Three Lost Souls
by K.D. West
It had seemed like a good idea at the time: step Outside down into Sundown for the afternoon with Annie, and cheer Ari up.
Ari’s last letter had been so terse, so devoid of Ari, that it had taken Timi’s breath away. When it had concluded, It’s nice that you’re feeling happier, she had thought, right, you bastard, we’ve got to do something about you, too.
So she had decided to pop down to town at the beginning of the three-day weekend. Nobody would miss them, and they could be back in time to clear the new Dean Professor Crotchett’s basilisk glare before bed check.
She had raided the last of the great O’Danan store of alcohol behind the clock in the student lounge — one bottle of moonshine and another of some rum that Jim’s pen-pal in Brazil had sent him few years earlier that was supposed to turn your hair purple. That should be entertaining, she thought.
When Annie met up with her in the entry hall, it occurred to Timi for the first time to wonder what had possessed her to ask her friend along. True, Annie had never made Ari as furious as she had Jim or as nervous as she had made Joe….
Thinking of Jim and Joe suddenly left Timi feeling as if a bucket of ice water had been poured over her, and, unbidden, images of the two of them crumpled together on the floor led to images of her mother, dead on the front lawn of their house, of Tommy Kamayama, dead in the lobby of the Metaphysics building, of Professors Levy and Nolicherri on the steps she was about to walk down, of TJ at Christmas, and Liz Garcia, and Rue Finneran, and the Li sisters and…
The touch of Annie’s hand on her shoulder broke the spell. Timi realized that everyone in the line behind her was staring at her, as were Dean Crotchett and the chancellor. Chancellor Harrington placed a dry hand on Timi’s other shoulder. “Are you all right, Miss O’Danan?”
Almost in spite of herself, Timi nodded. “Flashback,” she murmured, and saw those behind her nod too. Everyone knew. Everyone thought they understood.
The chancellor gave her the thinnest of smiles, and waved Timi and Annie through the huge doors.
The two of them were the last members of the original group that had worked with Ari after he’d opened the rift to Tir na Nog left at the school. Thirty students had been in the group, including, of course, Timi’s brothers. Most had died. Or graduated. Or just left. The Avayas, of course, the only other sophomores that year — they were among the dead. So that left just Timi. And Annie.
Everyone knew what Timi and Annie had done and what they had seen. And, of course, everyone at school had suffered their own losses.
As they walked down the road to the school gates, breaths barely ghosting the crisp October air, Timi considered her friend, who seemed to be reciting “The Walrus and the Carpenter” under her breath. Her wide, grey eyes scanned the world with an equanimity that Timi could only envy and wonder at.
In front of them, a group of freshmen were laughing, bursting with excitement at getting to leave the Mountain for the first time, some going home, some visiting the valley for the first time, chattering about where they could buy beer in town. It stunned Timi to see them acting so normally, when all she could think of as they walked through the gate was Professor Nolicherri riding on dragon-back against an armored squad of Fomorians. The top of the gate was still scorched black.
As the younger students sprinted down towards the train station, Timi lead Annie off in the other direction, down towards the railroad tracks. “Come on,” she said, trying desperately to keep the sense of fun and adventure with which she had meant to infect Ari’s gloomy home. “Let’s step Outside from over here. We cleared the wards.”
Without showing much concern one way or another, Annie nodded and the two of them disappeared without a sound.
Of course, they still had to enter the house by the battered front door. Annie reached out and rapped with the knocker. Cringing in anticipation of some explosion, though she couldn’t say why, Timi was greeted instead by a quiet squeak as the door opened.
Eight enormous green eyes peered down from the lintel. “Miss Timi, Miss Annie! What a delightful surprise to see you two!” Anton, the fierce-looking, gentle-spirited cacodaemon who had attached himself to Ari even before the rift was closed, was dressed in what looked like an attempt at a butler’s black suit. As it was, he looked like a huge spider caught in a black circus tent.
He led them into the front hall.
Hanging opposite the door was the portrait of Ari’s parents that TJ had been painting, just before he died. They waved down at Timi. She had watched her boyfriend painting this as a Christmas gift for their friend. Timi had filched the photo from Ari’s photo album, so Gabe and Lyndsey Sundown’s portraits knew her well. TJ hadn’t even been able to sign it. But at least he had cast the charms that brought the figures to life.
“TJ died to save me,” said a colorless voice from behind Timi’s ear. “It was the least I could think to do to honor him. I think my parents would have approved.” The Sundowns in the painting waved.
Timi spun to find Ari peering up at his parents from the bottom of the stairs. “Ari!” she said, but the excitement that had leapt to her throat died there as she saw his ashen complexion, the dark circles under his eyes. The redness that showed that — even now — he had been crying. “Oh, Ari.”
Ari’s eyes bathed her in their dark flood for a moment, then flicked to Annie. Annie, however, was looking abstractedly at Timi.
“So,” Ari said, finally, “what brings the two of you down to this house of mirth?”
“We’ve come to cheer you up,” Timi said, as brightly as she could manage. She felt as if she were playing the role of Timi O’Danan, Everyone’s Little Sister: bright and plucky and always cheerful. Cheerful wasn’t what she felt at all at that moment.
At least Annie gave a vague smile of support.
“Ah,” Ari sighed, his face impassive, his black suit without a tatter, stain or ornament. “Kind of a tall order, don’t you think?”
“What?” Timi said in what she hoped sounded like mock indignation. She pulled the bottles from her book bag. “A couple of college girls show up on your doorstep bearing booze, and that doesn’t even merit a little smile, Mr. Sundown?”
“You’re kidding. I’ve only been out of school a few months myself,” Ari muttered, though the corners of his mouth did lift almost imperceptibly. The idea of a smile, but it would serve. “What did you have in mind? Two Truths and a Lie? Spin the Wand?”
“Now you’re kidding,” Timi teased, relieved that he was at least playing along. “I don’t think we had any idea what we were going to do once we got here, but…” She looked to Annie again, but her friend was now staring off into the ether, that maddening Annie smile on her thin lips.
“But what?” Ari asked.
“But… It’s been horrible being back at school, really. They’ve scrubbed away all of the blood, but I know where every spot was…” The two of them were staring at her now, both level-gazed, silver eyes and brown. “And I would have gone crazy these last two months if I hadn’t had Annie there. She’s kept me sane. And I thought… That is, we… I thought, and Annie agreed, that maybe we could do some of the same for you….” Her little speech petered out under Ari’s empty look. Not so plucky, not so cheerful. Kind of bleak, really, but the truth.
Ari nodded, looking from Timi’s face to Annie’s. “Have the two of you had lunch?”
They both shook their heads.
“Hey, Anton!” Ari called out.
“Yes, Mr. Sundown, sir? What can I do, sir?”
“Would you mind bringing something to eat in to the dining room?” Ari asked.
“Would I mind, sir? Oh, it would be my greatest pleasure, sir!” The huge cacodaemon seemed to be vibrating with excitement.
Timi was feeling a bit alarmed. “Nothing too fancy, Anton, please, just some sandwiches or something….”
Anton scowled down at her as if she’d slapped him. Funny, she thought, his eight eyes are almost the exact shade of Mum’s. Then the demon smiled broadly. “Miss O’Danan will have her little joke, miss. I will have luncheon out immediately, miss!” With that, he disappeared into the kitchen.
“Well,” Ari said, the uncertain attempt at a smile still playing on his lips, “I can’t have two lovely young ladies drinking…” He peered through his glasses at one of the bottles hanging limp in Timi’s grip. “Rum Cabelo Roxo on an empty stomach. Not very hospitable, to begin with, and your mom would kill me, besides, Timi.”
Before Timi’s ire had a chance to peak, Ari meandered into the dining room. “When Anton says ‘immediately,’” Ari said, “he means it. Look — he’s already served out the first course….”
Timi and Annie trailed behind their friend and Timi was stunned. The last time she had been here, in mid-August, this room had still born the traces of having served as an operations center — shreds of parchment, torn maps on the wall. Anton had just started working for Ari then, and the transformation was astonishing. The chandelier glittered, a painting of Rhea Levy smiling down from the wall, and the rosewood-inlaid table was polished to a blinding sheen, sporting three places laid with silver and crystal and china. Three salads that looked so fresh and crisp that Timi almost couldn’t bear the thought of disturbing the plates. Two goblets filled blood-red. One clear.
“Wow,” Timi said. “Beats the Wyvern.”
“Miss O’Danan is too kind to say so,” Anton’s muffled voice called out from the other side of the door that led to the kitchen.
Ari stood behind the tall chair at the head of the table and indicated that his guests should sit. Slightly awed, Timi did so, stowing her bag and the alcohol beneath the table. Annie seemed to notice the table only then; she too sat.
Again, Ari seemed to consider smiling before gravity sucked him back down. Timi’s insides twisted as she watched that happen. Damn you, Sundown… He picked up his goblet, the clear one. “I hope you like the wine,” Ari said. “The cellars here are still very well stocked, my mom… Now, if you don’t mind, a toast: To friends, and to the joy they bring.”
The twist worked its way up into Timi’s throat as she and Annie lifted their glasses to answer the toast. The wine was dark-flavored, rich and almost chocolaty. “Mmmm. Ari, that’s really… I mean, what do you say? It’s really yummy,” Timi said, feeling it spread through her. “Thought you didn’t want us drunk on an empty stomach? And what are you drinking, Ari?”
The little warmth that had shown in Ari’s face drained away. “Water. I… I really can’t be drinking right now. Anton’s worried that I sometimes get pretty bad.”
“Oh.” Timi wanted to take the two bottles at her feet and throw them out of the window. “I, uh… I guess that makes sense. That was stupid of me.”
Ari shook his head, and began to eat, not looking up.
Timi looked down at her own plate, at the glistening china and the perfect arrangement of bright, crisp greens. “Jesus,” she muttered. “I almost don’t want to mess it up. Poor Mum would have loved to be served like this. She never felt as if her meals were…” Timi stopped before her throat seized up entirely.
Annie looked up, tilted her head to one side, and spoke her first intelligible words since leaving the school. “The meals at your mothers’ home were the most wonderful I’ve ever had.”
Ari peered at Annie for a moment, then nodded solemnly to Timi. “All those years of eating with you and your family, Timi, I never once failed to get up from the table feeling better than when I’d sat down.”
Timi covered her face with her napkin, then took a breath and lowered it. “Even the time I dumped my curry in your lap, that first summer?”
That merited something approaching a true smile, even from Ari. “Even then.”
Now she began to eat, looking for any distraction from the crushing sadness that every conversation with this man, every memory of this place seemed to visit on her.
“I remember having dinner at your house right after my mother died,” Annie murmured. “Your mum made cheese soup, which I thought sounded rather odd. But it tasted happy. Or maybe it was all of you laughing and smiling….”
“That was the night that Jim and I…” Timi gave a weak, snorting giggle, “tried to convince Joe that ‘fork’ was pronounced ‘fuck.’“
And they all laughed, even as they all thought of the fact that Jim and Joe were not there.
They passed the rest of the meal in companionable, sad silence.
As Anton brought out the cheese course, even Annie groaned, standing up to examine the sleeves on the Levy portrait’s formal academic robes.
“Anton, you’ve outdone yourself,” Ari said. Turning to the girls, he sighed, “Poor Anton doesn’t get much of a chance to dust off his skills. Haven’t had many visitors…”
“Not true, Mr. Sundown, sir!” said the cacodaemon, pouring out tiny glasses of port that Timi thought tasted like sweet liquid smoke. “Last week we had Miss Lambert and Miss Forest and Miss Partridge. The week before that it was Miss Fawcett and Miss Paris….”
“Sarah…? And Cricket Paris?” Timi said, even as dread settled heavy in her stomach. “You’ve been seeing Cricket Paris?”
“No!” barked Ari. “It’s nothing like that! It’s… nothing like you two. Not one of them came here as a friend. None of them stayed for a meal, which was, Anton, you meddling demon, the point that I was trying to make. They were all here to steal a march on the most eligible bachelor since Elysium Territory was first settled. Cricket came intending to seduce me, I guess — which made her stomach turn as much as it did mine, I’m sure — but she was much more passionate about the idea of our ‘two great family lines merging’ than she ever was about me.” He glowered down into his water.
Damn you, Sundown, Timi found herself thinking again. How was it that he could humiliate her and inspire her sympathy, both at the same time?
“Come on,” Ari said, “Let’s go up to the living room. I’ve got another painting I want to show you.” He turned to Anton. “Thanks, Anton. That was wonderful.”
The girls murmured in agreement.
The cacodaemon wrung the hem of his tent-sized coat, large tears forming along his wide nose. “Mr. Sundown, sir, misses, you are too kind… Perhaps, Mr. Sundown, sir, I should not take my—”
“No, Anton, come on, we go through this every week. It’s your evening off. Draw your pay and leave. If I see you before tomorrow morning — or if you spend any of your damned pay on me — I’ll dock your salary.”
“I am sure you intend that to be amusing, sir. Very well. I shall try to… divert myself this afternoon and evening. Once I have finished cleaning up from this meal, sir.”
Timi moved forward. “Let us help you clear, at least, Anton.”
Suddenly the demon looked deeply insulted, his tusks showing. “Oh, no, miss. Do not take from me the honor of my service, miss.”
“I, uh, wouldn’t dream of it,” said Timi, nonplussed.
As they followed Ari’s dark form up the stairs to the living room, Timi watched his parents in the front hall painting following her with their eyes, smiling.
Annie’s hand tucked itself into Timi’s elbow as they walked behind Ari into the old living room. He led them down to the far end, where once a huge map of Elysium Territory had taken up most of the wall. Now there was an enormous canvas, with nearly thirty very familiar figures milling around.
“It’s the research group, that first day in Mom’s lab!” Timi gasped.
Ari nodded. “It’s not exactly the same, of course. Look.”
Timi and Annie walked up to the painting. They were seated around the big table in the Summoning lab. In the background lurked Timi’s mothers: her mom, Dolfy Schuler, in dingy black work duds; her mum, oh, Jesus, her mum, Brigid O’Danan, resplendent in an emerald green dress that matched her eyes — Timi’s eyes, too, though she’d never have the figure to pull the dress off like her mum. In the foreground, around the pushed-together tables, were Dan Farmer, TJ Williams, Liz Garcia and Becky Smith, Rue Finneran, Ernie Curry and Jason Fleischer, Karina and Kailey Li in jewel-toned Chinese jackets. In the front row were Sam, Joe in his favorite dark blue Yankees shirt, Jim in a red Niners jersey, and then Ari, Annie and Timi themselves, all in black school robes. Silly fucking European affectation…
Timi’s emotions were bubbling again, looking at all of these people she had fought with and cared for. She touched a finger to Liz’s smiling face and Liz giggled as if tickled; she was dressed in sapphire silk, which Timi was fairly certain she hadn’t been wearing that day.
“We’re wearing black,” Annie said, airily.
Timi looked again, and saw what Annie meant: the dead members of group, nearly half of the total number, were dressed in bright colors. They were looking happy, grinning and sipping at beer. Ari, Timi, Annie and the others who had survived were glummer, and they were all dressed somberly in their academic robes. Even Bill and Gus, the relentless clowns, looked as if they would really like to hear a joke.
Timi realized she was crying only when she felt two sets of hands on her shoulders.
“I’m sorry,” Ari said. “I thought you would enjoy it. I didn’t mean for you to—”
“No, it’s all right.” Timi shook her head and smiled, or tried to. “It’s just… I think this is just right. The bunch of us that are left, everywhere we look is a reminder, isn’t it? Even a celebration is an act of mourning…”
Ari backed away, his face in a grimace. “No, I’m so sorry. I feel… I feel like a fucking changeling. A monster. Everything I touch right now turns to ash. You came here to cheer me up, and all I can manage to do is make you cry.”
Later, Timi would realize that her response had been building all day, all month, all year — ever since the week before Christmas the previous year, when the Fomorians had killed TJ and his family, and they had all been devastated, Timi especially, and Ari had been furious with himself, certain that TJ’s family would never have been targeted if it hadn’t been for for him, for the fact that he’d opened the rift, that TJ was trying to help him close it.
Nonetheless, standing there in the living room, the reaction caught her — and her friends — utterly by surprise.
“Don’t you dare! Don’t you DARE take away my right to call my grief my own, Sundown! You arrogant fucking self-obsessed beautiful fucking asshole. We came here today because we love you, you stupid prick! We think you’re the bee’s fucking knees, and without you we’d all be fucking dead. But that doesn’t mean that my being sad is your fucking fault. You lost some people, did you? Two best friends, a girlfriend, a former girlfriend, a couple of parents a ways back, a bunch of pals? Fine, you arrogant fucking jerk-off, I’ll see that and raise you. I lost my best friend — aside from the two of you — not to mention two brothers, a mother, two boyfriends and more friends than I think I can stand on any given day, including, as near as I can tell, you, Ari, and what did I do this morning, instead of going with Annie down to the Wyvern and flirting with the poor dregs of the senior class, who are all scared of the two of us anyway because we fought in the fucking Battles of the Rift? What did I do? I came down here to try to fucking cheer you up! I’m fucking crying because I’m fucking sad.” And, annoyingly, she found that she was, indeed, crying. “I’m here because I…”
Eyes wide and face burnished with shame, Ari stepped towards her. “Timi, I’m so sor—”
She turned away, intending to walk out the door, but instead ran directly into Annie. Who wrapped her spindly arms around Timi and kissed her gently on the lips.
It is not too much to say that Timi was already in shock, her own anger singing through her nerves, and so perhaps, when she looked back on it later, Timi thought it wise not to be too surprised that she accepted the kiss, felt its warmth stilling her, and tentatively returned it.
It was when Annie stepped back that a mixture of astonishment, desire, and shame thrilled through her. She looked instinctively to Ari and saw her own feelings spelled out in his expression.
He looked as if someone had kissed and slapped him both at the same time. “I can go…”
Timi felt the urge to howl at him some more, to tell him that he was an idiot, that if he walked out of the door that she would kill him, but Annie was quicker. “I just thought I’d show you what love looks like again,” she said.
For the first time in months, something other than images of death and loss rendered Timi speechless. The butterfly heat of Annie’s kiss had stolen all power of thought from her. Again she turned to Ari and saw color coming to his cheeks for the first time since the previous spring. He was also speechless.
Annie stepped forward and kissed him too, and he gave a moan as their mouths came together that melted Timi utterly — it could have been sounded from the depths of her own soul.
Timi stood there, dumb, blinking, until Annie stepped back from Ari, leaving him gasping. The blonde girl blinked then too, and twined her arms in front of her. “I sort of lost a boyfriend last June too,” she said, very evenly. “Sort of lost two, though Sam only kissed me once and Joe never did seem to be listening when I told him how I felt. But there are two people in this room that I love very much.”
Timi and Ari moved towards her.
Read the rest in Changelings: A Friendly Ménage Fantasy!
Three lost souls have won a war and been stripped of everything else – except each other
What do you do after the final battle?
Ari, Annie, and Timi have every reason to be happy. They helped defeat the invading horde from another plane and won the war.
Yet happy is the last thing any of them are feeling. After losing so much, they feel like anything but themselves. Anything but human.
And yet like many other forms of magic, these three find that love cannot be denied.