conditions of absolute reality – 3.1

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Peace.

Such infinite tranquillity.

Obviously, I was meant to be here.

Lying on my back on a hillside of soft yellow grass, beneath a sky whorled with the most beautiful bruised purple, shaded by an unrolling blanket of night. Warm wind caressed my face and I dug bare toes into the dry soil. Muscles soft as butter, skin tingling, clear-eyed.

How had I gotten here?

Memory moved at the speed of cold honey. I flexed my legs and smiled at nothing.

The last thing I remembered was … staying the night at Evelyn’s house? No, after that, Raine and I had gone off together, and talked a lot, and she made me feel good and wanted and believed and all sorts of other emotions far too complicated for the Heather on the yellow grass hillside.

Then we’d decided to visit her place, to …

To have sex?

I should have felt embarrassed, or at least self-conscious, but the thought wafted by without affect, a notion I could chose to observe from a distance, or not at all.

Not at all. Yes, I let the idea go and watched it float away on the humid air, wisps of spun glass fluttering on the warm wind. Why hold onto anything, in this place? I sighed and rolled the back of my head against the soft grass.

Where was Raine, anyway?

Ah.

No.

Something else had happened. Something bad.

The veil of calm dropped away and I sat up, blinking and squinting and rubbing my eyes. My vision blurred, as if the image was lagging, as if too much attention had revealed the artifice of the world around me. Yet I felt no panic, no dislocation, no sense of being lost somewhere Outside, only a vague confusion. Even my emotions crawled at a snail’s pace.

Dark yellow hillsides unrolled to the horizon. The sky extended forever, lit from below in soft glowing purple. No sun. Two moons.

And sitting to my left, her.

The girl in the goat-skull mask.

She sat with her knees drawn up to her chest, head tilted back to gaze up at the sky, so the curled horns of her mask pointed at the ground. No spirits attended her now, not like in that dirty, stagnant Sharrowford car park. She wore the same clothes, a dark striped hoodie with the sleeves pulled over her hands. Her long blonde hair trailed out over the grass.

“Where is this?” I asked. “Who are you?”

She turned to me. The skull’s eye holes showed only darkness. Then she reached up and removed the mask.

For a split-second, in my heart of hearts, I expected to see Maisie.

It wasn’t my sister.

An impish smile greeted me, set in a delicate featured, mushroom pale face. Her eyes were heavy-lidded, as if half asleep. I realised she was younger than me, perhaps only sixteen or seventeen. She brushed stray strands of that endless wispy hair out of her face and held the goat skull up again, pantomimed hiding behind it, then giggled and tossed it on the ground.

Fey and elfin, like some faerie apparition from a cautionary fireside tale.

I’d learn soon enough, I wasn’t far off the mark.

“You’re in a dream, dumbo,” she said.

“ … okay? I am?”

“We’ve been here for hours. Are you only just coming round? Jeeze, you’re so slow.” She let out a big theatrical sigh and flapped the loose ends of her sleeves. Her voice was high and light, perpetually amused. “Whatever.”

Through the thick, cloying blanket of numb emotion, I decided she was probably telling the truth.

This did feel like a dream. No idea where I was, no idea if Raine was safe, sitting with a nightmare figure from the Sharrowford Cult, but all I mustered was a detached floaty frustration.

“You can call me Lozzie.” She offered me her hand, pale white fingers poking from the end of her sleeve. “Or Loz. Or Lorrie. Lorry? Or late for dinner.”

“You want me to … ”

She sighed again, took my hand and shook it up and down. “There. That’s all proper and sealed then. This is the first time we’re meeting and all. Last time didn’t count.”

“Last time? Oh.”

More memory returned. I squinted as the heavy ropes of deadened affect lifted from my shoulders and worry snagged in the top of my chest. My head swam: Raine and I in Willow House, endless repeating corridors. Dead dogs and a baseball bat and stairwells and dead dogs and Raine kissing me and dead dogs and-

“Where’s- w-we were trapped. I- I have to find Raine-” I stared at the bizarre, elf-like girl next to me. “Where the hell is this?”

“I told you, it’s a dream!” Lozzie laughed and kicked her legs. “Did you forget already?”

“No-”

“Tell me your name before you wander off and wake up again? Hanging out here is cool and all, but I’d rather, you know, do stuff.”

“ … Heather,” I muttered. “Yes, this is a dream, isn’t it? Which means I’m asleep? Safe?”

“Heather! Wow. You’re named after a bush!”

Lozzie found this hilarious. She flopped forward in a bone-defying stretch, palms flat out in front of her as she laughed. She trailed off into a big sigh and looked almost sad for a second. “I did try to warn you, but getting through was kinda hard. I’m so glad you didn’t die and all that. I heard they even tried to shoot one of you.” She tutted. “Should have known that doesn’t work anymore. And thanks for not hurting Zheng. It’s not her fault when they tell her to do things. I’m so fond of her, please don’t be angry with her.”

I blinked at her, trying to process her words. If this was a dream, then she wasn’t real, right?

Lozzie hopped to her feet and bounced on one foot, full of energy. She bit her bottom lip. Almost cute, if I wasn’t so confused.

“So, Heather. Heather. Hey-ther. Where do you wanna go?”

“Go?”

“Yeah! Where do you wanna go? The whole universe is at our fingertips, you know? Here.” She held out her hand to me.

“Home. Or- Wherever Raine is. Awake. How do I wake up?”

Lozzie puffed out her cheeks in a moment of teenage sulk. “Boring.”

Before I could mount a defence, she pounced on me, bundled into me and knocked the air out of my lungs. She grabbed my hand, interlacing her fingers with my own. She was laughing and giggling, long hair everywhere. Her other hand wrapped around my waist and held on tight.

“Chocks away!” she yelled.

Reality blinked in slow motion.

Awake, I would have screamed. Dream-logic threw a protective barrier around my sanity, so I was spared witness to the truth of the process. When the blink finished, dark dusty red plains stretched off in every direction, under a high milky grey sky.

Still laughing, Lozzie picked herself up and dusted her hoodie off. I got to my knees, shaking and breathless from the transition.

“There, wow.” She broke into an innocent smile and waved her arms at the horizon. “It’s sort of barren and … dumb, but there it is. Who else gets to see this?”

“What? See what?”

“Mars. We’re on Mars. You’ve never been?”

“I … no. I’ve never been to Mars.”

Sluggish thought finally dropped away like a crust of dried tar. Great engine-plates of cognition revolved back to speed inside my mind. I stumbled to my feet and backed away from Lozzie, if that was even her real name, if she was even real. My breath caught as panic set in.

Her face fell with genuine disappointment.

“Awwww, come on, don’t go,” she said. “I thought you were … you know. Like me.”

“Like you?”

My heartbeat thudded in my chest. A pulse ran through living veins. Skin flexed. Breath flowed.

The dream shattered into a million shards.


==


For reasons which may be obvious I was never much of a morning person, but waking up from the dream of Lozzie was difficult on a whole new level.

Physically I was awake, the slow reanimational alchemy of bodily function and firing synapse, but for a long time I could not have moved if the Devil himself had shouted in my face. Awareness dawned with tentative creeping fingers, of bed covers bunched up around my stomach and a pillow underneath my head, and a familiar smell all around me.

I let out a very long groan. Then another.

Everything hurt.

A half-hearted attempt to roll onto my side transformed into a slow journey to a sitting position. I still couldn’t open my eyes, but I flopped at the covers to extract one arm so I could rub at the ache behind my sternum, a dull throbbing pain which seemed now to fill my entire chest cavity.

By slow degrees, I knuckled my eye sockets and cleared my vision.

“ … what.”

I was wearing a tshirt a size too large, with a logo on the front for a band called ‘Bikini Kill’. I’d never heard of them. Smelled like I’d worn it a little too long. Also shorts, but no underwear.

This wasn’t my room.

I’d never been here before.

Panic had only a split-second to work its magic, because I didn’t take long to figure out where I was. It wasn’t rocket science.

The double bed – new and plush and very comfortable – was by far the nicest thing in the room, except for the pile of philosophy books on the floor, but I’m biased when it comes to the merits and attractions of piles of books. One small window let in sunlight around a tatty curtain, which fell on ghastly old peeling wallpaper. The bedroom’s usual occupant had covered the walls with posters, mostly for bands, along with a pair of questionable saucy pinups of video game girls, and a huge map of the UK studded with thumbtacks and towns circled in pink highlighter.

A cute little set of coloured hand-weights lay in the corner, along with resistance bands and discarded exercise clothes. The room’s desk was made of bare MDF and fronted by a very battered swivel-chair, but on the desk itself sat a small laptop and some dog-eared college textbooks, next to a gigantic plush dinosaur, a hairbrush, and some nail files.

Raine’s leather jacket was draped over the chair.

I relaxed instantly.

I’m so easy.

“Raine?”

Raising my voice was a mistake; some joker had replaced my throat with sandpaper. I coughed and cast about for water, found none and attempted to get out of bed.

A singularly bad idea. I almost fell on my face. My legs worked, but not as I recalled legs were meant to. I sat on the edge of the bed and kneaded feeling back into my thighs for several minutes before I could stand. I checked myself over and found nothing amiss: no blood caked on my face, no missing fingers, no shaved head. The Fractal looked reassuringly fresh on my left forearm. My hair felt greasy and my bladder was full.

As I shuffled away from the bed, I almost tripped up a second time, on a tangled mess of blankets and cushions. Somebody had been sleeping on the floor. No prizes for guessing who.

I cracked the bedroom door and peered out into a stubby corridor, dotted with several other closed doors and terminated by a right angle turn to carpeted stairs, going down.

“Raine?” I croaked again, and kept one hand on the wall as I tiptoed forward.

The thin old carpet scratched at my bare feet. Somewhere down below a washing machine was thumping through a spin cycle. I reached the only window in the corridor and looked out on a street lined with terraced houses, half of them with windows boarded up. Potholes pockmarked the road. A sad, abandoned fridge stood on the pavement corner. Spirit life flitted and leapt across the old red slate rooftops, and on the other side of the road a sort of bulging ambulatory mushroom was busy climbing one of the houses.

I didn’t recognise this part of Sharrowford. A rough part. My earlier relief was wearing thin. Where was Raine? A dozen dark possibilities presented themselves.

A spirit flopped against the window.

I flinched, too wiped out and groggy for real shock. It was an ugly thing, like a bat but many times too large, face stuffed with dozens of eyeballs pointing in every direction. It scrabbled along the window glass and hissed at me.

“Shoo.” I showed it the Fractal. It took off sharpish.

When I looked round, another spirit was watching me too – inside the house. A bald green head, with six tiny pinprick eyes, peering around the edge of the wall where the corridor turned into stairs.

“You can go away too,” I said out loud.

It did.

It ducked back. When I reached the stairs, it had vanished back from whence it came. Thankfully.

“Raine?” I called down the stairs, then coughed and hacked and clutched at the ache in my chest.

She found me before I got much further.

Footsteps hurried up the stairs, taking three or four at a time, and Raine appeared in breathless rush. She was in tshirt and pajama bottoms, bare feet and a big smile.

“Heather, hey! You’re up? You’re actually up?”

I felt the sweetest wave of relief, so strong I sagged against the wall and smiled back at her. Raine was whole and not shot in the back of the head or pulled apart by tall women in trench coats. I stumbled forward and all but fell into her arms, pulled myself into a very selfish hug and buried my face in her shoulder.

God, but she smelled good. Warm faint body-scent. I put my arms around her middle and let out a groan. Raine laughed and rubbed my shoulders and let me flop against her for a minute before she eased me upright and peered at my face.

Her expression told me all was not right.

“W-what?” I managed.

“How many fingers am I holding up?”

“ … ”

“How many fingers am I holding up?” she repeated, exact same easy tone to her voice.

“Three.”

“And now?”

“Two.”

“And how about now?”

“You’re making a fist. Raine, what?”

She breathed a sigh, but it didn’t sound like relief. Wetting her lips with a flick of her tongue, she gently guided me back into what I’d correctly guessed was her bedroom. Raine sat me down on the bed again and gently touched my hair.

“Heather, stay right there, okay? Don’t move, I’ll be right back.”

“I saw a spirit indoors,” I croaked.

“You saw what?”

“I saw a spirit.”

“Oh, yeah. This room is warded, but the rest of the house is free-range. Best just sit there now, okay?”

“Mm.”

“I’ll be right back. I promise.”

She was gone for only a minute, rapid footsteps down the stairs and back up again, and returned with a glass of water and a flashlight. She waited as I drank the water, then shined the flashlight in my eyes and peered at my pupils. I squinted and grumbled.

“Okay, right, that’s good,” Raine muttered more to herself than me. “Heather, what’s your full name? Say it for me, please?”

“Heather Lavinia Morell. I’m nineteen years old. I have a twin sister called Maisie. You’re Raine and I’m in your bed.”

A grin tugged at the corners of her mouth. “That you are. Not in the way I wanted you though.”

“Oh, shush.”

“How do you feel?”

“Like hell.”

Raine held up three fingers again. “How many?”

“I’m not concussed. Just unspeakably groggy.”

“Yeah, of course. But I have to make sure you’re actually back this time.”

“ … what?”

“What’s the last thing you remember?”

I furrowed my brow. This was too hard right now. “I had a weird dream. Uh, before that … I did brain-math again. You were fighting a scary tall woman. I grabbed you and … we went poof. I assume I passed out?”

Raine sat down on the bed and touched my knee. I liked that very much. I would have liked it more without the expression as if she was about to deliver news of a terminal illness.

“Heather, you’ve been out cold for two days.”

“What? Raine, what?” I gaped, suddenly a lot more awake. A sinking feeling pulled at the base of my stomach. “And you didn’t take me to a hospital?”

“You told me not to.”

I blinked at her. She shrugged and smiled in sheepish apology. “Out cold is probably a little dramatic, I admit. You were waking up to use the toilet, and you’d eat or drink anything I put in your hands, but you were like a sleepwalker. You barely spoke. Your eyes were unfocused all the time, lights on but nobody home. You just slept and slept. And you said no hospital. You don’t remember any of that?”

A horrible sense of lost time and missing memory settled over me. “I don’t remember a thing.”

Raine put her arm around my shoulders. She smelled so good, I wanted to lean into her. “I doubt the NHS has standard treatment guidelines for supernatural brain-strain.”

“I guess so.”

“Hey, Heather.” Raine spoke quieter than before, intense and serious. “Thank you.”

“W-wha-”

“That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anybody do, including myself.” She broke into a grin. “Just don’t do it again, okay?”

I shrugged and averted my eyes. Found it very hard to feel like I’d done a brave or clever thing. I was just glad she wasn’t hurt. “I might not wake up next time. Yes, I get it.”

“You’ll wake up and knock ‘em dead next time.” Raine kissed my forehead. I felt myself start to blush; everything was still in working order then. “I need to call Evee, let her know you’re awake.” She got up and found her phone on the desk.

Their conversation didn’t last long.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“Trust me, Evee’s glad you’re okay,” Raine said, and I heard a sigh behind her voice. “She’s uh, busy. Her particular way of showing she cares. Don’t worry about it right now.”

I should have had a million questions, should have been buzzing with tension and fears, but before I had time to think about anything else, we discovered I was hungry enough to eat a live horse.

“I’ve got microwave chicken nuggets downstairs,” Raine offered. “Chocolate cookies too, or I can whip you up a killer sandwich or two. If you want something more, there’s a Greggs like five minutes away, but I don’t really want to leave you alone.”

“Please don’t.”

The ache in my chest felt so bad that walking to the bathroom and back was quite a challenge. Apparently Raine’s housemates were all out at the moment, but I was more concerned about the spirit life which might be hanging out in her kitchen. She suggested I lie back down and nap while she made food.

“No. I’ve slept enough.”

“D’you want coffee then?”

“That would be heavenly.”

She left me with another affectionate kiss on the forehead.

“Shout if you need me. Feel free to rummage, if you get bored.” She nodded at the pile of books on the floor, winked at me, and gently eased the bedroom door shut. A couple of minutes later I heard her bustling around in the kitchen.

For a while I simply sat and soaked in my aches and pains, but then decided I needed a distraction. I pulled myself slowly out of the bed covers again to poke through Raine’s philosophy books. They were all second-hand, battered old paperbacks and ex-library books, filled with highlighter lines and pencil notes. Critique of Pure Reason lay on her desk, the same one I’d seen her reading on the morning we first met. It was filled with torn post-it note bookmarks. Next to it lurked a dog-eared copy of The Conquest of Bread, only slightly less inundated with yellow tags.

My bare feet felt freezing. An anaemic trickle of warmth ran from the modern radiator underneath the window. I padded over to Raine’s cheap chest of drawers, told myself I wasn’t intruding, and went diving for a pair of socks.

She owned a lot of band tshirts, some very comfy looking polo neck sweaters, and a pair of highly impractical leather trousers which I marvelled at for a moment. I blinked past underwear and bras and reached into the back of the top drawer for a pair of thick black socks.

My hand brushed cold metal. I peered underneath the socks.

A handgun.

Raine had a pistol stuffed in the back of her sock drawer.

A weird little snub-nosed thing, black and metallic. I stared at it for a long moment, then selected a pair of socks and closed the drawer.

Raine returned a few minutes later with the promised double plateful of chicken nuggets and chocolate cookies. She ducked back downstairs to fetch coffee for both of us, came back and handed me a steaming mug, kissed my forehead again, touched my hair.

I tried to imagine her holding a gun, shooting a person.

It was surprisingly easy.

She sat crossed legged on the bed, opposite where I’d tucked the covers up around my knees, told me to eat and take it slow, take it easy, we didn’t have anywhere to be today. She didn’t have to encourage me, I was so hungry my stomach growled at the smell of food.

“Borrowed your socks,” I said, and poked one foot out from the covers to show her.

“Oh yeah?” Raine leaned forward to goose my toes. I giggled involuntarily and jerked my foot back.

“Raine! No tickling!”

“That is one promise I am unable to make.”

“I couldn’t help … I mean … I saw your … Raine, there’s a gun in your sock drawer.”

“Is there?” She raised her eyebrows and paused in thought. “Oh yeah, there is, isn’t there. Forgot where I put that.”

“You forgot where you hid an illegal firearm? Raine, truncheons and knives are one thing, but that gun is illegal to even own. You could go to prison. Where on earth did you get it?”

She waved a dismissive hand. “I’ve had it for years. It’s fine, Heather, it’s just insurance.”

“That’s what you said about the truncheon. Not two hours later you beat a monster to death in front of me. Don’t jinx us again.”

Raine nodded, as if my paranoia made sense.

“I mean,” I tried to explain. “I’m not scared by it, I just don’t understand why … ”

Oh, but I did understand why Raine owned a gun.

Three days ago I wouldn’t have, but I did now. Exhaustion and hunger and chest pains had conspired together to smother the emotional impact of the Willow House Loop, but with food in my belly and caffeine in my veins and socks on my feet, the weight of memory landed on me like a ton of bricks. I put down a half eaten cookie and swallowed, suddenly short of breath. Yes, I understood very well why Raine might need a gun.

Raine recognised my reaction before I figured out what was happening. She scooted over next to me and put her arm around my shoulders, forced me to meet her eyes. “Hey, Heather, Heather, it’s fine. We’re safe, it’s over. It’s over. And hey, if it happens again, I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

I nodded at her. Forced myself to take big deep breaths. “I’m fine, I’m fine, just … shock. Finally hit me.”

“I wish I’d had the gun. Haven’t carried it around in years.” She cracked a grin. “Could have just shot tall dark and bitch-face in the head and be done with her.”

I rallied a small laugh. Big effort. “Have you done that before? Have you ever used it?”

“Couple of times. Long story. Didn’t go well, but better than the alternative.”

“Thank you, yes, thank you.” I eased away from her arm. “I need some space to breathe. This is a lot to process. It just … hit me all at once, that’s all.”

Raine stood up and pulled over the chair from her desk. She sat on it sideways, facing me. “Don’t think about for now, yeah? We’re just two girls hanging out, nothing more to worry about. Eat some junk food, then we can go downstairs and play video games. We’ve got a PS4 hooked up to the telly in the sitting room, s’pretty cool, I’ve actually got this one game I think you’ll love.”

“What happened after I passed out?” I asked. “Did you carry me here? This is your place, right?”

Raine winced and cleared her throat. “Yeah, it is my place. Long story short, I had to think real fast. You were out cold, we were both covered in blood, I needed to clear your airways. We popped out right in the middle of the street, miles from campus.” She blinked. “Uh, weird, weird feeling, your dimension-hopping voodoo. Span my head right around.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be! You saved us. Anyway, miracle I even got you back here without getting stopped and questioned. No princess carry, sadly, so you didn’t miss any fun. Managed to avoid awkward questions from my housemates too. Once you were here, I didn’t want to risk moving you. They probably think I’ve been keeping a sex slave up here the last two days.”

“Oh! Oh, your leg!” It came back to me in a rush of concern, a tightness in my chest. “You were bleeding so much. You-”

“Ahhh it’s fine, barely a scratch.”

Raine tugged down the waistband of her pajama bottoms and cocked one leg toward me. I swear, my eyes almost popped out of my head. I didn’t know where to look – the curve of her hip, the soft white of her underwear, the edge of her pubic mound, or the extensive bandage-and-gauze wound dressing wrapped around her lower thigh.

“W-w-what about, uh, um i-infection?” I completely failed to keep my cool.

“Once you were safe, I just rocked up to A&E at Sharrowford general, told them I’d been bitten by a strange dog. Cleaned it out and gave me a shot and some antibiotics. Muscle’s a bit stiff but the scar’ll look cool as hell.” She grinned, then caught the look on my face. “Heather?”

“M-maybe don’t flash your panties at me?” I blushed furiously. “I mean, do, yes, please, but warn me first?”

Raine laughed and pulled her pajama bottoms back up with a snap of waistband elastic. “Oops. Bit too much stimulation, yeah?”

I shook my head and huffed. “Oh shut up.”

I couldn’t bring myself to voice the other obvious question, whether I had stripped and dressed myself in Raine’s old clothes or if she’d had to do it for me. My dignity already lay in tatters but I clung to what I could. She’d laundered my other stuff and my coat, and found my apartment key to fetch me a spare set, but I couldn’t summon the energy to get changed yet. Raine also presented me with Maisie’s tshirt, carefully sealed inside an extra-large food bag. I thanked her but asked her to put it away, I didn’t have the mental bandwidth for that right now.

“Where did you get the gun, really?” I asked, an effort to occupy my thoughts. “I thought it was supposed to be impossible to get handguns in England?”

Raine bit a chicken nugget in half and raised her eyebrows at me. “Serious question?”

“Yes.”

“It’s easy if you’ve got the right connections. I don’t anymore, but I did for a couple of years. Round when I met Evee. I bought it off a dodgy man in a pub in Crawley, down in Sussex, for about two hundred quid.” She ate the rest of the nugget and shrugged. “Strictly speaking, Evee bought it. Was her money. Or, uh, her dad’s. Haven’t thought about that in a while. Weird, huh?” She raised an eyebrow at me, then smirked. “Heather? See something you like?”

I realised I’d been staring.

“I’d never seen anybody do that before.” The truth behind my feelings slipped out.

“Do what?”

I opened my mouth, struggled to put it into words, tripped over the few points of reference I had. “Fight. What you did, I … ”

She was beautiful, muscle in motion like poetry. I clutched memories to me, of her swinging that length of metal pipe, her flushed face, grinning and loving every second of it. She gave me a terrible case of the shivers, and not in a bad way.

God help me, Raine was irresistible.

I felt in my chest, in my gut, and – forgive my crudity – in my crotch.

If I hadn’t been wiped out and stuffing myself with food, if I wasn’t three days unwashed and brain-strained by hyperdimensional math, if my chest didn’t ache like a abused drum, I would have been powerless to resist the urge. I was in her house, her room, her bed, wearing her clothes. I had no courage, of course, couldn’t have jumped her myself even if well and whole, but I doubt she would have given me much choice in the matter.

On some instinctive, animal level I knew her concern and care for my wretched state was the only reason she wasn’t trying to screw my tiny little brains out of my head right now. I felt it in the way she touched me, the unadorned sensuality of the way she looked at me, the closeness of our bodies. Simple, blunt, universal things I’d never experienced before. Felt like my nerves were wired with electrical current. Only the weight of exhaustion and chest pains kept me from dissolving into a blushing, stuttering mess of sexual tension.

The fact she wasn’t even trying made it so much worse.

Raine was nothing like the sort of girl I’d spent my teenage years assuming I’d be attracted to. She wasn’t my ‘type’, though I’d barely had the psychological freedom to spend much time thinking about personal preferences. I’d always imagined a girl more like Evelyn, or at least how Evelyn had first seemed to me, fluffy and cuddly and tucked away with her books. Raine was the polar opposite of everything I’d ever expected of myself.

I was turned on by her violence; I finally faced that fact.

“Hey, everybody’s good at something,” Raine was saying, a sheepish grin on her face. “I just happen to be good at kicking arse and taking names.”

“You killed those people,” I said softly.

Raine sobered up in a heartbeat. Her grin died and she nodded at me. “They were going to hurt us, Heather, or hand us over to people who would. It was us or them.”

“I know that. I know that, rationally. But they must have had … I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Parents, families, friends. They were people, and now they’re not. I don’t know how to feel about that.”

“It’s my responsibility,” Raine said. “I made the choice. Not you.”

I sighed and almost said that wasn’t helpful, but then I realised: Raine had done this before, hadn’t she? She’d been protecting Evelyn for a years before she even met me.

“Would you have killed Twil?”

Raine grimaced and shrugged. “I don’t think I could. I mean, I could have a silver bullet made, but honestly? I ain’t sure even that would put her down.”

“In principle, would you?”

“If she was going to hurt you or Evee? Absolutely. No question.” Raine took a deep breath. “But it turns out she’s not. I was wrong about her. And hey, I wouldn’t have just bumped her off without being sure. I’m not a cold blooded murderer.”

I stared at her and thought very carefully. Stared at those big warm brown eyes and the soft curve of her cheekbones, the rich chestnut hair and the way her hips curved under her pajamas.

“Do I scare you?” Raine asked. I looked up and expected a touch of swagger on her face, but instead found straight laced sincerity.

“No, no you don’t. That’s what worries me,” I said.

Raine raised her eyebrows in silent question.

“It … I find it attractive,” I admitted. “Not the killing itself, I’m not that broken, and I don’t think you genuinely enjoy that part either?” I spoke those last few words slowly, haltingly, one eye fixed on Raine. She shook her head. “Right, well. I don’t know what it means. I never liked action girls or anything before. This is entirely your fault.”

Raine couldn’t keep a stupid grin off her face. She pantomimed a bow with a flourish of one hand. “A blame I am destined to shoulder.”

“Oh, shush.”

She straighted up again, most of the tension gone. “Look, seriously, Heather. I don’t want my, uh, talents to mess with your head. Beating up those guys, maybe I did kill a couple of them, but it was my responsibility. If that makes you uncomfortable, we can talk about it, I respect that. But it was not – and will not ever be – your fault. It’s mine.”

“Does it bother you?”

She shrugged. “Not really.”

Not for the first time, I wondered if Raine was a psychopath.

I also decided I didn’t care.

I never claimed to be smart.

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