking a seat next to her and keeping a supportive arm curled around her waist. She allowed herself to breathe, and remembered that she hadn’t answered the earlier question.

“I have no idea who the fuck that was. I mean, I don’t — maybe he’s new, or newer? I don’t deal with the cops a lot outside of work. Maybe he’s just not the diner type, or — I don’t know. He just seemed … off, I guess.”

“I’m sorry, Meg. I — this is probably my fault. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“No, no. You’re not taking blame, Del. You said it yourself, just yesterday. It was my choice. I became a part of this by choice, and even if I didn’t know everything that would come with it, it … you’re not …” her words sputtered off, and she fell backwards onto the bed, bringing Delfine with her. She turned, their eyes meeting, and placed a hand on Delfine’s cheek. She was shaking, too.

“I don’t care who shows up at my door, okay? It’s worth it. You’re worth it. You’ve shown me, just … so much. So much that I haven’t had a second to let it sink in. I’m not letting that go, not for anyone, and not for some rude-ass, probably-fake cop. I bet his name’s not even Harris. Slimy little fuck.”

Delfine laughed. It was quiet at first, but the longer Megan’s words hung in the air, the more she seemed unable to control it. Megan soon joined in, and they laughed loudly together at the absurdity of it. The very idea that some would-be policeman would knock on the door on a lazy Sunday, in the middle of winter, asking questions about some drug-addled kids that had visited the town diner two days ago and been on their way was simply too much.

They tried to collect themselves, fighting giggles that refused to stay silent for long. They were tangled together now, the bedsheets a twisted pile beneath them. As she quieted herself, Megan found herself staring at Delfine’s face; their bout of laughter had returned the lightness to her eyes, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. The stern and solemn look she’d worn on their first meeting felt like a distant memory, vague and faded against the warmth and softness she saw there now. All sense of fear, all the confusion of the past two days, all the worry for the days that would come — all of it melted to nothing at her touch. Delfine was all that she wanted or needed, and she was here. As their arms wrapped around one another, Megan barely noticed the shift of her clothing as the cloak slid from her shoulders and fell quietly to the floor.

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Drive

The remainder of her work day was business as usual. She’d calmed down, though she was still kicking herself. Regardless of the circumstance, regardless of how lucky she’d been that nothing had been stolen, she’d still brought a stranger into her home. She’d still abandoned all sense of reason for a night of passion. She’d still let her control over her own life and actions slip, and she was angry. Sure, it had been — well, pretty damn great, all things considered, but it wasn’t her. It wasn’t normal. It wasn’t — well, it wasn’t worth losing her job over. Focus. Untangle the thoughts later, she told herself. The customers are here now.

Still, throughout the day, Megan felt that same shame and guilt brewing in her mind. She felt betrayed; she wasn’t sure if she blamed herself, or Delphine, or anyone. It didn’t matter who she tried to put that on, the net result was the same. Focus, damnit. Watch where you pour the coffee. Smile. She’d always had a natural charisma that helped her rake in tips, keep light conversation. Today was a struggle. The ease with which she strolled from table to table was gone; she felt stiff, almost robotic, trying to force out pleasantries. She strained to conceal it all, but the more she struggled, the more she was sure it was painfully obvious. Nobody said anything, of course — this was a diner, not a damn therapist’s couch — but she could see concern, sense the curiosity at her unusual behavior. They knew.

As her shift ended, Megan found herself feeling uncertain. Normally, on a day like today, she’d head home and putz around, looking for small chores to keep her busy until she felt satisfied enough to rest. Today, she wasn’t feeling it; the very thought of going back to her empty apartment, of plunging back into the earthy smell and the blur of recent memory, knotted her stomach. She pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the highway. A long drive to nowhere might help clear her thoughts. She cranked up the music as loud as her crappy stock speakers would allow, rolled down the windows to let in the freezing winter air, and drove.

It wasn’t long before she was out of town, out among the woods and hills and emptiness. There wasn’t much traffic out here on a Monday afternoon, and she took full advantage of the open road. The landscapes around her became a blur, the trees and telephone poles blazing past her, the sky rolling above. She felt her thoughts, her worries, blowing away in the icy wind that tore through the car, carried off like so many falling leaves. She felt free, not just from the pressures of life, but from her own internal walls that she’d spent all day building up. She felt unburdened from every distraction; all, of course, but the sudden flash of red and blue behind her.

She spat profanities to herself as she pulled over to the side of the road. Of course. Of fucking course. I let go one goddamn time, and this has to happen. Goddamnit. Why the hell am I such an idiot? Why the hell would I- Her moment of reflection was cut short when she caught his face in the side mirror. Harris. Of all the possibilities, it had to be him.

“Miss Adams! What a pleasant surprise.” His voice grated on her, like someone dragging a bag of rocks across a marble floor. “I’m sure ya know why it is you’re bein’ pulled over. Let’s see that license an’ registration, if ya got ’em.”

She fished out the paperwork and handed it over, trembling with a mix of embarassment and fear. What were the chances that the cop to pull her over would be the same she’d found on her doorstep? That the same cop she’d run afoul of, who never seemed to join his colleagues for breakfast, would be here now, so far outside of town? He had to have been following her, waiting for her recklessness to provide an easy excuse. She stewed in thoughts of calling him out as he went back to his car, presumably running the numbers to make sure there wasn’t some other infraction from her past for him to drag out.

Hours seemed to pass, and Megan regretted her decision to leave the windows down as she drove. In the rush of tearing across the countryside, she hadn’t felt the bite in the air, but as she sat in festering silence waiting for Harris to come back, it seemed to rip into her flesh and gnaw at her bones. Her face ached. Her fingers could barely grip the steering wheel. The swirl of clouds above had yet to make good on their threats of rain, but the scent was on the breeze. She hoped this would be done before it came.

She didn’t notice Harris leaving his car until he was again standing at her window. “All looks to be in order, miss Adams. I’m sure it’ll be no trouble, comin’ up with the fine. You know I don’t like doin’ this, right? Might be a lot easier for ya if there was anything you remembered since the last time we talked…” he let these last words fade. The implications of his pressing were obvious.

“All due respect, officer,” she offered in a tone that suited the icy weather, “I have no idea what you mean. I don’t know those kids, and I don’t know where they went.”

“Well, darlin’, you figure it out, you lemme know, alright?” He handed over her license, registration papers, and significant ticket. Over a decade on the road, and she’d never been given one until now. She knew she’d earned it, but still — it couldn’t have been coincidence. She rolled up her windows and waited until he’d curled off behind her and back towards town before following suit.

Still fuming over everything that had happened and entirely unsure of what to do, she headed home as if on autopilot. Rain had begun to fall in a light patter that was just enough to secure an overnight freeze that would wreak havoc on the roads come morning. Cold, wet, miserable, and clutching her costly prize, she made her way inside.

The earthen smell hit her like a ton of bricks. It had been there before, but somehow it seemed to have grown. She tossed the ticket on the coffee table, next to Delphine’s note. I’ll see you soon; it seemed like a mockery, somehow. Like she was just supposed to agree that they’d meet again, and everything would be fine. They could sit by the window and tell fanciful tales again and she could forget the bullshit of the day, or the week, or however much time would pass before “soon” came around. Like she was supposed to think a night of lacking inhibition had meant anything at all; who knew how many other women or men had been swept up in Hurricane Delphine, their lives left forever altered in her wake.

Megan remembered her burrito, left hours ago in the microwave. She’d normally just toss it straight into the trash and find something else; but then, she’d normally not bring god-knows-who to her bedroom. She’d normally not have spent her afternoon pushing her poor, aging car to its limits on the highway. She’d normally not have a bottle of whatever the hell that was on the table, or the scent of wet dirt permeating her home, or — well, what was one more terrible decision to round out the bunch. She started the microwave up again, telling herself this was enough to kill anything truly harmful.

Burrito in hand, she flicked on the TV and plopped heavily onto the couch. It felt empty; hell, she felt empty. She still couldn’t remember the last time she’d properly eaten, but something more was weighing on her as she bit into her latest terrible life choice. The familiar tune of the local station’s evening news program played from across the room, and the droning voice of the same anchor she’d seen there for years began its daily recitations.

Exhausted and hardly interested in the same hum-drum bullshit blaring from the screen, Megan felt her eyes grow heavy. The room began to dim as she slipped towards sleep, too flustered still to bother moving from the couch to her bed. As the flickering pulse of the television began to fade behind eyelids that were barely still open, Megan nearly missed her opportunity to see a familiar face; framed to the right of the anchor’s stoic gaze was Celia. Beneath the photo, a one-word question: “Terrorist?”

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Not Home

A sharp electronic tone cut through the air, a repeating scream to return to consciousness. Delphine watched as her host stumbled in the dark, pawing at the wall for light before silencing the alarm. She watched as Megan dug through her closet, seeking out her normal dress in favor of the cloak’s embrace. She seemed rushed, like she was trying to make an escape. They spoke briefly before parting as Megan dashed out the door, headed back to the diner for another day’s work. Delphine sighed.

You never knew what you’d get with any new acolyte. Well, not an acolyte in this case, but new all the same. Fresh to the world that existed parallel to her own. Full of that youthful exuberance, the whimsy of seeing something more than you’d ever dreamed. Delphine remembered the feeling, long ago as it was. She mused on her own introduction into this world as she set about setting everything as it had been when she arrived. She smiled as she scrawled out a note, tucking it under her earlier gift to Megan. She wondered how long it would take for curiosity to give way to temptation.

Delphine finished tidying the kitchen. Everything as it had been when she arrived. Save for the note, she couldn’t risk any trace of her passing through. Once she was satisfied that her work was complete, she checked the locks and turned off the lights, her fingers tracing the wall as she returned to the bedroom. Drawing her cloak around her, she sat cross-legged on the floor at the foot of Megan’s bed, closed her eyes, and began the incantation. In her mind’s eye, she watched the ground below her give way, a gaping sinkhole into the soil below stretching out beneath her. She saw herself drift into the Earth’s gaping maw as the land sewed itself back into place above her. She saw flickers, reflections in the blackness skipping past her vision in faint flashes. She felt herself become one with the dirt.

When she opened her eyes, Delphine was standing in the dark. Dim streetlights hung to one side, and wild shadows stood above her on the other. The park. It wasn’t a bad landing; only a five minute walk back. She could get some more rest; while the sun was rising on Megan’s day, Delphine had nearly three more hours before it would find her again. She glanced around to be sure she was alone, then pointed herself towards home.

No, not home. That didn’t seem the right word. Sure, she had her own cot every night, but the shelter didn’t offer the other amenities that came from having a real home. Privacy. Quiet. No, those things didn’t come with the territory here, but it was better than nothing. Hell, it was probably better than a lot of things. People caught in relationships they secretly hate, sharing their entire lives with the ones they despise. People caught under the terror of abuse. People locked in jails for things they didn’t even do. At least she was free. Well, mostly free. Free enough.

Quietly making her way inside, Delphine found an open cot and laid down. She’d slept well enough, but they’d — well, been up late. You really never did know what you’d get. It wasn’t like her to get swept up in their wild reactions, but it had been one hell of a weekend. A slice of what normal life might be like, if she could dig her way out of here. It wasn’t as easy as all that, though; even with an income, everyone’s looking for rental history, for your last three addresses, references, all that crap. These weren’t things you could go out and pick up from the mall after a good week’s work.

She drifted in and out of sleep, listening to the shuffling around her during her moments of lucidity. It had been nice to get away from it, but she didn’t want to risk losing everything. They had to stay together, and a flash-in-the-pan romance sure as shit didn’t facilitate that. She did regret the hurry of the morning, but she didn’t want to overstay her welcome. Sending Megan off to return to her usual routine was cruel, but necessary. Above all else, keeping up the appearance of fitting in to society was important. That was one advantage she had over most here; whatever the circumstance might call for, she could dress the part.

Eventually, dawn broke and the kitchen sprung to life. She wasn’t on the cooking crew today, so her tardiness was excusable. Today was dishwashing duty. It wasn’t a particularly glamorous task, but it was something to do to feel useful and earn her keep. She ate in silence, like she always did. Most around here weren’t exactly social butterflies, and those who were soon learned to keep to each other — especially during meals. Everyone had their routine, no matter what path their life took. Everyone played their part in the grand performance of life. Most of them would never really know their role, what their existence meant on a longer timeline. Most didn’t really seem to care.

It was different for her, though, and for the rest of the Five, all of the initiates and acolytes. They still had their routines, their parts to play, and their roles to fulfill, but with an actor’s awareness of their placement. Sure, not even Lillian had the whole script, but they knew enough of the design to understand what needed to be done here and now. They couldn’t act on impulse — not when it counted. The strategy had been in play since long before Delphine had been born, but now relied on her ability to maintain it. Everything that happened with Olivia — it put everyone in danger. Olivia was a global threat.

She finished her meal and made her way to the back of the kitchen. The stereo in the corner was rattling out something between static and heavy metal; she couldn’t tell what was intentional or not in the varying distortions. She stepped to a sink and set to scraping, spraying, scrubbing, and racking everything that came in. She was quick at it, now, but there were more living here than there had been when she arrived. Whatever it was that was unfolding in the world around her, it seemed that an increasing number of down-on-their-luck folks found their way to this doorstep.

Once the dishes were done, she and the others went their separate ways. Some would stay here, backing up other work crews to stay in good graces. Some would hit the streets, playing instruments or simply silently begging for coins. Others would take a bus or carpool to a normal job, somewhere downtown or near the university or — well, away from here, the place that polite society liked to support but didn’t want to see. Delphine’s day was likely to be something more unique.

At least, that’s how it turned out to be. Her friend’s face was on a small TV in the corner; that didn’t seem right. She stepped closer and caught the tail end of what sounded like an inflammatory rant disguised as news. They were calling Celia terrible things, accusing her of ties to some nebulous group of extremists in a far-off land. It didn’t make any damn sense — what could she have possibly done? Whatever the talking head on the screen had to say, Delphine knew that he was wrong. This wasn’t a report, it was a smear campaign on national television.

This was a declaration of war.

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