The young woman stands in her lover's heart; a radiant darkness encircled by a ring of red flame. It is warm and cool and so subtle here, in these depths. Like some imagined promise of peace. Though she often doesn’t want to leave, she always leaves replenished. She calls the red flame towards her and the ring of light contracts suddenly like a pulse, close enough to reach out and pass her hand through fire the colour of blood. She is delighted, at once youthful and ancient here in the depths of her beloved's heart. And yet she is brazen, openly concealed.
The familiar little ghost enters the ring of flame. She is clad in a summer dress, eyes bright with fierce amusement and strange affection. "Hello, Asha."
Asha forces herself to peer instead at the ring of flame that surrounds them. "Hello, Alice." It feels strange, this new fondness between them. Delightfully so, but still unsettling.
"Well, look at you,” the little ghost mutters. “You’ve changed."
Asha allows herself to smile a little. "Things are always changing."
"For all the better in this case, it seems. Our conversations used to be quite...hostile."
"I'm so sorry, Alice. Truly, I am. I…"
"Hush, feathered one. No need for constant apologies. You apologize to me even in your dreams, but there's no need. They were only nightmares, after all.”
"But they were real, weren't they? Those nightmares?"
"Indeed they were, of a kind. But you’re far more than him, far more than even yourself. More than a fiction. You’re a thing of light, Asha. We wouldn't be here now if you weren't finally beginning to understand that."
She chuckles, nodding. "Finally. With her help."
"It’s wonderful, you know. To see something so human in your eyes again. Boxes hurt, my dear. And dreams. Sometimes dreams hurt most of all, right?"
She closes her eyes and nods with mock solemnity. "Right as rain, lady."
Alice giggles, clearly amused by her response. "Look at you, all humorous and open. It's a good look for you."
Asha keeps her eyes closed. It is still an unsettling thing to gaze too long into the little ghost's eyes. "Well," she offers quietly, half-smiling, "I am kind of a stylish bitch, with wings made of snow. Maybe that's why she loves me."
The sound of Alice's laughter. "One of the many reasons, I’m sure. Diamonds look very good on your beloved one, if I do say so myself."
She allows herself a wry smile, finally opening her eyes to face the ghost. "You're so intense, Mama."
"Well, thank you. Mothers always are, I suppose. I mean, what choice do we have? Honestly?"
Asha nods and looks away again, thinking of the woman she loves. "She's lucky to have you, even if only in dreams."
"Isn't she just."
They both laugh at that, making brief eye-contact again. Alice's expression is wild and alive with playful challenge. It's almost too much, almost too real. Joyful and terrifying all at once.
"I still can't believe any of this is really happening. All these visions, all these dreams she shows me. It's wonderful. It's beautiful and heart-breaking, but it's so overwhelming at times." Asha forces herself to hold Alice's gaze now, despite how it unsettles her. "All these things. All these big magical things…it's lovely and frightening and beautiful. But I'm still just a girl, Alice. I'm still just a girl trying to figure out what the fuck is going on. It all seems so much bigger than me. And yet, there I am at the heart of it somehow. Or close to the heart, at least."
"You’re always close to the heart. It's right there in all of your artwork, isn't it?"
She smiles sadly. "I hope so."
"This recognition gives you a lot of power, Asha. This fame. Those lost ones look to you now, whether you like it or not."
"I know. I love them. I want to share my art with them. Keep them brave and strong, and kind."
"All songs?" the little ghost asks gently.
Asha smiles, looking away again. "Yeah, all songs."
"How delightful. I was listening, you know. When you sang to her that night. You held my broken daughter in your arms and offered her mercy in your song that fateful night. I'm still not entirely sure why you did it. Answer me not as a guilty thing, or as her mistress, but as yourself. Don't lie to me."
Asha cannot look at her now.
"Because for all my sins I do remember softness, and mercy. Because songs are wonderful and kindness is sweet. I told you, I'm still just a girl. I'm still just a girl standing by the sea, in awe. Wanting so desperately for it to love me. And it does, I think. It does love me. And the sky, and the birds and the trees. They all love me in their own wild, strange ways. If I really were a teacher I'd want to teach that. A promise of kindness, even in the wild. No more cruelty than is necessary. Those dreams, those big magical dreams...they sing in my blood. Even those darkest shadows. He might be a storybook monster, Alice, but I’m not. I'm still that girl by the river, that quiet girl among the trees."
The savage play in Alice's eyes has softened now to an almost unbearable tenderness. Asha forces herself to look away again, tears in her own eyes.
"What you just said was incredibly beautiful, feathered one. Thank you. I thank you on my daughter's behalf."
Asha shrugs, her smile tired and bittersweet. "I told you, didn’t I? Remember? I told you I loved her. Even in death. Even in Hell."
"You hid secrets inside of her secrets."
"Of course I did.”
“Why? Why grant her such sweet mercy after an eternity of shadows?”
“Because I love her, Alice. I really do. I always wanted to see her healed, even in that terrifying darkness we built together. I always wanted to sing to her, to soothe her. She sacrificed everything for me. She loved me, even while we were blind."
"And you sang of real kindness that night. It changed things. I was listening."
"You always are. Like mother like daughter, I guess."
They share another brief smile, the gladdened intimacy of which seems to unsettle them both. Asha looks away once again to the ring of fire that encircles them in the blackness. Apart from the little ghost it is the only thing in the radiant darkness upon which she can focus her attention.
"Your art is beautiful, Asha. I see why she loves you so."
Asha swallows and nods, wanting to cry but not needing to. It is a strangely liberating feeling. "Thank you, Mama."
"I love that you can call me that now. That you can honour my daughter in such a gentle, thoughtful way. You’ve both come so far. And to think I once hated you. Aren't dreams and fictions such strange things?"
They both chuckle and Asha senses a mother's kiss in the little ghost's eyes. It almost shatters her heart with its earnestness. The kiss tells her, I forgive everything if you continue to hold each other with such kindness. I can forgive all that you both were in my native dream. I can love you like my own, little teacher, if you would continue to protect her heart like this. Be brave and bright for her.
And Asha weeps at the truth of it. Indeed, she wonders to herself, what else would a truly kind-hearted mother say to her daughter's husband?
"How is she? My fierce little angel, my sweet little writer. How does she seem to you?"
Asha smiles sadly, recalling the familiar ache of distance and intimacy combined. "She seems ok, all things considered. A little sad maybe, kind of tired, but full of wonderful mischief, I think. To be perfectly frank, her passion still blows my mind. Her insights. She's wild and courteous and it's utterly intoxicating to a girl like me. I’m still smitten."
They both laugh, even warmer than before, with gazes held a little longer.
"She would use the same exact words for you, my dear."
"You're dancing well together. Making magic."
Asha smiles. "Hacking algorithms."
"Indeed. You're both getting very good at it."
"So are the ones paying attention."
"Yes, your new scattered family. It's lovely. So hopeful and kind and brave. She's proud of you. So proud. I feel her love for you when I connect with her through those pages. She loves you so much, Asha. It's breath-taking, really. To ask nothing of another and yet to give so much to them. The stuff of legend, I suspect. The Magi cheer you."
Asha smiles at the little ghost in the ring of red flame with her. "The Magi? Really?"
"Do you doubt it?"
"No. I don't think I ever really did. I pay attention. I can hear her taking to me now, through song and image and implication. I can hear her talking to the others too. I can feel her humour, her sense of play. I think we're changing things. It feels like good things are coming, finally."
“How does it feel to be a rockstar living inside your own fantasy novel?"
Asha cannot help but laugh out loud, shaking her head. "It's kind of intense, to tell you the truth. And wonderful. And scary. But if we can truly help people, and this Earth...then I'm down for whatever."
Alice grins at her words. "More fun than just pure demonology, wouldn't you say? Horror is so exhausting, right? But mystery...mystery might be dark, but it’s endlessly compelling. The difference between a devil and the deep blue sea, you might say."
Asha looks away, tears in her eyes again. Love is so fucking terrifying, she thinks to herself. It can come on so quickly, and suddenly you know.
"I love you, Alice. I'll try to protect her for you, as best I can. And I'm so truly sorry about those nightmares we had together. Those boxes and charms, those dark places we went to. All of us."
"Don't fret, little wing. Love is grand. As are you, artist. New daughter of mine. And you know, they say diamonds are a girl's best friend..."
Asha weeps with laughter, humbled and delighted, full of strange joy. The little ghost finally departs, a mother’s kiss in her eyes and forgiveness on her lips.
The ring of red flame in her lover's heart encircles her, protects her, allows her to see and know these things. How kind of her, she thinks to herself. How daring and true the ink in her lover's pen. Asha will forgive them both a thousand fictions and nightmares if she can always feel the depths of her lover's character. A tenderness and passion that might yet lift them – and others – to comprehension of even greater mysteries. She bids the flame to retreat and immediately the ring of fire expands like a pulse. She leaves the radiant darkness, to read and think and reflect. Asha writes and listens to the sounds of birds and traffic and trees. Asha works and wonders. Asha sings.