“The Truth About Heaven”

story by Mabel Harper & Emrys Webb
written by Emrys Webb

Fabiana’s thumbs flew as she fired off text after garbled text to Christian.

fuck u should have seen him he as fuckin incredibll

She glanced over at where Rory stood behind a dumpster a short distance down the alleyway, taking a leak.

hes a fuxking ticking time blmb

hes a god

it wa sbeautiful

Sounds like a bone warp hex, came Christian’s reply. Then, He can’t have had much training. Tremendous potential, followed by, A maleficer of that caliber would be a godsend since we lost Amy.

all I jnow is imma eat his dikkkk, Fabi texted back.

Time to make the big reveal, don’t you think? replied Christian. Start doing a little therapy?

im all fuckkin over it chief

Fabi quickly stashed her phone as Rory trudged back toward her. He had his head bowed, hands in pockets, boyish features locked in a stony expression. “I think I’m gonna call it a night, okay?” he said, his voice dull.

“My place is just two blocks that way,” Fabi protested, with a jerk of her thumb.

“I’m really not in the mood for…stuff anymore,” mumbled Rory. “And anyway, I just shouldn’t. I shouldn’t have said any of that stuff to you, or—or touched you like I did. I was fucked up. I wasn’t thinking straight. I’m gonna walk over there with you, make sure you get home safe, and then I’m gonna split. Okay?”

Fabi looked him in the eyes. “That shithead was ready to break your neck. He deserved what he got.”

Rory dropped his gaze, worked his jaw. “Maybe.”

“What you have,” Fabi pronounced, emphatically. “It’s a gift.”

Rory’s gaze swung back up to meet hers, his expression wary. “What are you talking about, ‘what I have’?”

“Rory…this is gonna sound crazy. Because…well, it is. It’s a fucking insane coincidence. But listen.” Fabi held his gaze; laid her hands on his shoulders. “I’m a mage.” She watched this information sink in. “And I know a hex when I see one.”

Rory stared. “You’re…?” he said, after several seconds. “How?”

“Don’t worry. I’m not an Auctoritas Magicae drone. I’m just a fucking factionless street rat. And I’m sure as hell not gonna tell anybody what I just saw you do.”

Rory stared at Fabi a few seconds longer, then turned and started off with long strides toward the street.

Fabi followed. “Look, dude, if you’re feeling messed up about it, don’t. You had every right. Not only was it self-defense, that guy was a fucking waste of space. If I’d been in your shoes, I woulda snuffed him. One and done.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“Is it?” Fabi laughed. “Tell me one way the world wouldn’t be better off without that prick.”

“I don’t wanna talk about this anymore.”

Fabi fell silent, recalculating. He’s still conflicted. I’m losing him. “You…still wanna walk me home?” she asked meekly, as they reached the street. “It’s a pretty rough neighborhood. But I’m not scared of shit as long as you’re around.”

Rory looked at her. His eyes softened. “Sure.”

Fabi stayed silent for a bit as they strolled side by side down the near-deserted sidewalk. “I guess I just don’t have much sympathy for people like that,” she resumed eventually. “I’ve seen too much.”

Rory was silent for a beat before answering. “That’s understandable.”

Fabi paused. “It really sucks what happened with your band.”

Rory didn’t answer.

“Look,” said Fabi, after another stretch of silence, “I’m really, really sorry if you had a bad night because of me.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” said Rory. “Honestly, I’m my own worst enemy.”

“Dude. I feel that so hard.” Fabi studied Rory sidelong, reflected that she really did like him. She’d liked him the first night she’d met him. He was vulnerable in a way most guys—hell, most people—had no idea how to be. “Rory…can I be super real with you right now?”

Rory slowed to a halt, turned toward her with a bitter almost-smile. “Shoot your shot.”

She stood facing him. A raindrop landed on her scalp, trailed down her hairline. “I’d be super, super sad,” she exhaled, “if what happened tonight meant we couldn’t be friends anymore.”

The knot in Rory’s brow relaxed a little. More raindrops started to fall.

“Especially now that we know each other’s secret,” Fabi went on. “You’re the first mage I’ve met in ages. And it kind of majorly blows having this whole big part of my life I can’t talk to anyone about.”

Rory stood there, rain darkening his shirt, flattening his shaggy forelock against his temple. 

After a beat, he started walking again, nodding slowly to himself. “Yeah,” he said finally. “Of course we’re still friends.” He smiled wanly over his shoulder at her.

Fabi caught up, fell into step beside him. “Good.” She grinned. “’Cause I have so many things I wanna fuckin’ talk to you about. Seriously.”

By the time they reached the big artists’ garage where Fabi lived, the rain was coming down in a steady sheet. “Hey.” Fabi turned to Rory. “Just fucking stay over, dude. You’re gonna get soaked as shit walking to the bus station, and then you’re gonna hafta take the bus to the train and ride it all the way back to Springdale. Just, you know…crash here tonight. I can give you dry stuff to wear. I promise I won’t try to touch your thingy. Scout’s honor.” She held up three fingers.

Rory inhaled through his nose, made a show of rolling his eyes upward in thought. But a small, rallying smile was already curling his lips. “Okay,” he sighed, and brought his gaze to rest on her once more.

Fabi grinned broadly, then dropped to a crouch in front of a big metal overhead door, turned her key in the lock.

“Welcome to the Bitch Pit,” she announced, ducking inside.

Rory followed. “The Bitch Pit…?”

“As it’s fondly known.”

Fabi watched Rory’s face as he took in the sights, smells, and sounds of the communal space, tipped her chin at some of her flatmates in passing: Yulia the nudist, modestly attired in an apron printed to look like the body of Michelangelo’s David and a pair of monster claw oven mitts, sliding a cookie sheet of coffee beans out of the oven; Matt G. and Matt D. of local deathcore band Icon Slaughter, screen-printing merch with their new t-shirt design (a zombie teddy bear with intestines spilling out of its belly, spelling their band name); Doctor Weird, the mascot pithuahua, dressed in his tiny homemade leather-daddy vest, surrounded by doting admirers on a couch made out of tattered cushions stuffed in half a clawfoot bathtub.

Fabi led Rory past the vine-covered windows, the psychedelic tapestries, the bong collection, the shitty furniture made from old pallets; past fucked-up brick walls plastered with punk art, graffiti, band posters. Rory seemed intrigued by it all, but still looked like his mind was somewhere else.

“Welp; this is it.” Fabi swept aside one of the yellowing bed-sheet curtains with a Vanna-White flourish. “Home sweet home.”

Rory ducked under the curtain, glanced around at the naked, threadbare twin mattress, the couple of shabby backpacks overflowing with clothes, toiletries, and other randomness. “It’s…cozy,” he pronounced, a bit awkwardly.

“It’s a shithole.” Fabi shrugged. “You can say it.”

“I think it’s kind of awesome, though. I mean it. You’re like a real bohemian.”

Fabi let out a guffaw. “You’re cute.”

Rory looked bashful.

“It’s what I can afford.” Fabi unshouldered the backpack she’d worn that night, dropped it on the floor. “And it’s a hell of a whole lot better than sleeping outside in the rain. Gimme your clothes. I’ll hang them up.”

Rory eyed her uncertainly, then peeled off his rain-soaked shirt. His body underneath was tawny and tight.

Fabi started to strip off her own clothes, saw him avert his eyes.

Aimed a silent curse at Shut-In Girl.

Fabi disrobed completely. Rory stopped short at his boxers, waited with his arms crossed over his chest till she threw him an oversized sweatshirt and sweatpants from her bag.

“BRB.” Fabi put on a fresh t-shirt and shorts, gathered all their wet clothes into a ball.

She returned a few minutes later, having tossed their stuff over the clothesline in the common area, and found Rory seated on her mattress, taking up as tiny an area of space at the bottom corner as he could reasonably occupy. He once more had a brooding look on his face.

“Hey.” She sat beside him, nudged him. “Try to put it out of your head, yeah? Self-defense, B. You did what you had to.”

Rory didn’t budge.

“I’mma distract you, okay?” Fabiana stretched out on her bed with her fingers laced behind her wet head, legs crossed at the ankles. “What’s your story? You ever been in a faction? Or did your family always fly solo?” Rory glanced wordlessly back at her. Fabi patted the fraying pillow-top at her side. He looked uncertain. “I promised, no hanky-panky. Didn’t I?”

After a beat, Rory lay back, careful to keep a few inches of mattress between himself and Fabiana. He folded his hands over his stomach. “I used to be Arcanus.”

“No shit. Me too. Academy Class of ’05.”

“Dude, how fucking old are you?”

“Twenty-one.”

“Fuck. I was Class of ’07.”

“Holy shit, you’re a baby!”

“Yeah. But I didn’t graduate.”

“Me either,” said Fabi. “I bailed as soon as I was old enough to take care of myself. Fifth year. Just fuckin’ ran away.”

“Shit. That’s young.”

“Yeah. Me and my brother were boarding students, since our folks weren’t around. It was hell. He actually took off a couple years before I did. Didn’t even tell me he was going. IDK where the fuck he is now, but it’s whatever. He was an asshole.”

“Wait.” Rory looked at Fabi, frowned. “So you were all on your own when you were—what? Ten or eleven?”

“Eleven.”

“What did you do? For a living, I mean?”

Fabi chewed on her thumbnail. “Turned tricks.”

The look in Rory’s puppy-dog eyes was priceless. “You weren’t kidding about that?”

Fabi shook her head.

“Since you were eleven?”

“Yo, the younger you are, the more you bank.”

Rory continued to stare at her in horror.

“It’s whatever, you know?” Fabi shrugged. “It’s a living.”

“Dude. You should come stay at my mom’s house. That way you don’t have to do that kind of stuff anymore. My mom’s super chill about letting people crash. My cousin stayed there rent-free for two years after my aunt kicked him out of the house.”

Fabi laughed. Well, I know how to push your buttons now, Boy Scout. Play the broken-bird card. “You’re adorbs, for real. But it’s cool. I’ve been doing my own thing my whole life, you know? I’m not about to give that up now.”

Rory lay back, stared wide-eyed at the ceiling.

“What about you?”asked Fabi, changing the subject. “When’d you finally get off the assembly line?”

“Eighth year.” Rory’s gaze seemed suddenly far away.

“Just one year from graduation,” Fabi observed. “Why then?”

Rory shrugged. “I always knew the whole thing was bullshit.” He was silent a moment. “But I guess eighth year was when the only reason I had for sticking around went away. So.”

Fabi raised an eyebrow. “Lemme guess…a girl?”

Rory stared at the ceiling. “Actually—no.”

Fabi sensed that she shouldn’t press further on the topic, at least for now. “It’s pretty fucked up, isn’t it?” she mused, again changing the subject.

“What is?”

“The Arcanus bigwigs. How they act like they want us Nameless around when they really don’t.”

“Yeah, totally. They want us to be under their control so we won’t turn against them. And they want us to pad their numbers so they won’t fall behind Khmun’s. But they don’t want us to actually be on a level playing field with the old guard.” Rory paused. “They wouldn’t even take my mom and dad, you know. And my mom, at least, really wanted to join. That’s why she made me and my sister join even though she couldn’t.”

“Why wouldn’t they take her?”

“I’m not sure. My dad, I think he had some kind of legal trouble in his past. Conning mundanes or something like that. But it’s really un-fucking-fair to hold that against my mom. She was a respected healer in the Philippines. Here, you can’t get licensed to practice magic professionally without joining an A.M.-aligned faction, so she cleans fucking houses for a living. I guess she probably could’ve joined Khmun, since they recruit like crazy. But she’s super Catholic. She would never convert to their religion.”

“She should work underground.”

Rory shook his head. “She’s too straight-laced for that.”

“That’s what my parents did. They never even tried to join up. They weren’t about to give up the family trade, and they knew from the start it wouldn’t fly with the Auctoritas Magicae.”

“What was it, your family trade?”

“Somnomancy.”

She could see Rory working out the etymology in his head. “Sleep magic? Why the hell should that be illegal?”

“Who the fuck knows. I think they see it as a form of cogimancy. But it’s not about controlling or intruding on people at all. At least, not the way my family practiced it. It’s supposed to be therapeutic.”

Rory rolled on his side to face her, his expression curious. “How?”

“Well”—Fabi grunted, rolled to face him back—“with an invitation, you can enter someone’s dreams. Shape their experience. Help them take control of their unconscious.”

Rory’s eyes grew round. “Holy shit. That’s awesome.”

Fabi grinned.

“Do you know how to do that?” Rory asked.

“It’s an inherited ability, so kind of. My dad taught me as much as he could when I was little. Of course they didn’t want me touching that shit while I was at Arcanus Academy, but I’ve learned as much as I can on my own since then. It’s been a while now since I’ve had someone else to play with, but I’ve gotten pretty good at controlling my own dreams.”

The last part was a little white lie, and not the first she’d told him. Fabi figured it wasn’t time yet to clue Rory in that she’d spent a lot of time more recently developing her craft with the help of her Nihilite sisters and brothers. He wouldn’t be ready to hear about that stuff this early in the game. He still had attachments. Principles.

“You should try it on me,” said Rory, with a childlike eagerness.

Fabi grinned, with sincere amusement as much as triumph. Hook, line, and sinker. “That’d be awesome. I’ve really missed dreaming with other peeps. It’s actually super fun.”

“And you can control what happens in the dream?”

“Yeah, sort of. If it’s me going into someone else’s dream, then I can only work with what’s already in their unconscious. But that still gives me lots to play with.”

“That’s so fucking rad.”

“You’re for-real the cutest.”

Rory looked shy.

“You wanna try dreaming right now?” Fabi edged a little closer to him. To her relief, he didn’t back away.

“I’m not really sleepy.” His expression clouded. “Still kind of on edge, to be honest.”

“I can help with that. Just stare into my eyes. Try not to look away.”

Rory rested his cheek on his forearm, gazed at Fabi quietly. There’s still a lot of hope in you, isn’t there? She searched his soft, dark eyes. Haven’t quite had it all beaten out of you yet. “I’m gonna touch your face,” she said gently.

He nodded consent.

Fabi’s fingers traced his hairline; the smooth skin of his cheek. He blinked softly. When relaxed, his face looked distinctly sad.

She started singing, softly—“Brown-Eyed Girl,” the song Dad had always sung her to sleep with when she was a kid. Fabi wasn’t a great singer. Dad hadn’t been either. Didn’t matter. It was just kind of letting yourself get lost in the song that worked like a charm, every time.

And letting yourself get lost, just enough, in the big brown eyes looking back at you.

“Hey, Fabi,” Rory mumbled, as his eyelids began to droop.

“Yeah?”

“Can you make it a nice dream? Something to…make me forget about what happened tonight. At least for now.”

Fabi smiled, felt the tiniest pang of regret. “I’ll do you one better.”

A silent question came into Rory’s eyes.

“Just for tonight,” she whispered, leaning in close, “I’ll give you your perfect world.”

Rory looked at her wonderingly.

“My dad used to do that for people who were dying.” Fabi stroked his cheek. “Make them dream of their perfect world in their final moments.”

“That’s beautiful,” whispered Rory.

“It was against the law,” Fabi exhaled, getting sleepy herself. “That’s why the Auctoritas Magicae tranquilized him.”

Rory’s gaze turned sad. “Really?”

Fabi gave a small nod. This one wasn’t a lie. It was the truth.

Tears filled Rory’s eyes. “That’s fucking awful.”

Fabi traced her fingers over his soft, slack lips, his chin, gave the slightest of shrugs. “That’s life for ya, B.” She smiled, brushed off a tear that had escaped onto his nose. “Pretty sure Dad had the last laugh. Wherever he is now, he’s dreaming of his perfect world, while the rest of us suckers are stuck here in this bullshit one.” She scooted closer, rested her cheek on the mattress, leaned her forehead against his. “Now, close your eyes, beautiful boy,” she whispered, breathing heavily, and held her own eyelids open just long enough to watch Rory’s flutter shut. “Time to dream.”

•─────☾ ☽─────•

It took Fabi a moment to realize she was standing in a kitchen—a messy, over-furnished, lived-in-looking space with aging, floral-patterned linoleum, and magenta walls crowded with kitsch and Catholic iconography. The air was rich with the scent of fermented soy, vinegar, and cooking meat.

Packed tightly around the little country-style dining table were ten mismatched chairs, five of them empty. In the other five sat people Fabi recognized as Rory’s bandmates and Shut-In Girl from the photo, along with an unfamiliar girl about sixteen who looked a lot like Rory except smaller, ponytailed, with dimpled apple-cheeks. All five of them were laughing and gabbing like old friends over bowls of steaming white rice.

Fabi glanced over her shoulder into the kitchen proper, saw a middle-aged couple standing in front of the cooktop. The man was wearing an apron, stirring a pot full of meat chunks that simmered in a thick dark gravy, while the woman hugged his waist from behind, giggling in his ear in an unfamiliar language. Beside them stood a small-framed boy maybe eight years old, tawny with a wild black shock-top and impish brown eyes.

“You want to taste, Rory?” the man asked in accented English. Offered the child a spoonful of sauce. “What do you think? You think it’s ready to eat? Is everybody hungry?”

Fabiana stood to one side, watching, as the three of them joined the five who waited at the table to share their meal.

So this is your fam and all your besties, huh, Ror? She observed the giggling boy. And you, the way you were. Before you realized things could go to shit right in front of your eyes.

Fabi frowned, noticing two remaining empty chairs. This is supposed to be your perfect world, yo… Why’s someone missing?

“Fabi!” Kid-Rory jumped up from his chair, came scampering over. “Aren’t you gonna eat?” He skidded to a halt in front of her.

“Oh…me too?” Fabi was taken off guard.

“Yeah, duh.” Rory filled a bowl from the rice maker on the island, dumped meat and gravy overtop of it. “My dad’s adobo is choice,” he announced, with an exaggerated chef kiss, and presented the bowl to Fabi, then grabbed her hand, dragged her to one of the empty chairs.

“Um, thanks,” said Fabiana, with an involuntary giggle. So the ninth chair is for me. “Who’s supposed to sit there?” She pointed at the tenth. 

Rory’s smile vanished. “I don’t think he’s coming.”

“This is your perfect world, B. Anything you want. Make it happen.”

Rory blinked at her, round-eyed.

The doorbell rang.

“Come in!” everybody hollered in a tuneless chorus.

An eccentric figure appeared in the kitchen archway: a tall, wisp-thin, oddly graceful boy in his teens, with red shoes, thick-rimmed glasses, and tousled black hair. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, to a suddenly silent room.

Fabi looked around; realized everyone else had frozen in time except herself, this new arrival, and Rory—whose dream avatar, when she looked at him again, had morphed into the rangy young man she knew.

Rory got up from his chair, his expression inscrutable. Moved to stand in front of the newcomer, who furrowed his brow, a perplexed smile tugging his lips. 

“What?” said the newcomer, after a beat. “You’re acting weird.”

“So we’re…friends?” Rory asked. “You and me?”

The newcomer gave him another goodnatured what-is-wrong-with-you look. Nodded.

Rory fell silent.

“Right,” he said at last, in a faraway voice. Glanced over his shoulder at Fabi; swept the scene with a critical gaze. “This is a dream.”

NEXT CHAPTER: CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
PREVIOUS CHAPTER: CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE
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