As usual, Puck was working the counter at The Cup, and Belili was drinking white rabbits and talking theoretical mathematics with the other geeky patrons. The Cup was a haven for all sorts of brainheavy geeks with little or no social skills. Puck, a long-established social hacker, and Belili, a minister-in-training, were notable exceptions to the trend. Notable, if only because of the roles they were about to play in the lives of a couple who'd just blown into town.

Belili spotted them first because the boy was slith-ridden, and glowed blackly in the fluorescent lights. Sliths, she knew, did not attach themselves to happy or healthy people, and most of the ones she'd seen rode drug addicts. They fed on raw emotion, and each had a flavour it preferred: anger, fear, despair. The slith would find a likely source for that flavour, and glom onto it like a parasite, doing everything in its power to keep the target feeling alive, often at the expense of the host. Belili idly wondered about the blackly glowing boy in blue's drug of choice, and what he fed the slith in return for his affliction.

She didn't have to wonder long. Blueboy looked around with wild, commanding eyes, like a drunken prophet intent on delivering his visions with a sledgehammer. Anger, she concluded. The girl at his side glanced fearfully at him and then turned her eyes downward. The girl was pregnant, Belili noticed, and she looked terrified.

Blueboy made his way to the counter and demanded some water, which Puck provided in a paper cup. While Blueboy rattled on to Puck like prophet of oncoming hellfire, Belili took the opportunity to wave the girl over to her table. "What's your name?" she asked the girl, looking her over. "'None that matters," the girl replied. She must have been in her late teens or early twenties, and she was filthy. Her clothes were tattered and her face was a dull grey, but her hair was well combed, and she looked like she tried to take care of herself. Belili glanced pleadingly at Puck, and nodded toward Blueboy. He winked back. He'd keep the kid busy. "No name, huh?" Belili pondered, "I guess I'll have to name you, then." The girl looked frightened and glanced at Blueboy. "It's okay," Belili offered, "I'm a priest. I'm here to help." The girl wavered for a moment, as though she had some other association with priests that was less than pleasant, but finally accepting that Belili meant well, she nodded her agreement.

Blueboy hadn't noticed the girl was talking to anyone yet, and so he kept spreading his apocalyptic message and drinking his water, and Puck played a mean devil's advocate in return. It was a good game of verbal ping-pong, and Belili knew she had a little time. "Now, if I'm to give you a good name," she said to the girl, "It'll have to be a name that's written in you already. Give me your hands and I'll read it for you." Silently, the girl held out her hands, with a faint skeptical smile. Good, Belili thought, I've reached her. Belili took the girl's hands and relaxed her mind into the shaken consciousness of her charge. There was tumult, but throught the crying tempest, she could see something of what the girl truly was, of what she could still become, if it wasn't too damaged. Like the ugly duckling, this one would be a swan.

"Swan," said Belili, with a smile, "You're Swan." The girl looked startled and frightened for a moment, but then she smiled like a child with a lollipop. "How did you know?" she asked, "That's my spirit animal!" Belili smiled serenely at Swan. "It's written in you. I told you, didn't I?" Swan grinned eagerly. "You can do magic!" she whispered, "But it's not ugly magic like his." She nodded at Blueboy, still deep in a conversation that was getting progressively louder. "I thought magic was all ugly, necessary but ugly." Belili stifled a laugh, not wanting to attract Blueboy's attention. "Magic is life," she said, with a mischevous twinkle in her eyes, "Without life, there is no magic; without magic, there is no life."

This, Blueboy heard, and he stormed over to the table to spread his misery to the twinkly fairy bitch who was telling those vicious lies to his girl. These were the end times of the old way, and in the new world, his teaching was the only one that mattered. Life is suffering, and if you're not suffering, you're not earning your food. He burst into a fit of coughing, and spit blood into his now-empty paper cup.

Swan shut down immediately. There really was no hope, was there? The butterfly winged sorceress across the table might have been able to help once, but now, she was certain, she had committed herself to a life in Blueboy's following. If she left him, he would find her and kill her... and her baby.

"You think magic is life? Magic feeds on life," Blueboy began. Puck slid out from behind the counter in a single deft movement, and positioned himself behind Blueboy. Not just a coffee-pouring hacker, Puck was security here as well, and he had no qualms about tossing this one out into the gutter with the punks. "The magic it took to bring us here almost killed me," Blueboy continued, punctuating the sentence with more blood in the cup.

Belili's face deadened into an almost Bene Gesserit serenity, and her eyes shone maliciously from behind the deceptively lowered lids. "Perhaps," she said with an antagonistically light tone, "you are sick because this place tried to keep you out. Odd behaviour for a vortex, but perhaps you are not only uninvited, but unwelcome. Far be it from me to speak for the will of the land, though..." She wore the Buddha's own smile as he further angered, and bled more.

Puck opened his mouth and closed it. Was his sister crazy? What the hell was she doing antagonizing this jackass? He stepped to the side of Blueboy, opposite Swan, and spoke. "Now, Belili," he said, mock-severely, "that's no way to treat a new arrival." Blueboy leapt away from Puck, as he whirled around to face him, a horrified expression firmly affixed on his face. Immediately, Blueboy continued his shpiel about the end times and the price of magic, but this time, with both Puck and Belili to face, it sounded less convincing, even to him. He raised the volume and made practiced proclamations, pausing to expectorate as blood ran from the side of his mouth.

Slowly, Belili let Puck handle more and more of the refutations, until finally, she could speak to Swan again quietly. "You know he's dying, don't you?" Swan nodded uncomfortably. "He's caught a slith -- a sin-eater. I don't know if that's why he's so..." Here she shrugged slightly. Swan didn't answer. "Alright, listen, I'm going to try to peel it away from him, but most likely I'll either fail, or I'll kill him. Neither of these is particularly appealing, but I have to try before he does more damage. Do you understand?" Swan nodded fearfully. Belili sat up and began her efforts, weaving them into the emphatic punctuations of the discussion already in progress.

An hour went by, then two. Belili had pared the slith down to the minimum she could without harming the host. She did notice, though, that Blueboy seemed weaker, somehow, almost like someone had let all the fire out of him, and he was still running on bare coals. His cup was half-filled with blood. Belili turned to Swan. "I can't get it out. You have to get away. If you don't, he'll live off you until he kills you," she glanced at Swan's belly, "Both of you." These lines were issued plainfaced, with no hint of pleasure or of distress, but Swan returned an ironic smile. "He'll kill me if I leave," she chuckled. Belili shook her head with an enigmatic smirk. "Not if he can't find you...which he can't, anymore. Sneak away while he's sleeping and go to one of the shelters. They'll help you." Swan looked doubtful. "I don't know," she mumbled.

Suddenly, Swan rose from her seat, as Blueboy jerked her to her feet. "Hurry up," he snapped, "We're going." Belili grabbed a napkin, and looked tensely at Swan as she scribbled. Swan, understanding, stumbled and bumped into a table, knocking over an ashtray and a chair. She picked up the ashtray, and as she reached for the chair, Belili bent down to help her, sliding the napkin into her hand. Belili winked, and Swan slid the napkin into her pocket and followed Blueboy out the door without another word.

It was just another night in the coffeeshop.


Months later, Puck saw a very familiar girl, carrying a baby, crossing the parking lot of the Dunkin' Donuts. Who is she? he thought, staring. She noticed him, and walked slowly over, smiling. "I remember you," she said, "I'm Swan. Thank you and that priest for helping me. Helping us." She looked at the baby. Oh, he remembered, alright. But, they looked so healthy! As if reading his mind, she said, "It all got easier after we left Blueboy. He died of tuberculosis, of all things, after we were gone. I have my own apartment now, and I work over there." She pointed down the block. "I saw you, and I just wanted you to know that we're okay." Puck smiled. "Thank you," he said, "for letting me know. It's good to see the difference in you." They said their goodbyes and crossed in different directions.

It's been many years now, and we've never again seen her. I like to think she took her son and moved to a better place. If she should need us, though, we'll be here... we always are.

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