The first thing she noticed was the unfamiliar scent of the air, like returning home from a long holiday to find that her parents’ house actually had a smell. She looked around. Behind them, the familiar concrete edifice of the library, and the sky overhead was blue and clear. The air was bitterly cold, such that her breath puffed out in clouds, and the trees that lined the nearby road were bare of leaves.
“So,” said Alice, shivering slightly from the sudden change in temperature, “odd question, but how long have I been gone? Because it was summer when I left.”
“Well,” Red replied, “Causeways usually avoid returning people before they leave, so I doubt it’s been negative, but apart from that, it’s hard to be sure.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Usually?” She was unable to inject her usual level of snark into the words due to how hard she was trying to keep her teeth from chattering.
Red noticed her discomfort, sighed, shrugged off his battered coat and offered it to her. “Yes, usually. There isn’t a Causeway on this end, so the normal chronology stabilisers aren’t present, but I doubt it’s been more than a month or so, proportional to how long you subjectively spent in other Realms.”
“Right,” she said, putting his coat on. It was very warm and its arms were too long for her, which she found unreasonably pleasing. She wasn’t going to inform Red on the grounds that it’d make him too full of himself. “Aren’t you cold yourself?”
“I’ll be fine. I don’t need to feel the cold unless I want to.”
“So, if I’ve been gone for months,” she said, as realisation dawned, “I’ve missed all my deadlines.”
“That sure is a first thought to have,” Red replied. “I might have gone with ‘what will my family and/or loved ones think has happened’, personally?”
Alice made a noise somewhere between a squeak and a muffled scream. “I didn’t think of that!” she wailed. “It completely slipped my mind! There’ll have been a manhunt!”
“And then you’ll have to explain that you were sucked into another Realm and had a series of magical adventures.”
She punched him in the arm. “Not! Helping!”
“Ow! And after I lent you my coat and all.” He paused a moment, tapping his chin thoughtfully. “I mean, I could ‘convince’ someone that you’d just been on a holiday or something, but convincing a lot of people would get… tricky. Like, logistically.”
“False memory implantation! Frowned upon, but, like. What’s the alternative?”
“Hmm.” She briefly turned the ethics of that whole course of action over in her head.
“So,” said Red, changing the subject, “is this the place, then? You fell through the Realms here?”
“Uh, kinda? I was actually in the library back there. I could probably find the exact spot.”
“Huh. Weird, we should have popped up exactly where you left, basically through the ‘hole’ you left through. Maybe something to do with there being no Causeway at this end?”
“We could go in and take a look. Wait, I think I left all my stuff there! I— wait, it’s been months, it’s probably long gone by now.” She sighed. “I think I might have to get a new laptop. And phone, actually − I never did find it after A Librarian rescued me from those Censœrs.”
“I mean, you’ve still got the phone can,” said Red.
She blinked. “Wh. It can call phones?”
“I mean, it’s in the name. And, if it’s in the same perception space as a phone, so if you think it’s like a phone it should act like one.” He started to walk towards the library entrance, and she followed.
Alice pulled the can out of a pocket that was too small for it. “Could I get apps on this?”
“I don’t know. Is it a smartcan?”
She looked at the label on the can. Broadcast Beans. She groaned.
“That sounds like a maybe,” said Red. “So, how do you get in, here?”
He was standing in front of the automatic doors, peering into the darkened interior.
“Er, I’m not sure — it’s not normally closed during the day. It’s kinda wintery-feeling, though, so maybe it’s the holidays? Even then, there’s usually still people around.”
“Hmmm.” He looked the door over for a few seconds, then placed his right hand against the door with a clink of glass on crystal. “We’re friends,” he said, “let us in.”
The door rattled, briefly, before sliding open.
Red gestured in. “Well, after you.”
“Right.” She stepped through the door into the darkened library. “I wonder if my stuff’s in the lost property, or if it’ll have gone by now.”
She moved over towards where she’d been sitting, her distant memory of the location feeling like it came from a different lifetime entirely. The reading tables were in the same positions, so it’d be just behind this bookcase and—
Her laptop, sitting open on the table she’d been sitting at, her planner sitting on the table beside it. She paused a moment, almost unable to believe what she was seeing.
“My stuff?” She ducked down, looked under the table. Yep, that was her rucksack.
“Oh good,” said Red. “That means you don’t have to go to… ‘lost property’, was it?”
“I mean, yes, but… this doesn’t make any sense. If I’ve been gone for months, they should have tidied up my stuff, taken it to lost property, or, I dunno, someone should have nicked it, at least.”
“Hm. Maybe it hasn’t been that long?”
“No, that’s not possible. It’s winter.” She reached down for her planner, and recoiled. “Wait, look.”
The book was sitting flat on the table. It was covered in a layer of dust. Her laptop and bag were the same, and when she picked her planner up, there was a precisely planner-shaped gap in the dust on the table. The rest of the table was clean — it was like the space around her items had been very carefully cleaned around, to a distance of about an inch.
“See,” she said, holding up her planner and pointing at the table, “they’ve been lying here completely undisturbed for months. It’s like the cleaners just completely ignored them, except they also took pains not to disturb them.” She tried to turn her laptop on. Nothing happened. “Huh. I guess it would be out of battery if it’s been as I left it since May.”
“That is indeed strange.”
“Can’t you —” she waggled her fingers in the air — “detect whether something weird is going on here, or what it is?”
“I can certainly —” he waggled his fingers in an approximation of her gesture — “give it a go.”
He started to gesture over the table, building some kind of mechanism shaped from the lines of reddish light that trailed behind his fingers. As he was busy with that, she gingerly picked up her laptop, pointed it away from her, made the gestures and focused her thoughts like Red and Gyran had taught her. A small plume of dust fountained from the keyboard as the air swished around it, and she popped it back down on the table. It was clearly out of battery, so she knelt down and started to fumble around in her bag to search for the power cord.
As she was crawling under the table to plug her laptop in, Red spoke up. “That’s kinda weird.”
She plugged it in and carefully crawled backwards until she could lift her head to look at him without banging it on the table. “What’s weird?”
“These items, your stuff, they’re, er, what’s the technical term… disjoint with your world’s perceptual spheres.”
“Uh-huh,” she replied, standing up and dusting off her trousers. “For the edification of someone who has no idea what to make of what you just said?”
Red pulled a face. “So, well. A way to look at the effect here is that everything is connected. When you look at an object, it can be interpreted as you making a connection from yourself to it. And these things —” he gestured at her laptop, at her phone and bag — “they can’t form new perceptual connections with anything in this Realm, so I guess no-one can perceive them anymore.”
“Very approximately, yes.”
“Then why can I still see them,” she asked, “I’m from this Realm, aren’t I?”
“Either your preexisting connections substitute in, or you don’t count as ‘from this Realm’ for the purposes of these?”
“Huh. So this is why they’ve been left alone?”
“Yeah. I think people cleaning the dust off the table wouldn’t realise they’re not there, and just… subconsciously avoid doing anything that would call that into doubt, like touching something they couldn’t acknowledge.”
She looked at her laptop, which was booting up properly now she’d plugged it in.
“But why? Why is it like this?”
“I’m— I’m really not sure.” He looked somewhat worried. “Anything supernatural happening in Materia at all is concerning, and something directly connected to you? Doubly so.”