conditions of absolute reality – 3.9

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The very next morning I moved in for real.

Raine wouldn’t let me go anywhere alone. I didn’t want to, anyway. I’d barely slept that night, ragged with adrenaline, chased by aftershocks of paranoia, plagued by incessant throbbing pain in my diaphragm. I finally conked out from sheer exhaustion after midnight, snuggled up to Raine to keep the dark at bay.

We used her rickety car to empty my flat. Truly empty it, as per Evelyn’s emphatic instructions. Clothes and books shoved into plastic carrier bags, university notes and course paperwork jammed into my little-used backpack, my laptop wrapped with jumpers and hidden in a sports bag alongside my few valuables. Toiletries, kitchen utensils, mugs, everything of mine. Raine even pulled the sheets and sad flat pillow off my mattress.

“A strand of hair for a voodoo doll is not quite accurate, that little won’t matter. Shouldn’t matter,” Evelyn had said, earlier that morning, when we’d gathered around the kitchen table. “But we don’t want them getting anything that belongs to you. Anything with a strong emotional connection.”

“Why? What could they do?”

She’d shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Raine had added. “And better now than later. Let’s get it done.”

The sum physical total of my life seemed small and pathetic in the back of Raine’s car. A few bags, not enough to fill the boot. I didn’t even have that many books, not ones I really owned. At least this way I’d finally be adding myself to the house, with Raine and Evelyn, a true accepted part, but as I stood by Raine’s car and glanced back at the impassive grey block of flats, I wished this had happened in any other way.

“Don’t tell me you’re actually going to miss this place?” Raine asked. She was leaning on the roof of her car with the door open, ready to leave.

I shook my head. “Not in the slightest. Horrible impersonal box. We’re not meant to live alone in concrete cells.”

“I’m sorry, Heather.” She swallowed, a tiny catch in her voice. “I’m sorry I made you stay here longer than you had to. I should have had you at the house from the word go. I should have been there-”

“Don’t,” I said, a little too hard. “We’ve already been over this. It was my fault.”

Raine opened her mouth again but thought better of arguing. Her confidence and her smile flowed back by easy degrees. “Ready to go, then?”

“Suppose we shouldn’t stay out in the open for too long, hmm?”

“Heather, I’m right here with you. You are always safe.”

“I know, I know. I’m sorry I said that, I … I feel normal, I guess. I’m just being bitter.” I shrugged. The shock had worn off, normality had reasserted itself. Wasn’t I supposed to be a flinching sobbing mess? I’d almost been kidnapped. How was this meant to feel?

“You can always tell me if you-”

“Let’s go. Let’s go home and cuddle. Please?”

Raine cracked a grin. “You’re the boss.”

Evee is the closest we have to a boss. Don’t flatter me. However much it works.”

“Whatever you say, boss.”


==


Last night, after the failed kidnapping attempt, Twil had been furious.

Absorbed in my own pain and desperate need to rest, I’d failed to notice at first. Raine had half-carried me upstairs and ran a bath, while I dozed off sitting on the floor. She’d pulled me back to my feet, to much of my own grumbling and groaning, but I hadn’t thought to question why she seemed tense. She helped me undress – a decidedly unsexy encounter, believe me – and made me get in the bath. The water revived me somewhat, especially after I dunked my face and head to scrub off the remaining flecks of blood and wash away the taste of sick. Raine stroked my wet hair.

“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you’re safe.”

“Mm.”

“How do you feel?”

“ … numb? Numb. I’m sorry I caused all that, Raine.”

She shook her head. “Don’t be. You survived. Self-defence, whatever it was. You called and we came. God alone knows how you kept those bastards talking as long as you did. You’re good at that, you know?”

“I am?”

“We saw everything from the moment Praem turned up, through the scrying pool, but Evee’ll want you to fill her about on the rest. Don’t think about it for now, okay? You concentrate on soaking yourself. Will you be okay here on your own for a few minutes? I need to go downstairs, just a couple of minutes.”

“I’m not going fall unconscious and drown.”

She watched me carefully, the same way she had when she’d thought I might have been concussed. I raised my eyebrows in silent question, all I could manage at the moment.

“That’s not what I meant. Are you going to be okay being alone?”

“Oh, uh … I … I think so. I’m in the house. We’re all here. The door’s locked. I’m fine, I’m fine, go do what you need to do.”

“Shout if you change your mind.”

I very nearly did.

Raine’s footsteps creaked down the stairs. I was alone with the steam and the silence and the drip of water from the bath tap. The heat had unknotted my muscles and begun to make inroads on the exhaustion, blunt the sharpest edges of the day. I should have been relaxed and warm, felt safe and cared for, surrounded by friends.

So why was I shaking?

My hands shook. I squeezed them into fists, felt my breath catch in my throat, shivering all over. My mind replayed disconnected snippets of memory – the feeling of being grabbed and pushed to the ground, the bowel-loosening terror of Zheng advancing on me, the oily sound of Alexander’s voice. I gulped and sniffed and drew my knees up to my chest, then dipped my head into the bath until I was chin-deep, squeezed my eyes shut and made myself small, a tiny scrap of flesh hanging in warm water, trying to be still.

A shout and a crash from downstairs jarred me so badly I whacked my elbow against the bathtub, wincing through my teeth. My heart leapt from zero to sixty.

“Raine!” I shouted. “Raine?”

She shot up the stairs in record time and slipped back into the bathroom, almost out of breath, one hand out. “Nothing’s happening, it’s fine, I promise.”

“What was that? What’s going on?”

“Evee and Twil are having a … ” She hesitated, then sighed and shrugged. “Jurisdictional disagreement.”

I shook my head.

“They’re biting each other’s heads off,” she said.

My eyes went wide. “Raine, last time they had an argument, they almost killed each other.”

“Exactly!” Her smile turned sheepish. “Which is why I-”

“Go, go!” I shooed her back out the door with one hand. “I’m fine, I’m-”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure! Go stop our friends from knocking the walls down!”

There was a lot more shouting, punctuated by one or two loud thumps – hands slapped on tables, perhaps – but no more crashing and banging. The bathwater had begun to cool by the time Raine returned again.

“An unexpected peace has broken out,” she said.

“Thank God for that.”

I needed a hand out of the bath to avoid slipping and landing on my face, and appreciated the company as I tugged on pajama bottoms and a nice big fluffy sweater, the minimal requirements to stave off further shaking and shivering.

Downstairs, our resident mage and teenage werewolf stewed on opposite sides of the kitchen table, a peace offering of tea half finished on Twil’s side and barely touched on Evelyn’s. At least they hadn’t thrown fireballs or claws this time, and weren’t so self-absorbed as to ignore me when I shuffled in. They both spoke at once.

“Heather, how are-”

“There you are, Raine got you up-”

“I said we’d need you here-”

“Can’t believe this bullshit-”

“Have you two quite finished?” I mumbled. Didn’t have the energy to raise my voice. They both stammered to a halt. Evelyn shot a sidelong glare at Twil, who shrugged and flopped her hands.

“Told you she’d be pissed,” Raine added. I fell into the chair she pulled out for me.

“Actually I’m not angry. I think you two making all that racket staved off a panic attack.”

“What?” Raine said, a gentle hand on the back of my head. “Panic attack? Heather, are you okay?”

I shrugged. “I’m fine. I think I started to have a panic attack in the bath. I don’t know.”

“Not exactly a surprise,” Evelyn said. “Perfectly normal, considering the circumstances.”

“Yeah! You almost got snatched in the street. Anyone’d piss themselves.” Twil eyed Evelyn. “Snatched by something I should have known about though.”

“Stop your whining.”

With the invaluable assistance of microwave Chinese food, and the tribute of two offerings from Raine’s secret stash of chocolate bars, I told them everything, from the top, starting with Tenny’s warning and ending with as much of Alexander Lilburne’s disgusting monologuing as I could remember. Details eluded me, memory fuzzy and heavy. The physical confrontation in that tangled back alley was the hardest part to recount.

Raine picked up on my mood, stood behind me and rubbed my back, but Twil didn’t understand what I was getting at. How could she? She’d been invincible and untouchable for years.

“What do you mean, you made him vanish? Just like, poof, into thin air?” She raised an eyebrow at Evelyn. “Is that even a thing?”

I looked away, a lump in my throat; didn’t want to think about that right now.

“For Heather, yes,” said Evelyn. “So it does work on living things.”

“I don’t … oh.” Twil’s eyes widened and her voice dropped to a hushed whisper. “Wait a moment, you mean you can send people to like, the other side?”

“Outside,” I muttered.

“Yeah, that’s what I said. Holy shit. You’re not kidding, right?”

“Could you please not?”

Twil didn’t press any further, but she frowned at me like I was either crazy or a walking neutron bomb. Maybe she was right. Evelyn asked endless questions about the Cultists. She got me to describe Alexander Lilburne in as much detail as I could.

“Didn’t you see him, through Praem?” I asked. Evelyn shook her head.

“Not a good look, no.”

She wrote down what I said, dismissed their names as probably fake, and descended into dark brooding. She stared at the tabletop, chin in her hand, consumed with thought. “Call me useless, call my work useless? Must be a bluff. They know I’m close. Knew my mother? Nonsense. Who is he? God dammit all, I may even have met him once, when I was a child, or seen him at a distance.”

“Are you going to kill him?” I asked.

“Heather?” Raine said, surprised at my tone. I didn’t meet her eyes.

“I think that’s a fine suggestion,” said Evelyn. “Yes, threaten my friends, in my city? I’m going to feed him to a creature he couldn’t even imagine.”

“That’s cool and all,” Twil said, kicking back in her chair, rocking it onto two legs with her hands on the table for balance. “But still I’ve gotta tell my parents about this.”

“No,” Evelyn snapped, hard and blunt. “You don’t. Twil, how many times-”

“Don’t start up again,” I said. “Or I shall be angry.”

Twil smirked and mock-cowered from me. “You’re real scary when you’re angry, you know?”

“As if I could scare you.”

“You can make people vanish. That’s pretty scary.”

I curled up a little tighter in my chair. Evelyn was glancing back and forth between us, her discomfort visibly mounting.

“Must you-” she cut off and shot an apologetic look at me before resuming with Twil. “Must you run to your family with your tail between your legs over every little thing?”

“Oh, yeah.” Twil’s voice dripped sarcasm. “I’ll go ahead and forget Sharrowford might be a fucking supernatural warzone, that these weirdos might take over-”

“I am not in the habit of losing. I beat my own mother, a mage ten times, a hundred times more powerful than these petty amateurs. This is pest control, at best.”

“Then why haven’t you won yet?”

Evelyn’s glare could have frozen the sun.

Twil rolled her eyes. “I came into town to buy a video game today. Any of my family could wander in here by accident. I didn’t even know this was going on. I’ve gotta warn my parents, Saye, don’t be bonkers. I’ve gotta tell the Church. You’d do the same, come off it.”

“Then you can tell them to stay out of it too. Make that clear.”

“You sure? I dunno, Saye, maybe we could … you know.” Twil shrugged, the very picture of a sulky teenager.

“I know what?”

“Maybe we could pitch in?”

“Your lot? Don’t make me laugh. I’d like to see you try.”


==


The Sharrowford Cult waited less than forty eight hours before they began to stalk me.

Raine was a saint, she really was, I don’t know how she put up with my grim mood; I started that week in a downward spiral of grumpy and jittery, and only got worse with every passing day. Finally moving in together was what I’d wanted all along, true togetherness, a new measure of safety, for Raine’s bedroom to be our bedroom — but I felt restless, irritable, not entirely like myself. I gave myself a break from the pamphlet and my brain-math training, a much needed period of recovery for my aching diaphragm. I pretended to be normal, worked on my end of term essays, tried to impose some order and cleanliness on the house’s ancient rambling kitchen.

The first goat statue greeted me in the university library. Raine was only ten feet away, at the end of the row of shelves. I’d stepped away from her to replace a book I didn’t strictly need, and there it was, standing in the gap I’d pulled the book from only minutes before.

An ugly little thing made of pewter or thick discoloured porcelain, only an inch tall from wide base to horn tips, it stared at me with holes for eyes. A cheap gewgaw, poor approximation of the real animal. Real goats were sort of cute – this thing was horrible. I didn’t want to touch it, as much from physical disgust as the odd sense it had appeared from nowhere.

A student prank, I told myself. Somebody had walked past and slipped it in here. Perhaps it had some obscure political meaning. I was hypersensitive, hyper-vigilant, still in shock. The goat figurine meant nothing.

I used the book to shove it into the depths of the shelf and said nothing about it to Raine, forgot it by the time we left the library.

The second one turned up the next day, in the ladies toilet, on the edge of the sink when I went to wash my hands.

It hadn’t been there when I walked in. Nobody had followed me. Raine was right outside the door.

I almost screamed.

Raine balled that one up in her jumper and took it home for Evee to investigate, a trip which had me walking on needles the entire way, Raine’s head on a swivel for unseen watchers. It was a trap, I knew it, a contact drug or a magical trick or a disguised monster or-

“It’s inert. Nothing. Just a bloody china figurine,” Evelyn said two hours later, as she scooped the goat statue up with bare hands from the centre of a magic circle.

“But it wasn’t there when I went in. It wasn’t, I swear.”

“I believe you. But it’s also inert.”

“We should get rid of it anyway. Please?”

“We should,” Evelyn agreed.

“On it,” said Raine. She took the bus into town and dropped the goat in the river.

Another one appeared the next day, in the library again. This time none of us bothered to touch the thing.

Why stalk me, I thought, why not Evelyn? Because I’m an easier target, because she’s the big scary mage, because she’ll notice the sleight of hand and catch the culprit. I just have to cower and run.

The goat brought friends – odd scraps of paper with a single eye design on them, staring and watching. I saw one pinned on a university noticeboard, another one on a telephone pole on the route home. Raine ripped them both down, but it made no difference. I felt like I was being watched, in the library, in the campus canteen, everywhere but at home. The worst was in lectures and seminars, when I wasn’t with Raine.

Neither Evelyn or I went anywhere alone. Raine became my shadow, the need for coordination that much sharper. I did a lot of waiting around – less in the library and more in the Medieval Metaphysics room, a safe bolt-hole where I didn’t feel that creeping sensation, reading books and writing paragraphs about Hamlet and Joyce, immersing myself in literature to forget what was happening to us.

Evelyn had Praem escort her most of the time, and once she sent the demon-host to the library to collect me without warning. I’d jumped and swallowed a shriek when I’d noticed her waiting in silence behind my chair.

Twice I caught half-hidden glimpses of a figure watching the house at night, down at the end of the road.

The first time I’d been getting up to use the toilet, and my sleep-addled mind passed by the sight through a window, a half-remembered impression, forgotten in the light of the morning. The second time I’d been unable to sleep, reading in Evelyn’s study, pacing up and down to tire myself out, when I’d looked up through the window and seen the figure motionless at the end of the street. I’d watched for a minute, two minutes, not a twitch, frozen in paranoid fear. The first time had come rushing back to me, and I’d gone rushing to Raine, to wake her up.

She’d gone out into the night with silent feet and a kitchen knife in her jacket, but by the time she reached the end of the road the figure had vanished.

Evelyn sunk into a deep, dark, brooding sulk, more and more time spent in the ex-drawing room, just staring at the doorway mural and swapping sigils and bits of design back and forth, trying to crack some incomprehensible code.

I kept putting off calling my parents, debating what to say. They’d need to know I’d moved, cancelled the rent, either be delighted or terrified if I told them I was ‘living with friends’ in a ‘shared house’, all that nice clean sanitised language of young people at university.

The truth was impossible to share. They felt distant, unreal, part of an old life.

Hi mum, hi dad, I’m learning how to rescue my lost twin sister from an alien god. What’s that? No, it’ll probably kill me before I’m done, if I don’t end up as collateral damage in a war between a mage and a bunch of cultists. The mage, oh no, she’s my friend, we’re all friends here, except the one I make out with every day.

That was one truth I could tell them, almost as scary as letting them think I’d gone off the deep end: I’m living with my girlfriend. Lines of interrogation ran over and over in my mind. Yes, mum, girlfriend. Yes, I’m a lesbian. Yes, I’m sure, because she’s beautiful and amazing and she makes me orgasm like a bomb going off every night.

Things I could not say to my parents. Concepts I didn’t want them to think about. Ever.

On the eighth morning after the failed kidnapping attempt, I woke from an awful nightmare.

Not an Eye nightmare; we kept the Fractal fresh, made it into a nice little shared ritual before sleep every night, my left arm laid across Raine’s lap as she traced over the lines with the body art pen. No, it was a normal nightmare, one that had me kicking and thrashing myself awake in bed, elbowing Raine in the stomach and choking on a mouthful of my own saliva. A nightmare about being grabbed and held down, about towering, indistinct figures, stronger than me, about being trapped, taken away to dark places, about horrible goat faces and the feeling of being watched and followed.

I was monosyllabic, foul-tempered, and cold, all day; Raine deserved me better than that. Deserved better than me using her for a hug and struggling to express myself.

That evening, when Evelyn had vanished into the ex-drawing room and I was about to drag myself up from a finished plate of chips, Raine thumped a bottle of vodka down on the kitchen table. I looked up at at her, framed by the shadows and the early sunset through the kitchen window.

“Raine?”

“You and I are going to drink together.”

“What?” I blinked at her, then at the bottle.

“Cossack vodka,” she said with a proud smile. “Genuinely not that easy to get hold of. No idea why, not like it’s expensive or anything. Goes down a bit smoother than the supermarket crap, thought you might find it a bit easier.”

I started to shake my head, a lump growing in my throat. “Oh, Raine, no. I’m sorry, I know I’ve been awful all day, but I can’t solve that with alcohol.”

“You’re not going to. We’re gonna drink, together.”

She left the bottle in front of me and fetched glasses from the kitchen cupboard. I ran a finger over the condensation on the bottle, crisp and cold.

“I haven’t drunk any alcohol since you gave me that one shot of vodka. I don’t know if can, if I should risk it.”

“Well, you don’t have to think about that, because I ain’t giving you a choice.”

Raine clacked the glasses down on the table. I huffed and frowned at her.

“That’s hardly healthy. My lover forcing me to drink. You don’t have to get me drunk to have fun with me.”

“It’s not about that,” she said softly. “You know it’s not about that.”

I cleared my throat, felt sheepish, looked away. “ … fine.”

“You don’t have to drink much.” She poured a finger or two of vodka into each glass. “Just sip it. Don’t try to keep up with me, seriously, you’ll end up under the table.”

The vodka in my glass caught the light as the sharp ethanol scent tickled my nose. I picked it up and felt my saliva glands tingle in anticipation. “I suppose-”

Raine slammed back her shot and poured another. I goggled at her but she just laughed and shrugged.

We discovered that even in small smooth sips I still couldn’t drink the stuff. The taste made me cough, made my eyes water, a lava-flow of heat crawling down my throat. Raine relented and we came up with a compromise. I made a pot of strong tea and she added a slug of vodka to my mug. That was much easier, along with the can of nuts Raine produced for the occasion.

One mug of vodka-laced tea later my head began to feel both heavier and lighter, my eyelids like wet paper and my chest warm inside. Raine didn’t look the slightest bit worse for wear.

“You had an utter screamer of a nightmare last night, didn’t you?” she asked.

I sighed a huge sigh and drained the dregs of my drink, then stared into the bottom of the empty mug.

“Did I cry out in my sleep?”

“Nah, but I could tell. You were so shaky this morning, I wanted to make you stay home, but … ” She smiled, indulgent and a little sad.

The alcohol cut through all my inhibitions, my paranoia, my fear.

“I feel violated,” I admitted.

Something hard unknotted in my chest, a deep-rooted tension beginning to unwind. Raine raised her eyebrows and nodded for me to go on.

“The rest of it – the coffee shop, the brain-math, the giant zombie-woman whatever – that was scary, yes, that was all terrifying. But the worst part was the bit in the back alleyway, with that … that … b-bastard who grabbed me. I keep replaying it in my head. Keeps coming back to me. I hate it.”

“Hate is okay.”

“It’s not, it’s unhealthy,” I said. “I feel vulnerable. I’ve always felt vulnerable, but this is new. It’s not … it’s not that I don’t like you coming everywhere with me, Raine. I love it when you hold my hand. I love you being there and being around. For the first time since Maisie I’m not lonely all the time, but I wish … I wish it wasn’t a necessity. I wish I didn’t have to feel paranoid. Why are they stalking me? What do they want with me? Bastards. Fuckers.” I sniffed and frowned. “What else can I call them? Help me with this.”

Raine had some colourful suggestions. She poured me a second mug of tea and vodka. I sipped at it, unsure what helped more, the booze or the talking. I felt more relaxed than I’d been in days, even as I aired these dirty bits of my psyche. She got up and hugged me while I sat.

“I thought I was supposed to feel scared. Jump at loud noises. That sort of thing, but I’m mostly just … angry.”

“That’s normal, I think,” Raine offered.

“What am I supposed to do about this?”

“This.” Raine grinned and raised her empty glass. “I don’t have a magic bullet for trauma-”

“It’s hardly trauma.”

“It is. It totally is.” Raine frowned. “Some dickless wonder assaulted you and scary people tried to kidnap you, and if I could get my hands on them I’d kill them all. It’s trauma. And there’s no magic solution, but talking helps. I learnt that together with Evelyn, and you’re easily as tough as she is.”

“If you say so.” I grumbled and sipped more tea.

“I do say so. And you know what else I say?” Raine sat back down with a smile and knocked back another shot of vodka – and slammed her glass on the table. “I fucked up!” she shouted.

“R-Raine?”

“I failed, you know that? I messed up, big time. I wasn’t fucking there.” Her voice caught. “I failed to protect you. What good’s a bodyguard if she’s not there to help you when you need it. That’s what I’m good at, that’s what I do, and I wasn’t there when you needed me.” She sniffed, and I finally realised that the alcohol was affecting her as much as I. Tears brimmed in Raine’s eyes. She downed another shot of vodka and grinned at me. “So this little shared drinking session is for me too.”

Now it was my turn to get up and hug her, put my arms around her. The alcohol made me slow and floppy. She clung to me and we both started crying together, not the big wracking sobs of true despair or pain, but an odd weepy emotional release, sniffing and smiling and laughing at each other as we tried to stop crying.

“You don’t have to protect me all the time!”

“I want to! Because you’re you! Don’t get kidnapped, you’re too important to get kidnapped. I can’t go back to cruising for girls now, Heather, I’m hooked on you, I want you, I want you safe and on my lap and-”

“I want that too!” I declared at the ceiling.

Evelyn thumped on the connecting wall three times. We both burst out laughing, wiping away our tears. I did a huge ‘shush’ motion, and Raine mouthed a ‘thank you’ as I slowly sat back down. Raine wavered slightly, slow to blink and flushed in the face as she rolled her empty glass across the table.

“You did kill that guy, though,” she said.

“That doesn’t help.” I put my head on the table, emotionally wiped out but no longer so twisted up inside. “Actually I think maybe it makes it worse. He’s dead, I killed him. I didn’t even really mean to, I wasn’t trying to kill him, just wanted him to stop.”

Raine puffed out a long sigh. “I don’t know if I can help with that one. I wish I could. It’s never bothered me before, the few times I’ve had to do it.”

“No.” I grumbled and rubbed my cheek on the table. “That’s the problem. I don’t care either.”

“Ah?” Raine blinked at me.

“I don’t care that I killed a person. But I care that I don’t care, if that makes sense.” I paused and frowned. “Is this what being drunk is like?”

Raine laughed. “No, you’re barely buzzed. You’re such a lightweight, it’s cute as hell.”

“Lightweight. Yes. I weigh a hundred and five pounds fully dressed. I am drunk.”

We drank more – or rather, Raine did, cranking back the booze until she sat loose and lounging in her chair. I stared at her from the table as she sniffed and seemed to rouse herself toward some difficult topic.

“You know, Heather, I think I’m falling in love with you.”

“Don’t!” I whined. “Don’t say that while drunk.”

“Ah ah.” Raine tapped the table. “I didn’t say ‘I love you’, I’ll say that bit sober. I said I think I am falling. That’s different.”

“Mmmmm,” I grumbled, pouting.

“I’ve never been in love before. Been in lust a lot, but this is way different.”

“What, you don’t lust for me?” I smiled a little, felt oddly cheeky. She grinned back.

“What do you think?”

“I think, you are, a bit of a slut.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them, a bad dirty joke which made me blink, sit up, and cover my mouth in mortified horror. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean- I didn’t mean that. It was-”

Raine started laughing and couldn’t stop, slapped the table and pointed at me. “It’s the booze, Heather. It’s loosened you up.”

“I don’t think you’re a slut! I don’t think that! Oh my God.”

“But it’s a good joke. I have slept with a lot of girls, that part’s true.”

“But that doesn’t- there’s nothing wrong with- oh, blast it.”

“Does that bother you? That I’ve eaten a metric ton of pussy before?”

“No! No. It’s actually sort of hot.” I looked away, confused and reeling at myself.

Raine grinned. “Call me a slut again, see what happens.”

I stared at her, flushed and breathless. “You’re too drunk for sex.”

“Sure, but not too drunk to come over there and tickle you.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

We didn’t drink any more, but we did get louder, the jokes getting weirder, until Raine had me laughing so badly I got a stitch in my side and she kept banging the table to punctuate her points. I’d never felt like this ever before. Days of tension slid off me, off us, and I could almost see it leaving, flowing down into the floor and away under the house.

The door to the ex-drawing room opened by a crack. Evelyn peered at us as she emerged. “Are you two making enough noise out … here … oh bloody hell, you’re drinking.”

“You are wrong. We have finished drinking,” Raine corrected her with a wave of one finger. “And we are now drunk.”

“I’m sorry, we were being so loud.” I pulled myself up and made an effort to sit straight, to look sensible and sober, but then snorted with laugher at my own act.

Evelyn stepped into the kitchen and raised an eyebrow, not exactly impressed but not scowling either. “Is this a mating ritual?”

“Nooo!” I whined.

“Yeah, I’m way too sloshed to take her upstairs now.” Raine yawned and stood up, poured herself a glass of water, then pressed a second one into my hands. “Drink up.”

“I don’t need-”

“Yes, you do,” Evelyn snapped. “I’m not having you two hung over tomorrow. We have work to do.”

“We do?” I asked, and almost spilled water down myself as I drank.

“Work? What’s this slave-driver stuff?” Raine grinned. “Tomorrow’s a Friday, Heather’s the only one with a lecture.”

Evelyn snorted. “While you two were stress-testing your livers, I’ve been working on a few little tricks. A portable viewing circle, some barrier pieces, even a potential permanent Invisus Oculus — something my mother never figured out, but which you’ve given me the pieces for, Heather.”

I shared a glance with Raine. She shrugged, downed another glass of water, and put what was left of the vodka safely away in the fridge.

“Which means what?” I asked, trying to sober up for real.

Evelyn smiled a smug little smile, that sharp edge appearing around her eyes. “We’re going to do some veterinary care.”

“ … on … on what?”

“Your little friend.”

“You mean Tenny?”

“Exactly.”

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