22 - Gathering Magic

It's off to the right--but what about Sex--they can't fit anyway, there's just room for me and dolly-Boobsong.

Quickly I grab Candy in front and kiss her hard, then march over to Sex and lay a kiss on her statue lips.

"Looks like this one's just for me and Boobsong. I'll be back before you both know it, don't worry. You two have spent enough time in hell anyway."

Take me along the next one, then--Dreams I wish it, let me come! Hurry back, Candy'll get lonely with me all stone and silent!

There sure might be some candy doing weird stuff while I'm gone--but you'll see. MUAH!

"Love both of you. See you soon!"

Click!

BIP! Dollsized.

With Boobsong in my arms, and feeling right to not put on my outfit just yet, I head for that delicious happy roaring buzz, peer over the battlement but just see dark below, follow the sound further, and there on a runway hanging off my tower on the backside where the view was never all that anyway with a little doorway opened in the battlement to walk out there is our A-10 Warthog, Sparkledust, one of the first things we copied ourselves with the Pirate Device, rendered in the nearest-neighbor-filtered texture-mapped polygons of a late-nineties flight simulator. Its lights are on and engines going and slimelights aglow and it looks positively inviting sitting out there with its cutesy purple dragon-mouth nose-art (and slave-posing Boobsong above that) on its shiny black-with-diamond-sparkles paintjob so awesomely contrasting the airframe's brutal design of which every part says the designers so obviously thought here is how this will still work while shot to pieces, resulting in a strangely ungainly-beautiful and nearly indestructible airplane.

There's nothing loaded on the wings, but the fun way to use an A-10 is light and fleet and all gun.

We called it Sparkledust after what's left of things you shoot up with it within half a second of fire--the tungsten shells would make pretty sparks as they hit, filling the debris cloud with sparkles.

Mommy's calling, hell, indeed. I wonder what we need this for?

RIP AND TEAR!

I mean, obviously. As we get close, tentacles pick us up and lift us to the opening cockpit, settle us in, cinch me down to the seat (no Earthling harness is ever going to work right on this body, let alone an airforce standard-issue one), and close the cockpit over us. Entry lights click off, and it's nice and dark, but for the HUD, which has waypoints already loaded up, that bend off to the left. Curious...

Preflight. We're obviously doing the short-short version if we're already strapped in with the engines on. I set my feet on the rudder pedals, twist around to see the tail, grab the stick and throw full up elevator, full down, try the same with rudder, the shadowy control surfaces move like they should so I follow with peering out the windows for ailerons, airbrakes, the flaps are already down in takeoff position. Fuel tanks at sixty percent or so...that's still a couple of hours of full throttle, but we're trying to be light, interesting.

Ack! Click.

Push head against you.

Huh? Oh. Click. Only one at a time now.

Capped. Very warm nice feeling toy waiting.

Game the wheel-chocks. We roll forward slightly as it pulls them out, and then hehe a pair of tentacles with wand-lights appear in front of us and wave clear for take off. I get my hand on the throttles, make sure I have the grip that'll keep both engines at the same setting, and push them to the firewall. The engines spool and their whining whirr gets urgent and dangerous the way my heart's starting to feel as we roll and pick up speed and acceleration builds to a good hard shove at my ass with the engine RPM--the A-10 isn't a rocket that can stand on its engine-thrust like the F-18, but it's built to carry its own weight and then some in bombs, so unloaded it's pretty sprightly. More importantly, those straight wings and huge ailerons will be perfect for twisting and turning through the hellscape-pillars of wherever we need to go at low speed and altitude, fifty feet off the ground where I can see what we need to blast.

The end of the runway is coming up, we're almost to 200 knots already and the wheels are barely touching the runway but I still don't rotate, because I am so totally just flying off the end like this is a carrier launch, oh yes.

It passes out from under us so silently and suddenly we must have been already flying and the plane suddenly feels held in my hand as the flightstick--and I'm holding a lot of down-elevator instinctively to keep it level. This is way too fast for flaps. Where was the switch...there. Flaps up, gear up, hydraulics whirr and then stop and the thud of the landing-gear locks punctuates it and we're flying a lot easier and I bank to line the first waypoint up with the Total Velocity Vector and then fiddle with the rudders until that lines up with the centerline marker (my dirty secret as a pilot is I've never been able to coordinate a turn. You'd think if I can walk in heels that'd be easy, but no).

In a normal plane, we'd ascend to cruise, but for an A-10, the 325 feet AGL (my tower's not that tall, but we're well down the hill Strawberry Home is on now) the radar altimeter is showing is juuuust plenty. We're picking up speed, still, 250 knots, I'm in a hurry but throttle back in case it happens we need to get twisty right away.

The ground is still pitch black. I know there are no towering monoliths around except the one behind us, or I'd be a little worried, but it seems weird anyway--

The Dreams flash me a vision of Scrooge from the old Christmas Carol movie I remember watching with my family every year, and a sob chokes up in my throat. Off to the past, first, then, which is why we're in my old beloved 1970s-vintage airplane rendered as a flight sim from thirty years ago. I don't know why the Dreams' vision pushes my button so hard, but instantly I'm checking the gun's control panel, and my finger is pressing on the fire-rate switch, forcing it to 4800 rounds/minute like I can push it even higher by sheer force. I make myself let go, but then my finger jumps, pushed by something hard in my heart, to flip up the cover on the arming switch, and flip it, then do the same to the Master Arm switch at the top of the weapons panel.

There's a full load of thirty-millimeter antitank shells--as I wonder if it's tungsten or depleted uranium this time, the Dreams show me a super-missile powerup from Metroid--wait, no. That's a photon torpedo. Sparkledust for real, this time. Alright, guess I'm shooting somebody's eye out, but it sure won't be mine!

GAU-8 Avenger, this plane's gun is called. It's basically just seven big antitank cannons like you'd get on a little trailer with a big shield the gun sticks through bolted together to make a gatling gun and stuck in an airplane designed around it. Somehow I know tonight it's going to live up to its name.

When I look up, there's a new reticle dancing around the HUD, showing where gunfire will land on a motionless target.

Gravel between our toes. I thought we should figure out how to get an A-10 or two through the worldgate because we'd never have a war again if we could just fly up to the stronghold of anyone who challenged us, loud and low over the heads of their armies and people and everyone in a plane even a lucky ballista-shot wouldn't slow down (there's a bathtub of thick titanium armor all around the cockpit, the control surfaces have little cable-operated backups you can fly with if the double-redundant hydraulics go, the engines are designed to suck through shattered pieces of tank and keep running, even the fuel tanks are filled with sponge so they can only leak so fast), and shoot their castle directly to gravel, and then demand they deliver it to Strawberry home, or face real consequences. It's cold and strange to have to admit the eleven-year-old warlord who came up with that idea is me as much as the sparkly bimbo Princess I just crowned myself a minute ago, and I've so many times wanted to just pull her out of me, but it's like a cornerstone, won't budge.

Now, if we're in this plane and have a load of antimatter shells, I guess it's her night.

Ahead, stone pillars with sloping outsides and huge, rough iron gates between them loom up suddenly out of the darkness looking like a nightmare version of the gates to Jurassic Park oh good one, Dreams.

Spare no anything, this time. I pull up a bit, feel the trigger under my finger, breathe deep to make the rush rush.

Well, these guys are boned, aren't they, dolly?

You aren't asking that with a super soaker in your hand!

Oof, good one. Freud's not gonna be the doctor they need to call, though.

I make sure I'm sitting relaxed in the seat because this part is fun and we don't need precision, note our airspeed still hanging around 225 knots, plenty fast enough, and with a wicked grin squeeze the trigger, just for half a second.

The sound is the entire world, the airframe buzzes a hellish vibrator, we pitch down and I'm thrown against the tentacles as I feel our leash keep Boobsong stuck fast to me, pulling at my flesh where she's attached--the recoil force is the same as one of our engines at full throttle (remember a rocket's just a machine for throwing stuff one way so Newton's third law moves it the other way. This gun is really good at that).

Best of all, though, there's no bang, it's not ack-ack-ack, at eighty rounds per second this gun makes the roar of a chainsaw the size of this entire airplane, as loud as a full-throttle jet. Rip and tear.

As I let off the trigger and watch the tracers go, a constellation of a hundred tiny suns flashes into being at the gate, whiting out my vision so I have to see with star-sight to watch them make the gate just disappear--that's not antimatter annihilation, it's the force of the explosions from the picogram that must be in each shell (photon torpedos canonically carry a full gram, which is a few hundred megatons of nuke). It still does the job oh so satisfyingly.

Where the gate was, is a hole in space to a dark Mordorian landscape with an angry red sky. One eye on the blank-for-now radar warning receiver, I fly us through. Brutal turbulence shakes the plane, heat presses in through canopy, and a world of lava lakes glowing in darkness opens out before us. The turbulence smooths out after a moment, and when I look back I can see the angry orange glow of lava on the underside of the engines and tail--we must have been over a lava lake. Avoid those, then. We're really high, too, 1.2k AGL, says the radar altimeter, though that's probably as low as you want to over a lava lake in something made of aluminum (though I'll be more than happy to show off my lavasurfing skills if this needs to get personal, as long as Sparkledust makes it okay).

Lava's fun. It's still just stone, of course, so you float with only the tiniest part submerged and can't really swim, but bodysurfing down a volcano is oh so very metal. Great way to bwaha blow off steam.

Keep your face out of it, though! Remember it's hard to get out of your nose!

Oh right, it smells terrible if you just vaporize it! BLEAH! Have to watch where I sneeze, doing that, hehe.

I look all around, but nothing seems to be coming, so I turn us to follow the next waypoint, and the curving course turns out to follow a path of land between lava lakes up to...aha. Big evil spiky dark lord fortress up on the horizon, very Peter-Jackson-esque. The waypoints look like they lead right up to the gate, keeping the same altitude even as the fortress' hill rises up to meet them.

It's approaching fast. A waypoint's distance readout counts to zero, it zips off the bottom of the HUD, and I swing the next one into view. After this, the path bends up to the gate.

This is all so...on the nose. What is this place, Dreams?

Their response is a chainsaw handle. Another nightmare like Sex was having. But the Scrooge thing--I wondered how it came that my handmaiden was full of those nightmares all that time, but she wasn't. We're time-travelling. Time to party like it's 1995. I wasn't ready to do that stuff then, so I'm doing it now.

The waypoint arrives faster than I expected, and I turn onto the final approach up to the castle. It's a little bit Greyskull, a little bit Drekmor, a lot bit Mordor.

There's still no sign of life, but the gates are getting close. I line the final waypoint up with the targeting cursor, dance on the rudders until it's just right, and turn the front third of the castle to slag with another half-second burst.

"Knock knock, assholes!"

Is your refrigerator running? IT SHOULD BE!

Holy freezer pops I love you so much.

Nothing else seems to happen, it's like the castle is deserted. What's going on here? The top of the castle is a mess of spikes and crazy crooked spikes and towers. There, in the window of a tall thin one with a pointed roof, a speck of color. The landscape is hard-edged desert-of-the-real, but my eyes want to see the color as Disney animation, and Boobsong and Sparkledust and me haven't lost our toonshading. I peel off and fly off to get some distance, then turn back around to face it again. If we had a Maverick loaded, I'd use its guidance camera for a telescope, but we'll just have to fly close.

I can barely catch a glimpse of her before I have to pull up to not hit the tower, but there's a girl at the dormered window, Disney-toon, long blonde hair, princess dress of some kind maybe laces on the bodice. I bank and start turning around for another pass, but what are we going to do get her out?

I can see down into the castle's Drekmorish dreary courtyard, but still nobody seems to be home. Nowhere to land, that I can see, even if I blasted us a runway this whole landscape would probably pop our tires it's so hot.

The Dreams show me my new star-crown--will that work, here? Even so, where will we put her? Even Boobsong-dolly's a lot to fit in the tiny cockpit with me.

Best get started, we'll figure this out. I level off, throttle back even more, and start descending to the right height. Once we get lined up I can put the autopilot on to make a straight path, and then it's just a matter of a wide enough brush, but scale's never been a problem for me.

That should be far enough. I turn around, line up on a course that goes right by the tower, get about level with the window, stand on the airbrakes and when we get down to 150 knots dump the flaps all the way and start getting the position just right while I watch the airspeed drop toward not-flying-anymore...but an unloaded A-10 can go pretty slow. When it hits 100 knots and the flight dynamics feel like warm jello we're so close to stall, I set the autopilot just on straight ahead, and open the canopy--

BLUGH! Hell smells like rotten eggs!

The hot ugly-smelling wind wants to take both my crown and hair off, but they stay. Hell of a way to tell me my handmaiden's suffering from literal biblical fundamentalism.

When the moment's just right, I throw both hands up with fingers splayed and paint the widest path of hard light I can--

Your game is holding you back a bit. You forgot you're a star for a minute!

Oh. As wide as I can would be measured in AU. Well that would have saved her from the lava lakes! This isn't going to be something where we can just avoid the fight, though.

The castle passes beneath, I let us go on for what feels like a good couple of takeoff rolls, and then get my back inside, slam the canopy shut (a battle against the wind) and lock it, firewall the throttles, and take the autopilot off. Heh, you're really flying a 'hog if you have to ascend to land, eh dolly?

Mommy let's get up on this. Your Boobsong has heart-chills.

Huh. Okay, here we go. I pull up, cut the engines but not all the way so the reverse airspeed doesn't flame them out, stomp full left rudder and left-airbrake-only as our airspeed hits zero, and slam the gear and flap switches as we pivot around our left wingtip, vertical, and are facing straight down again to see the castle and the every-wavelength-shimmering runway I've made perfectly straight with ragged brush-stroke ends dead ahead.

Here's to hoping the positioning is right and we don't end up too fast. As we drop toward it, building up airspeed, I get us lined up precisely on the center of it, wait for the wind-sound to come back and when our airspeed gets close to 100 knots start pulling up, trying to go straight into a final approach. I'm ready with airbrakes, but pulling up drags us down to a very fast-dropping eighty knots as the runway levels out in front, so I cut the engines the rest of the way and keep the nose level, which has us dropping fast. Bright green lights on the gear panel, so busy I didn't even hear the wheels lock, time to flare--OOF. Stand on every brake there is, the nose bashes down and we're thrown against the tentacles and I get my finger on the trigger ready to deploy some emergency reverse thrust but there's plenty of runway still ahead as we halt.

Boobsong's right, too, something bad is coming. I feel horrible in the back of my heart the way the Dreams make me feel good. The restraint tentacles zip away as soon as we stop, I leave the engines going and weapons armed, slam the canopy back and climb up on the seat into the terrible-smelling gloom.

The tower's just there, sticking out of the runway like a lake it's frozen in, and the girl is already climbing out the window, testing the hard light, running toward us. She looks black against the runway, hard to see in its light, but yes Disney animation and long blonde hair. She's maybe a little Ariel-ish? She's bolting for the cockpit, and the dread is building.

"Hurry!" I call to her, with a hand up to my mouth. She puts her head down and really runs.

Fifty thousand pounds of bomb capacity and nowhere for a passenger. I glance all around, trying to figure out--whoah. The ground shakes and the tower-top falls back through the hole in the runway as black smoke rises around the edges and the roar of collapsing castle rumbles under us. I can't help thinking there's something more than falling rock moving down there.

She gets here--fuck--game the ladder--instead my game picks her up with tentacles and quickly sets her on the seat with me. She instantly hugs me, tight around the middle, face buried in me. She's short, not much taller than Boobsong, and wearing a blue-and-white dress with a tight laced-up bodice and darker-blue down the middle-front of the skirts where the lighter overskirt leaves a gap. I hug and pat her, trying to figure this out, urgent, but then she ducks out of the hug, climbs down into the cockpit--no, what--

A Magic: The Gathering card whose flavor art is the girl winking and grinning and making a two-fingers peace sign flutters down to the seat.

Seriously what the fuck is with my girlfriends turning into art but sure that'll get us through this. I hop back to the cockpit floor, grab the card and plop in the seat, click Boobsong hold while twisty-teasing her nipple--

Take handmaiden card. Grab you not dropping this eeraah!

Good dolly. Tentacles snap around us as I slam the canopy and pop the brakes and throttle up to take off. There's plenty of runway ahead, so I just punch it, and we're airborne in no time as the smoke from the castle slides out of view. When we hit 150 knots I bring up the gear and flaps and swing around to see what's happened. The castle is just a plume of thick black smoke coming around through my every-wavelength runway, nothing else is happening yet, but I feel those heart-chills, we really are inside a nightmare.

Click, look.

Eyes down to card.

Click.

Capped again warm.

Can you read the card?

Magical Handmaiden. Creature, zero one. Heart sign mana cost. Flavor just says HELP.

They're all this cute, aren't they.

"COME ON OUT AND GET SHOT UP, MISTER CREEPING SENSE OF DREAD! I'M GETTING SICK OF ALL THIS FORESHADOWING!"

I look all around, but there's still nothing, including a way out--have to break this like the others' nightmares, then.

The world shakes, starts crumbling away from the horizon closer so that everything becomes angry orange light outside, this can't be it, nope because I can feel the real battlefield coming, and then slowly shapes and edges resolve out of it as my eyes adjust--whoah!

I bank left and turn just in time to avoid a huge golden building, shining like the sun, and line up on a wide road with the same kind of buildings along both sides like we're in cyberpunk El Dorado, everything bright-shining gold that burns to look at.

If you're not me.

New waypoints appear on the HUD: down a ways, then hard right.

It's brighter now, but the dread is still there.

The radar warning receiver blips its warning sound, and when I look at there a long spike of contact pointing to one o'clock, and a bunch of other stubs: "heaven" has an army.

For the moment.

"Come get some."

I pitch us down and fly straight at the street--there's even a golden crosswalk embossed on the gold asphalt--pull up with barely a wingspan of altitude, and point the way the RWR showed, but I don't need instruments to find my target. The road is full of a military parade, thousands of little tin soldiers made of gold lock-stepping in square blocks around a column of comically big tanks and what look like missile carriers behind those, all coming this way. The tanks level their cannons, so I level mine, and hold the trigger, pumping left and right rudder two sway the nose like like I'm hosing down a fire.

My ears ring with the noise and the street shakes with the echoing booming shell-bursts going off like the finale of a Revelry concert and the tanks are gone but the first two blocks of soldiers are left and present arms so I nudge down-elevator to erase them too.

Whatever was targeting us went with the tanks according to the RWR, so I get back up to a hundred and fifty feet altitude and line up one of the missile carriers and feed it a burst--blinding antimatter fireworks light it up, and then the street is obliterated by a huge nuclear blast and we're buffeted by the shockwave so the stall-warming alarm goes off for a moment. When the fireball clears, a huge chunk of the city is gone.

Getting a fission bomb to go off on purpose is really hard, and you definitely can't do it by shooting one, but this dream doesn't seem to know that. When I look with star-eyes, I can see the place shining weird with gamma on top of the already-overbright golden glow.

I'll be mad if my friends can't check out Sparkledust anymore because it's radioactive, but that's where the waypoints lead, so I fly for the crater, watchful.

More stuff is coming from beyond the crater. Looking back, the city seems to just be as tall as the sky, but there's no army back there. Weird, but fine with me. Ahead, helicopters are barreling forward through the blast zone ahead of the rest of the army up there, but the waypoint's close and then it's time to turn and, to believe the line connecting it to the next one, ascend. I pluck the first of the two choppers out of the sky with blips of fire (charging straight on like this they're easy to hit) and watch the waypoint zoom past as I take out the second one, then bank so the next waypoint is at the top of the HUD, add throttle and just pull up until it's centered in the total velocity vector.

Apparently there's a higher street-level we can get to through the missile's crater blasting it open, and that's where the waypoint is. The next one bends off to the left after that.  The RWR shows a couple of things behind--GAH! A finger of smoke reaches out from a balcony, I mash both chaff and flares buttons, and bank hard, then back to keep from getting too off-course to make it into the street up there, a thankfully-far-enough-away explosion slaps us as the missile finds my countermeasures instead of Sparkledust, and I firewall the throttles and head for that waypoint.

We're heading for a T-intersection of two of the huge streets, the waypoints say go left and up even more but I skim the new ground as soon as it's there to hide from the missile battery that just tried for us, and turn along the new road in the direction of the waypoint. It's at the top of a building dead ahead a ways on, perched on the antenna on top of the building, which has a huge screen in the side. Nothing's in the road up here but parked cars and gold-statue pedestrians, so I draw a very careful bead on the antenna's base, watching the screen.

The screen is blank, but turns on when I look at it, glitchily shows--that looks like Cowboy Bebop? I mean I can take or leave Cowboy Bebop, too pretentious grown-up nineties anime for me, but hardly getting me to blast the propaganda machine.

We're still full-throttle. I pull up to follow the waypoint's line, and something starts phasing into the big open space beyond the building like it's the stage-3 boss of Axelay. It's huge, fills the whole open city block, Cowboy Bebop starts to glitch and get fuzzy as it fades in, and the lights of a huge billboard extend from its massive, still-blank surface. I pull up more, trade the 300 knots of airspeed we've built up for altitude, push forward when I think we're level with it, and the billboard has its ad...for a televangelist in a snappy suit with a big golden donation number along the bottom.

Of course it's not going to be some big complicated puzzle, silly Fairy. She was like fourteen before she turned into a Magic card. 

Heh, got me one card a lot more valuable than Black Lotus--oh. Oh that's why the city's made of gold and why this asshole is fuzzing out Cowboy Bebop. I hose it left to right with fire without another thought, watch the pretty fireworks, see sunny bright sky beyond where the billboard was now, and Spike's shady deal is going down in crystal-clear HD as it slides beneath us and I start swinging around to line up on the next waypoint, which is doubling back but up another level.

"Of course you should get the box set instead. That jerk wouldn't need your money even if his cause was good. Anyway, it's Cowboy Bebop," I say to the card in Boobsong's hands.

There are parade balloons on the next level, more sky in the background of them, and the next two waypoints look to be on top of each other from here, heading into what looks like the HQ of some bank or another I know from Boston. This time I try to follow the waypoint's line exactly, fly past balloons of an elephant on the right and the Pixar Renderman Drummer on the left, and level on the building. It's got a closed door looking like the Space Armada mothership from StarFox, except it's rolled-down security-garage-door. Knowing what the city is, shouldn't I--no, that's the point. The next waypoint is right there. I blast it with a blip of gunfire, throttle back because we're going into a tunnel, the fireworks clear--fuck! Stomp airbrakes, stand on trigger, behind the garage door was a thick vault door even my antimatter bullets didn't take out!

Explosions thunder, chainsaw-fury eight feet from my toes wipes even their sound, the sparkling antimatter explosions pound their way into the building, eating a tunnel through it, we're flying into the tunnel after them, and then suddenly space opens out, I stop firing just in time for only a tiny burst of rounds to pock the (very very) far wall and we're flying past molten edges into...Uncle Scrooge's money bin, except Scrooge McDuck was never this good at saving. There's more than enough room to circle the final waypoint and gape, and as low-speed maneuverable as the A-10 is it's still got a fifty-foot wingspan and is hardly a helicopter, but anyway it's a good thing because I'm a little distracted.

Dolly, why the five-spice pickle-pops can I not stop thinking of Chik-fil-a now?

Mommy you know whose money that is.

...yeaaah. Her dad was kind of annoyed when I turned capitalism off, but not as mad as he was that I "turned" his daughter gay. I was thrown off because in the rewrite-memories, there's of course no Chik-fil-a heiress that age.

And kinky as fuck if I recall, I mean she survived more than five minutes with me.

I remember, I think, being in his office, asking him why if I could turn them gay and make them fall in love with me, I didn't have Wendy kneeling by my other foot. It made a killer joke at shows, anyway.

As I laugh, the dream turns white, and there's my tower and Strawberry Home dead ahead, landing approach already lined up. Throttle back, airbrake to approach speed, flaps and gear down, bring it in nice and easy, giggle because the floating runway and my tower-top to the right makes it kind of like an aircraft carrier, except it's a full-on normal runway with what I bet is grass around the edges under the snow.

We come to a stop right by my tower, and I sit back, pull the card out of Boobsong's--hehe good job, dolly. I pry her fingers away from it, and pull the card out of Boobsong's hand, look at her smiling face there, on the rainbow-foil card.

What's this mean? Will she be fourteen again somehow when I figure out how to--oooooh I see. Even got me some land to tap.

I seem to remember she came to me, and in a very expensive, fancy way. Princess to princess, really. My mind wants to see her getting out of a white limo, at the end of a shining carpet. This was early days, too. All my handmaidens are volunteers like that, I'm pretty sure. It blew my mind that anyone but Boobsong would want to follow me without me being the Princess of the land.

What I just did was give her the inspiration to spend some of that huge fortune, before it didn't mean anything, and she used it to come to me. Going to do that for her now, remade the connection I need to summon her from wherever she is now, in her old-as-me self.

I shut the engines down and turn off the lights and APU, fit the card back in Boobsong's hands, the tentacles snuggly-lick their way off me in a very boobs-bouncing get-you-back-to-horny-baseline way, but when I open the canopy, instead of the silence of Strawberry Home on Heartwarming Eve we're greeted by deep mechanical humming from behind: shuttlecraft Isht Visht is landing on the runway behind us, lights bright, but I'd know that future-minivan shape anywhere.

I stand on the seat, Boobsong in my arm, and face them, waving.

"Beats your Stamford house, dayum!"

Santa's the first out, of course, and she stands there, still in her Santa hat and Heartwarming lingerie, beside Isht Visht's open rear hatch, looking around with her hands on her hips.

I liked that house!

"HO HO HO! Presents here, come get 'em!"

Santa's calling at my tower--Candy comes barreling around the other side of it, with--it worked, good--Sex right behind her, and they charge right up to Santa, stop, vibrate with excitement as I--get picked carefully down to the runway by tentacles the moment I go to open my wings and fly down.

This is going to get weird with you all hearing me but I can't talk to you but my handmaidens don't hear me so I talk to them, I think as I head for Santa and my handmaidens.

"Hey! I see it worked, Sex! Figure it out, yet?"

"You gave me some escape clause thing, for if it gets too sad bein' statuified, like if I was gonna be stuck on your tub while Candy gets presents here! With Santa looking this way, yowza!"

Everyone's grinning, it's great.

We're only here for a minute, so your handmaidens can pretend they're Pevensies.

Holly strawberry bows you all are so nice. Do the toys not tools thing, please pretty please, you'll AT LEAST fry Sex's mind--

"Not juuust that, but you'll see. Ooh, wait. Game, is there a card or are we turning the whole castle sideways?"

This gets a teehee grin from Santa and a nice weird look from Candy and Sex as I walk up.

It spins into being in front of me, angled jauntily, then before I can do anything my game lays it on the right edge of a table of sparkling purple energy at my waist.

I can't help leaning over to read the card. A beautiful green filigree on pearlescent white frame surrounds a picture of my door in the High Gallery.

"Keep of the Starlight Princess," I read out loud.

"Legendary Artifact Land. The strange machine that takes you there is only the first of many wonders."

Grinning, I pull my handmaiden's card from my hands, glance at my other very quizzical handmaidens--

"Candy, I'm tapping that, for one rainbow mana."

She gives me a weird giggly look, reaches and turns it sideways for me, and looks up as--

"Yowza!"

--rainbow sparkles rise up from around the outside of my tower to the sky.

"Magical Handmaiden. Zero one creature."

I raise the card, then lay it where I'd put creatures, notice the phantom cards for Sex and Candy and Boobsong, nice, game--oh that's part of the spell, huh.

The table glitches and twists like it's apparating and my handmaiden apparates in, shocked into stillness--

"Holy inverse fryer cakes please tell me your hell wasn't, wasn't--"

She just stares at me like she'll burst, hands over her mouth.

"Hold still." Game, precision help please.

Rare handmaiden, well done uniform!

She flares a hexgrid of every-wavelength brilliance as I wave my hand down her and turn the Chik-fil-a uniform to appropriately-shaped flakes that a very Dreams-ly convenient gust of wind blows away to leave her blonde and hot and freckly in front of me. I open my not-Boobsong-holding hand to invite a hug--OOF!

Okay you remember me. Hug you back, squeeze.

"Rainbow what happened, one minute--where are we? Is that Sparkledust?"

Sssh, family, please. I wink over her shoulder to a wide-eyed Sex and Candy with her mouth open like she's looking for the words she's sure she had a minute ago.

"Thought I'd get some flying in. Safe is where we are. Look around when you're ready but I could hug you for a hundred years right now."

"Okay."

She hugs tight, then slowly looks at Sparkledust, me for a second then turns tossing her hair back and bending back to get out of my cleavage (she's a head shorter than me) and bounces in my arm and kicks a heel up, just stares off in the direction of the monolith.

"Are we on Strawberry Home's rooftop?"

Her voice is a whisper. I can't keep the smile out of mine (not that I'm trying).

"Yes, but you stopped before you looked at the good part."

Before she can do anything I turn us like we're dancing so she'll be looking at Sex and Candy and Santa and Isht Visht (who very helpfully says Isht Visht where shuttlecraft have their names).

She bounces, whips her face to look at me, then back at them, breaks out of my hug and steps back and looks all around, then down at her own beautifully Disney-animated self, gets down on hands and knees and glares close as the--oh hey, those are nineties-flight-sim texels under my feet, too, huh--then runs up to Sex and grabs her hand, looks at it close grins her best this-is-so-cute grin, runs around behind her and stumbles back with her hands to her mouth when she looks where Sex's key will be, runs up to the battlement and brushes snow off it, looks at the snow and tastes it then squats to get a good look at the masonry's oil-painted detail, stands up and stares at the tower-top--

"Don't worry, you're going in the hottub in just a minute!"

"YES! Starlight how'd you do this it can't be really--"

"Look up."

She does, starts to put her hands up to her mouth again, stops, and just stares for a long while.

"Painted...can't be...how'd you...get here...are we dead? Did Earth get through--but then I'd have been here with you guys..."

She hugs herself suddenly, looks at me.

"We're alive now, on my tower-top in Strawberry Home which I saved when I ended its world which is a long story, and yes this is the Painted Sea and unless I misunderstand my family a lot we'll be somewhere in Rl'yeh Sade, along with the entire Strawberry-era solar system but you right now need to worry about whether Santa's got a present for you--not to be presumptuous, Santa--and then just how fast you're going to get to your next job which basking in my tower-top hottub while you get hugs and kisses and we explain everything."

Santa gives me a silly look like to say "you do know who you're talking to" when I mention her.

"Yes Mommy!"

My handmaiden falls in beside Candy, grinning bright, and I come the rest of the way up with Boobsong to be near too.

"For the very kind, a gift to make it seem like every day is Heartwarming."

Arelka's here too, I suddenly realize, on the other side of Santa. She's got her fuzzy antlers and Rudolph nose on, even, and her casing is bright metallic-green so she looks like a huge Heartwarming bauble.

Looking at her makes me feel tingly-calm, like she's an oldschool Fairy-keeper like from when my kind was made. I've met one shiny-sphere Keeper, and thought it was hot too. Is that a clue to her and Santa?

Santa's talking to my newest handmaiden first, good, comfort the thing to pieces, thanks Santa. She turns to Arelka, who's making buzzy whirry crafting sounds, then opens a door in her casing and hands out a long narrow package in gold paper with a dark green ribbon and bow to Santa, who presents it to my handmaiden whose name I will remember. When I imagine her leaning over the edge of the hottub to open her present, my mental image of her has little cardboard-cutout wings, flapping curiously, but maybe I've got Fairies on the brain. I squeeze my own Keeper and lift her to kiss her on the head--oh hey, it's shiny round silver too, and her not being there is what makes me feel that lost-Fairy terror.

I'm a very weird thing, I am.

Santa's looking at Candy now, and Arelka's making more making-sounds.

""For the strong, a gift to make your nose glow."

A bright metallic-green box, cubical and big, this time. Candy takes it and hugs it to herself, happy.

Arelka starts crafting again.

"For the wise, a gift to make your feet warm."

Sex's present is shaped like a pizza-box, the ribbon is green tartan, and there's a little candycane hanging off the bow. She takes it and nods in thanks, smiling in her bright soft way. Santa turns to me, Arelka starts making something, Santa glances at Boobsong in my arms--erm, oh, she's checking me out, squee! Wait why does me thinking that make you blush!?

Still ogling, she says,

"For the bright star, a map to heaven."

Santa looks at me a moment, like she can't quite meet my eyes but really wants to see, (what is embarrassing you poor Santa!) then turns and gets my present from Arelka, and holds it out, wrapped in rainbow-sheen paper with rainbow ribbon. The box is big, and unlike the others has a separate lid that can come off without unwrapping it if I undo the ribbon.

I take it, full of gratitude and with a mental hug for my poor blushy girlfriend who can see this, and know my game will take this box when I shouldn't be holding it anymore (see, game, I learned).

Santa looks at me with shining eyes for a moment then turns to address all of us.

"These are toys, not tools. Play the game with spirits--oops! One more thing. For the spirit of lust, a warning: don't go too far from Rainbow! Here's a way to hold close."

Aww, she really did it! You're so great Santa, thank you. Arelka crafts as I giggle at her 'warning', and Santa gives us a CD-sized present with purple-iridescent silver paper and a tag held on by a gold-shiny elastic ribbon, by slipping it in the box she gave me.

EEYUS! Thank you Santa!

Santa addresses all of us again.

"Play the game with love, and remember your voices. Hoppy trails!"

And she and Arelka flounce back inside Isht Visht, whose hatch closes with a very minivan-door kind of sound.

A three handmaidens turn to me and stare, smiles wide, as Isht Visht takes off beside us.

"Okay, changed my mind, the one who literally got rescued from hell five minutes ago gets to pick. Hottub, see my room I haven't been in since I was thirteen, or Mommy decide for you?"

I look at my new handmaiden, who seems ready to do the cartoon rocket-ping-pong-ball thing any moment, as I talk.

"I say room! Your real room? Your Princess chambers? Here, right? We're on your tower?"

"Well it's sure not Greyskull, is it? Come on."

I sweep past them, heading for the battlement, and they fall in around me. It's...really nice to start to have my entourage again.

"Catch with my room is it's going to be super emotional and I might freak out or get eaten so if you want chill Mommy and predictable you should change your mind to hottub--holy dippin' dot sauce you all must be freezing!"

I crank up a bunch of IR and Candy and Sex get close but--ouch--I see a round-pointed star-sticker like glow in the dark for room ceilings when I try to remember her name.

We were both like barely Unveiled when I took her as handmaiden. When we met? She wouldn't have come back through the worldgate with me...have to get childish, in any case, to remember.

Anyway she runs ahead, looks back, bounces on her heels--

"You know where you're going, don't you," I grin at her.

"You showed me floorplans!"

"Alright, you and Sex get door duty, then."

When we get there, they get in position and pull the doors, and warmth floods out, so I shut off my IR and lead us into the darkness, hear the doors click shut, gulp. It's pitch black (somehow even my crown doesn't seem to light it up), but I know where stuff is, the room feels as familiar--more familiar. I grew up here, the moving around is a rewrite thing.

I take the right amount of steps to be facing where the Heartwarming tree will be. There's just the barest glimmer of starlight coming in through the pentagram window.

I can feel the three of them in a little knot behind and to my left, waiting to see what'll happen.

I know I just have to do this, but I'm scared to. Not of all the toys I'll see and evidence of my upbringing.

I just...it feels so much to be here.

I shift Boobsong up a little, squeeze her tight, and slowly bring my glow up. Light fades in.

Everything from the pink bed canopy and pink-and-white bedclothes to little paddle hanging up on the far wall is just where I left it. The heartwarming tree is huge and unlit, smells good and fresh, to the right of the chez-lounge toy throne under where the paddle hangs.

Gasps from my handmaidens, but no poinging or anything but standing there.

Memories of being there so angry, on Boobsong's back, float away like ash, and it's just my room, and I'm weeping because it's just my room.

The same secret heartwarming presents I was supposed to get are even there under the tree. Hell, the same ones are probably under Mother's tree--where they'll stay until she gets them, or our kid decides what should happen. That's hers now.

Here we are, dolly. Here we are.

Cry now. Tears.

Tentacles pick my present away, and I turn Boobsong to me and hold her on one arm like a baby so I can run my hand over her front, pinch her nipples, trace the crease of her leg--

[Food metaphor: good diner at night when you're all emotional and need companionship]

Gaaasp softly so good lust--moving face as crying happy feels good.

When she's moving good and we've shared a watery look I grab her in both arms (facing out so she can see good) I walk further into the room, find my feet are taking me to the chez-lounge so pink-silky and inviting, turn and sit and just perch sitting up, hugging my dolly, sobbing, feeling her sob too.

I squeeze her tight and feel soft butt press against me, let the warmth of having to play this game even now help fill her.

This room is full of so much good stuff.

Including my poor handmaidens standing there not knowing what to do.

"Come here," I manage around my tears, and eravahk-gesture at the big soft poofy fleece at my feet. It's from something with long fluffy white soft hair, not a sheep, making them sit on it is definitely not mean.

They come up and arrange themselves in a half-circle around us, in their usual spots, which leaves an empty space to Sex's left and a big sad gap between my first handmaiden and Candy, then all carefully get slave-posed, still holding their presents.

I sniffle, look down at them, kiss Boobsong's head again and peer around at her--her face is covered in deep-grape black tears, and she's still crying.

"So welcome to Strawberry Home," is all I can get out. "See what I mean about the crying?"

 Your Boobsong feels so wonderful to be here and know that tomorrow there won't be fights or bad stuff. Just birthday and Heartwarming.

My heart's like not believing it.

Or maybe it's just not doing anything until they're all back--something moves, it's want-your-name-back, she's kneeling up and holding out a hankie, silk, pink, edged with green.

Of course I can't take it from her, so I just lean a little forward and nod, and she so tenderly dabs my tears away--oh fizzfrozen--alright, you put it there. I blow my nose, and she takes the hankie away and turns to put it someplace I'm too staring-straight-ahead-crying to look for.

"I should be the one taking care of you right now."

She kneels back down, gets herself so nicely slave-posed with head down, such a contrast to her poinging outside.

"Just get me back here, that's my care."

I start to say something about why is every sub in my life just completely indestructible magic, but my mind actually goes to the moments before Boobsong collaring me, and how the only comfort I really wanted was the collar and her telling me exactly what to do, and how those made me feel like I could do anything.

"Well, here you are. We'll open presents and stuff in a minute--I think we need these--are you thirsty or hungry or anything? Hot chocolate or eggnog or."

"Nog! Very hard spiked! Alright yes I guess that hell thing was terrifying."

Still sniffling, I hold out a hand an make a big and very alcoholic eggnog with nutmeg on top that will make her feel warm inside and get tinglies when I touch her, and be a good nourishing couple of hundred calories (part of the magic of Sugarfeast is my candy can be a healthy meal), and also taste even boozier than it is because sometimes what you need most is the process of getting drunk, and hold it down to her. She puts her present aside and takes it, starts to chug.

"You're safe now. That's all over. Get good and drunk on that and relax because the hardest job you're getting for the next good while is bedwarmer. Talk about it, or forget?"

"Forget! Holy brown paper bags FORGET!"

"Drink up, then. You taste that booze. Anybody else?"

"Can I have a gin and coke please?"

I bubble it up in a lowball glass, reverse-roofied with keep this escape-clause thing going until Rainbow's ready for it to end, and hold it close.

"Have to come get it," I grin.

She comes up very snuggly-breasty, takes it and quite uppitily kisses me on the forehead, then goes back to drink it. Her present's down beside her too, when I look.

I look at Candy, but she just sits with her head down and says nothing, smiling still.

How's my dolly? You have tears too. I hold her up, look at her weepy face, kiss her sweet grape-candy tears away, lick till her face is clean as she squirms and tail-lashes under my tongue. She doesn't get nose-stuffiness from crying, so I just kiss it instead, and look into her eyes a minute.

Princess gorgeous. Want fffucking.

Happening soon, no doubt. Kiss you.

Hhaaaah...mmffff so tongue big...

Her little mouth is so cute, opening wide to invite my tongue. I push in, then pull away and set her back in my lap, hugged again. Cried?

Yes your Boobsong is still emotional but tears out.

Click.

Aaah warm.

Sex is still sipping happily, but my new-not-new one is done, so I trace her hairline with a gentle fingertip, watch her eyes close and mouth open, trace a couple of more times until I can see her good and spaced out, feel a bit more chill knowing she's got some kind of care after that.

Enough chill I find myself laying down on my side on my lounge, stretched out with my head on the round pillow at the end of it. There's just room for me on it. I breathe a deep sigh, and then another.

They're all so beautiful.

I look at the my new one, blissing out to the tingle-storm I've given her, trying to remember. I called you, called you...memories of our first meeting, I think, flow through my head, her fangirling voice squealing Starlight Princess is awesome! fills my mind, poofy soft things and girly stuff...Magic. I think.

Dolly nudge if you remember.

Magic is it!

"Magic."

Her eyes come up, and she looks at me, glassy, and I fuzz her hair, and she leans into it, mouth open again.

"I love you."

She's too blissed out to answer. Good. I take my hand away and hold Boobsong thoughtfully.

There's a lot to process in here, but I can't until they're all back, but maybe we should open Santa's presents before we try for the next one since Santa came now in this, but Magic needs time to untrance first--

Oh poor Candy and Sex--or not? They seem quite dry from the bath. Maybe they took care of that before they came running for Santa, so as not to freeze.

The Dreams show me hands making my heart-sign, then a covered wagon. On the trail of the next one, then. Then a huge pipe, shining big enough to walk through, with a space shuttle on its launch pad looming overhead. Hmm...eighties Boston Science Museum educational stuff is the way there.

Now a purple arcade game's console, then the covered wagon again. Dolly, what do you see?

Space shuttle has a way to your next handmaiden. Oregon trail because it's a long way with hard stuff.

Is there a way to make it easier or faster, Dreams?

They show me an ice cream sundae with fudge sauce and a slice of lemon like it's lemonade, which reminds me inexplicably of Sex--okay no that's a good metaphor for her. Take Sex, like she asked. Sure.