It was snowing.
Stef blinked, unable to reconcile the information.
Light flakes fell in front of her eyes, drifting lazily down to form a fresh coat of powder on the-
She twisted her head and dipped slightly off the low bed, reaching down to touch what had been the floor of the oubliette – which now appeared to be at least two inches of snow.
Stef pulled herself back onto the bed, and dragged the top blanket away from its moorings under the mattress to wrap around her shoulders, and looked around the rest of the oubliette.
Or the snowy expanse that had been the oubliette.
To her left and right, snow and forest seemed to stretch on forever. Ahead of her was-
Oh my…I am going insane.
In front of her, where the door to the oubliette usually appeared, was a coat stand, and an oversized fur coat.
She pushed the blanket away from her shoulders, swung her legs off the bed, clumsy feet shuffling until they pushed into her sneakers – which were unusually warm and dry, given the snow around her, and walked towards the fur coat.
It was asking for a covenant.
If she touched the coat, if she slipped it on, then it wasn’t responsible for the magic that happened.
It was asking her to step into another wardrobe, to take the magic on the other side, and to never look back.
And it was impossible to resist.
I’m insane, I’m insane, I’m insane.
She reached for the coat, and let her fingers brush over the soft brown sleeve. ‘I’m not- I’m not this-’
I’m not this insane.
Except when you are.
‘This remind me of-’
It wasn’t possible. Even with all the magic in the world, it wasn’t possible. Even with magic angel program people and cookies from nothing, it wasn’t-
This wasn’t insanity. This wasn’t some hallucination. She was too…lucid.
She closed her eyes and counted to ten, taking in all of the sensory information – it was too real, too complete. Too…grounded. It wasn’t her stupid brain being stupid.
She stepped back from the coat, and looked to her left, at the endless snow and snow-heavy, winter-dead trees.
She turned, her feet crunching on the snow. Her bed was the bed she’d gone to sleep in – simple, functional, exactly the kind of thing Ryan would required, even if he hadn’t required it, not exactly.
She took three steps to the left, to where the wall should be, and reached her hand out.
She touched the wall of the oubliette.
Stef stepped back, breath coming out in unsteady gasps.
This is just like-
She turned, and ran the few steps to the other wall, found it where she expected, and traced her hand along the barrier that separated her from Carol.
It was like when Hook had brought Neverland to her bedroom – a perfect illusion, so long as you didn’t touch the edges, for even imagination only stretched so far. You could dream about pirate ships and tangible starlight all you wanted, but you couldn’t push the edges of your bedroom, or the positions of the windows.
It had always been…fun to find the edges, a self-defeating challenge of her imagination, but it had seemed so-
It had seemed so real at the time.
And Peter had been real.
Peter had been absolutely real. He’d been real and he’d run away, he’d gone to Neverland without her.
And after Peter, it had been difficult to think about Neverland, about a place that was now impossible to get to.
She lifted a hand to the back of her head and grabbed a chunk of hair, trying to use the pain to ground herself.
It wasn’t real. It couldn’t- He couldn’t-
There was a cold breeze, and a flurry of snowflakes zoomed past her, making her turn back towards the tempting fur coat.
The land of always-winter-never-Christmas had been a replacement. The man in the hospital that came around with the books had left her a copy, even though she couldn’t remember asking for it – drugs were a hell of a drug – and it had done a little to fill the hole left by Peter abandoning her.
But it had been a good place to escape to – even if she’d never bothered to generate an imaginary friend from the world, the same way she had done with Hook.
And hiding in a wardrobe had led her to real magic.
Stef stepped forward, and pulled the coat from the stand, and slipped it on – it was huge, dwarfing her like she was wearing something that belonged to a giant. She buttoned it, smelling mothballs and sea salt, and walked past the rack – through the door, which she knew was there, even if she couldn’t see the edges.
She walked up a slight incline, and into a loose thicket of skinny trees – spying a faint light just beyond them.
I know what that is. I know what it can’t be.
She pushed her way through the trees, cold branches slapping her in the face, and stumbled out into a clearing that held a lamp post.
It was nothing but a simple metal pole with a light on top. Broken into its constituent parts, it was absolutely unremarkable. Taken as its elements only, it was nothing, but as a whole it was something quite a lot more.
She took a small breath and walked toward it. The light it cast fell in a small circle around the bottom of it, and it seemed to brighten more than the winter world.
Stef touched a hand to it, half-expecting for it to go through it, for the lamp post not to be real, for the world around her to be nothing more than an illusion. It was real. The metal was cold, with just a touch of frost on the surface.
Something inside her screamed to keep hold of her rational thoughts, the semblances of responsibility and the harrows of being a grown-up. To keep a hold of everything she should be, but wasn’t.
Her left hand joined her right on the lamp post, the cold metal grounding her in unreality more than she could have imagined.
Stef shrugged off the coat and ran past the lamp post, into the forest, touching tree after tree, seeing shapes moving in the darkness beyond – wild animals, but ones that she knew, deep down, she didn’t have to be afraid of.
She tripped over a tree root that was jutting up from the ground, and landed face-first in the snow.
For a moment, she stayed there, breathing in the snow, feeling as cold as the mirror in her chest. She sat up and looked at the tree, half-expecting there to be a family of squirrels inside, slowly roasting chestnuts over an impossibly small but warm fire. There was just a tree root.
It wasn’t real, it couldn’t be real…but it was.
Snow was melting in her hair, her nose was freezing, and she could hear the sounds of something crunching snow off to her right.
Stef pushed herself to her knees, her hands sinking down into the snow, and looked to her right as she got her balance back.
A white stag, as white as the snow around her stared down at her, unsure of what she was, but not afraid enough to flee.
She stood, but kept her distance, just wanting to watch it before it leaped away and again became the elusive quarry. It snorted out another breath and took a step closer, crunching the snow under its hooves. It wasn’t the stag as she had imagined it, as she’d never imagined that its eyes would be crackling with blue fire, burning hotly despite the snow around it.
She took a small breath, waiting for it to make its move – having no intention of making the first one.
Seeing the stag this close was a pleasure that very few had, and even less saw the- She blinked and focussed on its antlers, unsure if she believed her eyes. The stag turned its head and caught the bright light of the winter world, and this time she was sure of it.
Runes had been carved into the antlers – though magic or machination, she didn’t know. She tried to focus on them to read them, but every time she did, they shifted under her gaze and reformed, forming a new pattern, a new word, a new spell, a new story.
The stag took a step toward her and she panicked, unsure as to whether or not she should back away. It lowered its head and stared at her.
‘Wh-what do you want from me?’ she asked it, afraid that the words would cause it to dart away. It knelt on one knee and snorted again. ‘No, you can’t mean-’ It merely snorted at her again and she slowly inched closer, expecting the beautiful animal to run away.
She reached a hand out, and stroked its cheek, giving it one last chance to run away.
After another impatient snort, she climbed onto its back. There was no saddle, no bridle, not even a cord around its neck to hold onto, so she dug her hands as deeply as she could into its snow-encrusted fur and prayed to gods she knew weren’t listening that she wouldn’t fall.
The stag reared up onto its back legs, throwing off whatever sense of balance she’d had and ran into the forest. She leaned forward against its thick neck as trees and shrubs raced by, nothing more than patches of brown and snowed-under green.
She’d been horse riding when she had been younger – and though it had been more appealing than dancing, the precise order in which things needed to be done, never being allowed to take Buttercup past a canter, it had muted the whole experience.
The galloping stag beneath her was an entirely different animal to the carefully controlled thoroughbred that she’d ridden. There was no expensive tack, no stiff boots that pinched her feet, no hard hat crushing a carefully coiffed French braid. It was all she could do to hold on, but some part of her knew that even if she let go, she wouldn’t fall – despite the certainty, she held tight.
With a great leap, the stag cleared a felled log and the forest. A frozen lake, surrounded by blue, snow-capped mountains filled the vista. She slipped off the stag as it knelt, and quickly found her feet.
There was a path in front of her, leading down to a dock – an invitation to go further.
‘Well,’ she said quietly, ‘come on feet.’
She walked down the hill, her feet sinking into the snow – even though it was cold, it was never as cold as it should be. It never got beyond nippy – there was some…certainty that she didn’t have to worry about frostbite, that the snow was for show more than anything else.
The lake’s surface was as smooth as mirror – a frozen blue so perfect it must have been Photoshopped. The dock, all of its wood crusted with ice, seemed old, but well-cared for.
She turned, but the stag was gone – its apparent duty as a taxi service was over and done with.
She sat, and swung her legs over the end of the dock, and stared down at her reflection. Whatever came next, was apparently waiting to make a grand entrance. If there was anything next.
Another cold wind blew, and she wished she hadn’t thrown the coat away so easily.
‘You won’t be cold for much longer, my ship will be here soon.’
She would have known the voice a thousand years ago, a thousand years into the future, or a million dimensions away. She couldn’t know the voice, because the man it belonged to didn’t exist.
She was already crying before she heard his footsteps beside her.
Captain James Hook crouched beside her, his hand on her shoulder, his hook offering a monogrammed handkerchief. ‘No tears, dear heart, no need for tears.’
‘You aren’t real,’ she whispered, even as she took the very real handkerchief, and wiped away her very real tears. ‘Captain, you can’t be here.’
Hook sat beside her, every detail the same as her memory. The curls of his black hair, the lines on his wrinkled face, the brightness of his blue eyes.
‘You’re…imaginary,’ she said, twisting the handkerchief in her hands. ‘You’re…just-‘
‘There’s nothing “just” about some imaginary friends, dearest. I’m as real as you are.’
She twisted the handkerchief around her fingers so tightly that they went white from a lack of blood flow. ‘I don’t believe you.’
Hook put his hand on hers, and slowly, she unwound the handkerchief. ‘I’m real,’ he said, ‘and I’ve never lied to you before.’
You said you’d never leave.
Stef stood, shaking her head slightly to keep herself from crying again. ‘So what are you? You aren’t Ryan and this isn’t a sim. The oubliette can change the wall display, but I’m not in the oubliette anymore, don’t argue with me, I found the edges-’
‘As you always did.’
‘So if you’re real, what the fuck are you?’ she said, the words coming out far harsher than she’d intended.
Hook stood, his clothes regal, but old – a king just past his prime, just the way she’d always imagined him – except that she hadn’t. She grabbed his sleeve – it felt as real as the snow and the lamp post and everything else. ‘Either I have gone completely off my rocker or-’
‘I am from the Court of the Lost, dear one. We look after abused children and those who have no path. I was your…caseworker, if you want to put it like that.’
She felt more tears starting. ‘You’re…real? You’re really real?’
She slammed her fists into his chest. ‘Then why did you leave me?!’ she stumbled back and away from him. ‘I was all alone! You- You left! I needed you!’ Her face crumpled, and she felt herself falling apart. ‘I-’
‘You asked me to leave,’ Hook said, looking as devastated as she felt. He fished into one of his pockets with his hand, extracted another handkerchief and extended it towards her. ‘And we always respect what our charges want, even if we don’t agree with it. You told me to leave, and you never called for me again.’
She tried to uncurl her hands from the tight fists they’d formed. ‘I never asked you to leave!’
‘Yes, dear one, you did.’
‘I don’t remember-’
‘I would wager,’ he said gently, ‘you don’t remember a lot after Peter.’
She shook her head vaguely. ‘I…I don’t. But I-‘ She curled her hands back into fists. ‘So what are you doing here, now?! I’m too old for-’
‘You’re still Lost,’ he said, emphasising the last word. ‘And this gives me a chance to put things right. I couldn’t protect you, because you banished me, and we don’t kidnap children against their will. I could do nothing then, but we can give you sanctuary now.’
The lake ice cracked.
A long crack ran through the ice to the right of the dock, all the way to the edge of the lake, then a twin to the left joined it. She stumbled back a few paces as the doc shook.
Something slowly rose out of the ice – a crow’s nest. A crow’s nest made of ice.
Hook reached out his hook to her, and grabbed the crow’s nest as it curved towards them. He grabbed a loose piece of rigging and caught hold. ‘Come along,’ he said.
She curled her hand around his hook – as she’d done dozens of times as a child, and felt her feet leave the ground as they swung into the crow’s nest, the motion as effortless as if they’d been lifted into place.
She stood up in the crow’s nest, a spyglass of made of ice clinking at her feet; and the ship boat groaned – the same groan that wood under pressure made – and came to rest on the frozen surface of the lake.
Sails of ever-so-faintly tinted ice billowed with the ease of cloth and the clipper made its way across the lake, the icy surface giving as freely as water would. Overhead, gulls cried, and above them, the shadow of a dragon blocked the fuzzy sun for a moment before disappearing, its owner never showing itself.
She slid to the floor of the crow’s nest, clutching the cold spyglass – a chilly replacement for Alexandria.
She stared at the distorted view of the world that the icy walls of the crow’s nest afforded her. Through the wood-grained-ice, a pirate crew was visible running ropes and swabbing the decks – all of the jobs she’d ever imagined or read about. She stared up at the few lonely clouds, needing the space of the sky in order to breathe, and closed her eyes, trying to give herself a moment to deal with everything that had-
‘How did you know where I was?’ she asked, the question pushing to the top of her mind.
‘Your angel came to see us. He’s worrying like a father, and wants somewhere safe for you to go.’
‘He’s talked about sanctuary,’ she said, ‘but I don’t want to hide away behind the blocks of Notre Dame, ringing the bells and-’
The Captain extended his arm, the faint sun catching the tip of his hook. ‘This is what we can offer you; we can give you whatever world you can imagine. Or, should that not suit, you could become one of us.’ He smiled. ‘You did always want to become my protégé, dearest.’
The idea was appealing, but one thought crushed it. ‘So- Ryan’s trying to get rid of me?’
‘I didn’t speak with the man directly, I only know that the laws of angels are unfair when it comes to the silver in your chest. They may treasure their stability more than your life, and that isn’t an outcome that anyone who cares for you will stand for.’
But I was just starting to like the world.
‘Where- Where are we going?’
‘On a not-so-grand adventure,’ he said, reaching a hand down to her. ‘The place of the hero and the nothing, the quiet place, a place to find your self.’
The ship moored itself beside a pile of rocks, then began to descend back into the lake. As they drew level with the rocks, Hook jumped, and she followed – a feat far more athletic than anything she’d pulled since quitting ballet.
There was a cave entrance – the logical road forward, and she walked forward, unafraid. This was a place of fantasy, of imagination, there was nothing to be afraid of.
The cave was dry, even if it wasn’t overly warm. Torches and lamps lit the path through to a wide cliff overlooking a silver sea beneath a sky ribboned with an auroras. There was no way down the sheer mountainside, and no wings sprouted from her back, or were there to be glued on with wax.
‘This is the contemplace,’ Hook said as he came out onto the cliff. ‘It is a place to think and decide, to see if you are Lost or Found. Within the Lost, anything is possible, it is…what we excel at. You’re welcome here, I’m not so sure that there are many other places that will welcome you, as you are.’
She stared at the silver sea. ‘I was just starting to like the world,’ she said. ‘I don’t know that I- I don’t know if I want to hide away from it again.’
Hook touched the wall, and a large, empty frame carved itself into the wall. ‘If you need to know what you already know, the contemplace can show you.’
She hugged her arms around herself. ‘I know what I know,’ she said, thinking of the Agency, ‘but I know it’s what I can’t have.’ She took two stiff steps forward, and touched a hand to polished surface within the rock-carved frame.
Swaths of colour came from her hand, pouring like spilt paint onto the rock.
‘You’re doing this,’ she said, as the paint slowly formed into an image of her in her Agency uniform.
Logically, it should have shown her, hermiting in her apartment, wrapped up in a smelly blanket, wearing clothes she hadn’t washed in weeks.
That was who she was, she wasn’t the girl in the suit.
The her in the picture moved, blinked, and reached out her hand to her.
Fingers made of paint threaded through hers, holding her tight.
The Agency had…made sense. It had been everything she’d ever wanted. It had been magic that didn’t shun tech. It had been somewhere she might have been able to belong.
And it had Ryan.
Ryan, who now seemed to be taking his first opportunity to get rid of her.
The paint rushed back across her skin, changing her shirt and pants into her Agency uniform – a very slow, very formal, magical girl transformation.
I really should get a tiara.
‘I don’t believe that you can have what you wish for, dearest,’ Hook said. ‘Not with how angels operate.’
‘I know,’ she said, shoving her hands into her pockets, ‘it’s just, I know I want more than- If you’d taken me as a kid, I wouldn’t have cared. If you’d taken me a month ago, I wouldn’t have cared.’ She stared down at the ground. ‘As much as I love this Captain, I want more.’
‘You’re Found, then?’
She shrugged. ‘It sounds weird, even to me.’
‘As you wish, but you’ll always be welcome here.’
She nodded, then ran the couple of steps to him, and hugged him tightly. ‘I’m glad you’re real. I’m sorry I punched you.’
Hook put his hand and his hook on her shoulders. ‘You’re forgiven, little one.’
She sniffed, feeling five years old again. ‘So what happens now?’
Her Captain stepped back, lifted a hand, and the world dropped away.
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