Getting Tenny clean took the better part of an hour, but convincing Zheng to get in the bath took years off my life.
Tenny was smeared head-to-toe with her own sticky black amniotic fluid, like a science-fiction alien, and the rainwater had done little to wash the worst of it from beneath her wings or out of her fur, but by the time we all tramped back indoors, damp and cold and dripping, we weren’t much better off. Raine, Lozzie, Twil, and I were all dirty and caked with dried sweat from our day in the woods. Praem’s maid uniform was soaked through after her trip up the tree. Lozzie and I had both hugged Tenny, gotten her black goo all over our clothes, and Lozzie had been kneeling in the grass, stained the knees of her jeans with mud.
Only Evelyn and Kimberly had avoided both dirt and rain. Kimberly was busy scurrying back and forth with towels, trying to limit the collateral damage of even more mess as we got ourselves inside.
Zheng was just plain filthy.
By the time we got the back door shut, sealing us in the warm cocoon of number 12 Barnslow Drive, I was sagging with exhaustion. All was confusion, too many things happening at once.
Lozzie and Raine focused on leading Tenny through the house, trying to coax her upstairs and into the bathtub before she smeared every interesting object with black goo on the way there. She dripped diluted black rainwater all over the floorboards. Kimberly hurried ahead trying to put towels down, Lozzie attempted to dry her feet, and Raine held another towel under her wings to catch the worst of the run-off.
Twil got into a brief, pointless argument with Evelyn, something I had trouble following as I stood there in the utility room, my legs weak, my stomach still tender, a headache in the back of my skull. I rubbed my sore eyes with the back of my hand, and managed to get more of Tenny’s black goo on my forehead.
“Then go home!” Evelyn snapped at her.
“No, I mean, like, I’m fine with borrowing,” said Twil. “I just don’t- it’s your like- I’m not comfortable with like, your-”
“Shit or get off the pot.”
Evelyn turned away from her, and that was that. Twil rolled her eyes and stomped off into the house after the others, still tracking mud from her wellington boots.
“Evee,” I tried, but she was already off again, at Zheng.
“Not one step further. Don’t you dare.” Evelyn waved the head of her walking stick at the hulking demon-host. Zheng had been last in, standing just inside the back door now, dripping water from her sodden clothes all over the doormat, a small puddle forming around her feet. “You smell like a pigsty and you’re covered in blood. Is that even your own? It’ll be a minor miracle if you’re not crawling with lice.”
“Wizard?” Zheng rumbled, low and dangerous.
“Evee-” I hissed.
“Heather, you’re exhausted. Shut up for once and let somebody else handle things,” Evelyn said, without missing a beat. If I’d been more energetic I would have laughed. She glared up at Zheng. “You are not walking through this house like that. You strip off right here and you dump those clothes.” Evelyn gestured at the washing machine, already stuffed with Lozzie’s black-smeared poncho, soon to be joined by my hoodie and jeans. Praem stood next to it, hands clasped before her, soaked maid uniform hanging off her ample frame, clinging to her curves. “You too,” Evelyn said to her. “I have no idea if you can catch cold, but don’t risk it. Get all that off, now.”
Praem obeyed without a word. She set to unlacing the back of her uniform, dropping her tights, and stepping out of her long skirt. I stared for a moment and felt my cheeks burning, then turned my head to give her some privacy.
“I go where I desire, wizard,” Zheng rumbled.
“Not in my house you don’t,” Evelyn said. “Heather insists you’re a thinking, feeling being. Well then, I’m treating you like one. Animals track dirt, guests and family take their shoes off at the door.” Evelyn glanced her up and down. “On second thought, those clothes are not remotely salvageable. We’ll burn them.”
Zheng let out a low rumble.
“Zheng, please,” I said, shielding my libido from Praem’s rapid disrobing with a hand next to my eyes. “You stole those clothes anyway, it’s not as if they have any sentimental value.”
A squeal of alarm echoed from the front room, accompanied by panicked voices, Raine going ‘woah, woah, woah’ like she was trying to soothe a horse. The squeal trailed off into a long, loud, ‘pppppfffffttttt’, suspiciously similar to a child sticking their tongue out and blowing a raspberry.
Evelyn whirled on the sound. “What was that?” she yelled.
“Tenny met your spiders!” Lozzie called back. “She’s fine!”
“Ha!” Zheng barked. “Fresh from the womb and the puppy already knows how to taunt. Good.”
“Yes, surely an important life skill,” Evelyn said. She waved a dismissive hand at Zheng without bothering to look at her again, already marching out of the utility room. “I don’t have time for you, get on with it. Who tracked all this mud in here? Are these Twil’s bootprints? Twil!”
Evelyn left, shouting. Zheng stared at her back.
“Praem, um,” I cleared my throat. “Maybe you should find some spare clothes?”
“Clothes,” Praem intoned, and followed Evelyn, deftly avoiding the muddy patches with her bare feet.
“Shaman,” Zheng said. I glanced up at her, at her filthy, matted hair, at the stains of blood and grease and woodland mud all over her jumper and coat, at her fingernails, far too long, dirt packed beneath them. Up close and indoors I could smell her, like a wild animal, heavy with bodily odour and soil and old meat.
“When’s the last time you brushed your teeth?” I asked.
She just raised an eyebrow.
“Oh no. Zheng. No. You have to have a bath, at least.”
“Is that your command, shaman?”
“No, it’s a heartfelt suggestion, because I’d like to be able to give you a hug without worrying about stains. And I know what you’re going to say, something about how you don’t suffer tooth decay or gum disease because the bacteria can’t beat you in a fistfight, but the rest of us can still smell that. You’re a walking disease risk right now, and neither Lozzie or I are immune to infections. Please.”
Zheng grinned, a flash of razor-sharp teeth. “Join me in the bath, shaman?”
I froze. Couldn’t get a word out.
“A joke,” she rumbled, then shrugged off her coat and started to pull her soaking jumper off over her head. It got stuck on her shoulders, at which she gave up and just started ripping the jumper open down the middle.
I stared and swallowed and scurried out before I was left alone in a small room with a massive libidinal hazard.
The next couple of hours dissolved into a blur, my mind and memory dragged down by a cocktail of physical and emotional exhaustion. The bathroom was all noise and chaos, as my friends attempted to bathe a semi-cooperative giant moth woman like a dog which had rolled in dung. The upstairs hallway was no retreat, occupied by Zheng sitting against the wall with her eyes closed and arms crossed, firmly asked to wait outside because her mere presence made Tenny puff up and hiss. Thankfully for my sanity, Praem had supplied her with a huge towel, and set it over her like she was covering a particularly ugly piece of furniture.
Twil stomped about, spooked by Tenny, goaded by an occasional comment from Zheng, fuming silently at Evelyn. Lozzie shed dirty clothes with no care for where they fell, and at one point she sat down in the hallway next to Zheng and fell asleep for five minutes, impossible to wake until she shot up again like a freshly-wound clock. Poor Kimberly scurried about underfoot, trying to avoid Zheng’s attention, looking lost and trapped.
In the end, getting Tenny into the bath wasn’t too difficult. She took to the water with obvious pleasure and curiosity, making little fluttering, purring noises in her chest as Lozzie had soaped up her fur, squinting her eyes shut and shaking herself as Raine had rinsed her off with the shower head. Lozzie petted her and talked nonsense to keep her calm, but it was probably unnecessary.
We quickly discovered more quirks of her unique biology. Her wings – thick and leathery to the touch – separated into four distinct pieces, two wider ones which covered her sides and front when at rest, and two slimmer ones which hung down her back. The tentacles exited the cloak through either the gaps between the wings just below her shoulders, or by running all the way down to her feet, or out the front. In the bath, with her wings flopped over the sides of the tub, we could see her back, but her shoulders were almost impossible to reach, too far under the wings to see without getting behind and beneath her, blocked by the mass of tentacles which extended between the gaps between the wing segments.
Her tentacles kept roaming the bathroom, knocking over shampoo bottles, inspecting the light fixtures, gripping the bar of soap too hard so it shot across the floor. One of them tried to drink the bathwater and spat it back out. Another chewed softly on Lozzie’s shoulder. A third kept fiddling with the taps.
She shivered and made little irrirated fluttery sounds when anybody touched the antennae on her head, so we quickly decided not to do that.
At one point everybody except Tenny and Lozzie came tumbling out of the bathroom. Praem was last out, and closed the door behind them.
“Potty training,” Raine explained with a laugh.
“She knew exactly what she was doing,” Evelyn said. “That was not training.”
“Could’a warned us,” said Twil.
“At least we’ve established that she excretes,” Evelyn sighed. “And that she’s not carrying a clutch of pre-fertilised eggs, or something equally disastrous.”
Outdoors, the sun went down behind the rainclouds, true dusk swallowed by the storm into a haze of fading light.
Eventually I found myself alone in the upstairs hallway. Zheng had stomped off, probably to eat everything in the fridge. The others were still washing Tenny, soft voices murmuring in the bathroom. I shivered inside my tshirt, bruises throbbing in my sides, my damp hoodie in my hands, socks missing. Couldn’t recall removing them. I wanted nothing more than to strip off the rest of my clothes, ignore the dried sweat on my skin, and curl up in bed. Evelyn was right, I’d done more than enough leading for one day. Others could deal with the rest.
Tenny’s voice echoed from the bathroom, fluttery and frilled, my name as if spoken by a throat made of fanned paper.
I looked up. Raine’s head had appeared around the bathroom doorway. Splashing noises came from behind her, followed by a weird warbling complaint.
“Was that Tenny?” I asked.
“Yeah. She’s alright, just being fussy.” Raine stepped out and over to me. Gently, she took the hoodie from my hands and peered into my eyes. “How you holding up?”
I shrugged. “Kind of numb.”
“Uh huh, not surprised.” Raine brushed my hair back over my ear and cupped the side of my neck. She kissed my forehead. “S’been a long day. You can totally go lie down if you want, you know? Say hi to Tenny, tell her you’re going to rest, I think she’ll understand.”
I stared back into Raine’s eyes, needs surfacing through the numbness. I wanted to hug her, but I held back, a knot of unresolved tension twisting deep in my chest. If I’d been less exhausted, I would have let it go, been more logical, put this moment off until tomorrow or the day after, but by then Raine would have me back in bed and feeling normal again, and perhaps she’d pretend that certain things today never happened.
“You’ve been floating around back and forth, I have noticed,” she was saying. “There is such a thing as pushing yourself too far, especially after … ” She trailed off, reading the look in my eyes. “Heather?”
“Raine, we need to talk.”
I was treated to a look I’d never seen from her before, a moment of genuine suppressed panic beneath all her confidence, too powerful to suppress with a grin, too sudden to hide with a glib joke, too real to bush away with her fingers in my hair. Guilt clutched at my heart.
“No, no, not like that. About Zheng, I mean,” I said, and it all came out in a rush. I dropped my voice. “But yes, yes also about you and I, about … I don’t understand your behaviour earlier today.” I squeezed my eyes shut. “God, why am I asking you this now?”
“’Cos you’re dying for that threesome,” Raine said with a laugh, and there it was, the glib joke rushing back.
I glared at her. Capital G. Raine pulled a theatrical wince.
“One minute you’re pushing me at her and you don’t seem to care, the next you’re marking your territory right in front of her, laying claim to me, and then you’re making threesome jokes!” I hissed, fuming. “Raine, I don’t know what exactly I want, but I don’t know what you want either because you’re confusing me, and that’s worse.”
The theatrical wince held for a moment longer, and then Raine’s expression crumbled into genuine contrition. She let out a big sigh and ran a hand through her hair. “Ahhhhhhh. I’ve done screwed up, haven’t I?”
“Maybe? I don’t know. How am I supposed to know if you won’t tell me?”
“No, no, I’ve screwed up,” Raine said. “Because I’ve made you feel insecure. Which means I’ve made a stupid mistake.” She glanced behind her, at the open bathroom door and the increasingly loud warbling, fluttering sounds. Twil was saying something, drowned out by the noise, and I heard Lozzie too. “You wanna talk right now?” Raine said. “We can leave the others for a bit, go-”
“Raine, do you love me?”
“Yes,” she said, no hesitation.
“Then everything else can wait, I’m too tired. I love you too.” I fell against her with a hug. Behind us, the warbled complaint finally rose into an angry hiss. A long one.
Twil’s voice floated out of the bathroom. “Okay, okay, shit, shit, she doesn’t like it, fine.”
“I told you!” Lozzie’s voice joined in.
“Hey, I’m just following orders,” said Twil.
“Plus I think we’re needed in there,” I murmured into Raine’s shoulder.
“Try again,” Evelyn’s voice joined too, dry and disinterested.
We rejoined the others to quite a scene. Twil had her sleeves rolled up past her elbows, dirty water splashed down her front, and a scowl on her face. Evelyn looked like she was trying to hide behind Praem without seeming to hide behind Praem. Kimberly had one hand on her mouth, like she wanted to be sick. Lozzie was half in the bathtub with Tenny, giving her a hug, getting herself covered in black-tinted water and soap suds, her braid half undone and hair everywhere.
Tenny was still hissing, her feathery antennae twitching back and forth.
“No,” I said with a sigh. “Don’t try again, whatever that was.”
“She didn’t like it!” Lozzie repeated.
“Like what?” I asked. “What are you all doing to her?”
Evelyn shut her mouth and shook her head, rolling her eyes. Twil glanced to her for help or permission, then shrugged.
“I was trying to get my hand up to her shoulders,” Twil said. “Under the wings like, to see where the tentacles come from, count ‘em, you know. I think she’s got them coiled up in like, retractable holes.”
“Maybe don’t physically harass the literal new born sapient creature?” I said, staring at Twil and Evelyn. “I don’t believe you two.”
“Heeattthh,” Tenny fluttered at me. I went to the bathtub and patted her awkwardly on the head. She reciprocated, wrapping a spare tentacle around my wrist.
“It’s medically necessary if we’re to understand her,” Evelyn said. “We can hardly drag her in front of an x-ray machine or get her an MRI, can we?”
I gave her a look, too worn out for argument.
“But fine, yes.” Evelyn held up a hand. “She doesn’t like it, my mistake. Fine, okay.”
“She’s so weird,” Twil said. “I could like, feel the tentacles going in and out. She’s got no bones, like all of her is just more tentacles inside.”
“Yes, I noticed that too,” I said. “All muscle, aren’t you?”
“Buuuur,” went Tenny.
“She’s strong and cool,” Lozzie said.
I stayed for the rest of the bath, though most of the real work was over. Lozzie got Tenny to her feet and Raine rinsed her off one final time with the shower head, sluicing away any remnants of the sticky black amniotic fluid. As she stepped out of the bath, dripping wet, her tentacles reaching over to groom the fur on the underside of her wings, she left behind a soup of black-tinted water, soap scum, and mud.
Evelyn sighed and said aside to Kimberly and I, “What do you think, skim that stuff off? God alone knows what that crap’ll do to the drainpipes if we pull the plug.”
“I’ll get a bucket,” Kimberly said.
Five microwaved chicken nuggets; an apple, neatly peeled and sliced; a generous slice of chocolate cake.
We lined up three plates on the kitchen table and stepped back. Well, Raine and Twil stepped back. I was too tired and comfy in my pajamas and Evelyn too stubborn to pull ourselves from our respective chairs, Lozzie was all over Tenny anyway, still drying bits of her with a huge fluffy bath towel, and Praem was already at the back of the room, waiting quietly in one of Evelyn’s jumpers and a long skirt. Kimberly had excused herself, and I didn’t begrudge her the sneaky smoke break.
Twil stared wistfully at the nuggets and let out a little sigh.
“Wait your turn,” Evelyn said to her, watching Tenny carefully. We were all watching Tenny.
Tenny stared at the plates, bare toe-less tar-black feet padding across the kitchen tiles as Lozzie coaxed her into the room. She studied our faces and looked out of the kitchen window for a bit, at the rain lashing down into the garden in the evening darkness. Her gaze wandered back to the plates, tentacles drifting up from beneath the shoulders of her flesh-cloak, waving in the air like a mantle of snakes.
“I’m already missing Bake-off,” Twil tutted. “You could at least feed me.”
“You’re saying you have less control than a new born … whatever she is.” Evelyn gestured at Tenny.
“Moth,” Praem intoned.
“Moth girl,” Raine said with a smirk.
“We are not calling her ‘moth girl’,” said Evelyn. “She isn’t a superhero.”
“She might be, you never know,” Raine said.
Tenny looked up, blinking huge void-dark eyes at us again.
“Moth?” she asked, in that voice of dry paper and ruffled feathers. “Moth. Moth.” She looked at me for guidance or approval, blinked twice, then sneezed loudly as Lozzie dried some stray water off her face with the towel.
“Shhhh,” I hushed everyone. “You’re distracting her. Tenny, it’s okay. Please, have something to eat.” I gestured at the plates. “Go ahead, it’s for you.”
“Baaaaa?” went Tenny, and crept forward another pace.
She knew we were watching her, waiting for something, but couldn’t possibly understand what. The attention spooked her, perhaps confused her, and I wondered how fast she could learn social cues like this. She’d been able to speak as a spirit, directly into my mind, in a jumble of word-concepts; now she was picking up real words, spoken ones, with surprising rapidity for somebody literally born this afternoon.
Cute perhaps, but not human. We had no idea what we were actually looking at here.
What did she use for blood? What was her natural sleep cycle? Was she a non-breeding isolate or would she lay eggs in a dark corner? Did she see like us, or in infra-red or some other spectrum? Could she fly, were the wings for show? What did she breathe? What were we to her – friends, pack-members, wise adults, blind idiots? Would she grow further?
Did she know what she was?
Experiments like these were necessary, Evelyn was right. To a point.
“Don’t be scared,” I said to her. “We’re all friends here.”
“Fuuuummm,” went Tenny.
“S’alright for you, sitting here at home,” Twil hissed to Evelyn, but at least she was quieter now. “We were running ‘round the woods all day.”
“You don’t have to be here, you know,” Evelyn muttered. “You could have gone home hours ago. Go have a family meal, home cooking, all that bollocks.”
“Maybe she wants your home cooking, Evee,” I sighed.
“Heath-” Evelyn spat half my name, then cut herself off when Tenny looked at her again. Twil just grimaced and hid behind one hand.
At least it shut them up for five seconds.
Tenny kept squirming, distracted by Lozzie’s attentions. Lozzie caught a stray tentacle in gentle hand and dabbed water from the surface, then took the opportunity to sneak a twist of towel in under one of Tenny’s wings, trying to dry the complex area at the top of her shoulders. Tenny made a face like a cat getting scritches, quivering softly. Lozzie hummed at her, said ‘good girl’, and half-sung the words to some childhood bathtime song which I had the creeping feeling she’d grown up with.
“Lozzie,” I said. “Let her focus for a moment, please. Tenny?”
“Heath,” Tenny said, my name, truncated. Lozzie relented, hopped back a half step and rubbed at sleepy eyes.
“It’s for you, Tenny.” I pointed at the food again. “Take whichever you want.”
“My money’s still on the meat,” Evelyn whispered.
“She’s a bug,” Twil hissed back. “She’ll eat fruit, right? Sugars and that.”
“Five pounds says you’re wrong.”
Twil simmered in silence for a moment, then growled, “You’re on.”
“She’s looking at them!” Lozzie stage-whispered.
“Mmmaauum,” said Tenny. Her tentacles reached forward along the tabletop, reminding me of the way a small animal might sniff at unfamiliar food.
Our experiment taught us very little – and won nobody any bets – because Tenny decided she wanted all of it.
Three of her tentacles split at the ends to reveal those perfectly sealed mouths full of tiny black needle teeth, and descended on all three plates at the same time. She crunched through the pieces of apple, hoovered up the nuggets, and bit the slice of cake clean in half. Crumbs scattered across the table as one tentacle-tip chased bits of chocolate sponge around the edge of the plate.
An extra tentacle crossed the table and dunked itself into a glass of water, then bulged like a snake swallowing eggs as it drank.
“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Evelyn sighed.
“At least we know she’s not pure carnivore,” Raine said. “That’s lucky.”
“Give it five minutes, see if she vomits it all back up.”
Twil frowned. “Do you think she’d vomit from her mouth? Like, her regular mouth?”
“Can we not talk about vomit, please?” I said.
As her tentacles fed, Tenny seemed to lose interest in the food, as if her tentacles and her main body could focus with ease on completely different matters. She pawed at the towel in Lozzie’s hands, trying to help dry herself. Her human hands lacked the precision and grace of her tentacles, and she fumbled about, making Lozzie giggle as she flexed her wings out slightly and bumped one against the kitchen wall.
Raine must have noticed my exhaustion more than I showed, because a moment later she was behind my chair, rubbing my shoulders with both hands, kneading out the tension and the knots and pressing the balls of her thumbs into the base of my neck. I let out a little grumble.
“I think that’s one conclusion we can be confident about,” Evelyn said, flat and dry. “Tenny’s respiratory and digestive systems are externally isolated. Elegant solution.”
“It’s clever!” Lozzie smiled like a proud parent. “I told you she was smart. Aren’t you smart, Tenny?”
“Yeeeaaa?” Tenny said.
“You mean like, she can’t ever choke on a piece of food?” Twil asked.
“Exactly,” Evelyn murmured, frowning softly, one hand toying with her empty mug on the table. She shot a sharp glance at Lozzie. “You expect me to believe you didn’t design that? Because that’s a design element. A safety feature. I like it.”
“Guess it is kinda stupid to have the breathing tube and the eating tube in the same place,” Twil said, sticking her own tongue out as she looked down at her mouth. She grimaced, uncomfortable with the thought. “Human body’s weird.”
“Yes,” I murmured. “Don’t remind me.”
“I didn’t do any of it!” Lozzie said. “It’s all Tenny. She’s smart.”
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted. “Well, whatever she’s using for a brain, it certainly must be quite developed. Attention splitting like this. Even humans have trouble doing two separate tasks with different hands.”
As Tenny rubbed her fluffy head with a corner of the towel, her tentacles were still busy at work. One of them extended a tiny featureless black tongue to lick the grease from the chicken nugget plate, while another lifted the other plates to see if we humans had hidden more tasty treats underneath. A third tentacle seemed to be following an interesting scent, across the table and past one of the chairs, winding towards Twil. Yet another tentacle had picked up the now empty glass of water, waving it around near the sink and trying to figure out how to make the shiny metal spout produce more liquid. Lozzie hopped over and showed Tenny how to turn the tap, and yet another tentacle dipped around her to mimic the demonstration.
I sighed inside, faintly jealous. My mind had seized up at controlling six extra limbs. Tenny didn’t even have to concentrate.
“Can’t do different things with each hand?” Raine asked, a smirk in her voice. “Speak for yourself. Heather can attest to my mad skills.”
A moment of silence passed over the kitchen, broken only by the rain against the windows, the muffled thumping of the dryer in the utility room, and the floorboard-creaking sounds of Zheng adjusting her weight in the bathtub upstairs.
“Don’t, Raine,” I said. “I don’t have the energy to blush right now.”
“If that zombie falls through the floor,” Evelyn muttered, eyes on the ceiling, “I’ll bloody well murder her.”
“She’s not that heavy,” I said. “And she really needed to get clean.”
“Should have hosed her off in the garden.”
“Maybe if we like, put a couple ‘o dozen plates out,” Twil said, “we could find out how many tentacles she’s really got. Counting didn’t work, so why not stretch her skills?”
“I’m not made of money,” Evelyn said, still watching the ceiling, listening for Zheng again.
“You may as well be,” Twil said.
Evelyn gave her a darkly unimpressed look. Twil shrugged and opened her mouth to say something unkind. I could see it coming, the dismissive comment, the prickly challenge, the bizarre unspoken and perhaps unconscious desire to ruin what little rapport they had by constantly reducing each other to hostile caricatures. I sighed and prepared to scold her, tell her to play nice, maybe even just solve the whole dammed thing for them and force them to talk properly for once.
Raine squeezed my left shoulder a fraction of an inch too hard, turned my rebuke into a little gasp.
“Evee’s upper middle class rich, not stupid money rich,” Raine said before I could gather myself.
“Raine,” Evelyn hissed.
Twil frowned. “That’s still-”
“Her dad does still have to work, and that old family estate’s pretty crumbling. Between maintaining this house, and covering some of the fallout of what we get up to, I can totally understand not wanting to drop a hundred quid on chicken nuggets, to run a test for something that doesn’t actually matter in the end. Isn’t that right, Tenny? Does it matter how many you’ve got back there?”
“Baaaah,” Tenny said to Raine.
“See? She agrees.”
Twil opened her mouth to reply, glanced down at Evelyn and found her looking away, sullen and cold. “Yeah, but like … ”
“But like what?” Evelyn shot back.
Twil looked away too, awkwardly crossing her arms over her chest. “Never mind.”
“Play nice, you two,” I finally said, and felt terribly lame. Evelyn gave me a bit of a look. Twil shrugged.
Lozzie was biting her lower lip, eyes wide as they bounced back and forth between Evelyn and Twil, hands clasped beneath her chin, having finally relinquished the towel completely to Tenny. She looked like she was watching a soap opera.
“Noooo,” she said softly as silence fell. “Don’t stop there.”
“What?” Evelyn squinted at her.
A thump from upstairs interrupted us, followed by an audible slosh and a sound like a short-lived miniature waterfall. Evelyn frowned at the ceiling like it was about to come down on our heads, but Number 12 Barnslow Drive was built to far better quality than some modern mockery of particle board and cheap pre-fab. The floorboards creaked as Zheng climbed out of the bath.
“I still need to find her some replacement clothes,” I said to nobody in particular.
“Hey, uh, what do I do here?” Twil said suddenly, backing up toward the wall. “Guys, uh, um, this isn’t- uh-”
She was staring at the tentacle which had been slowly approaching her for the last few minutes. Tenny wasn’t even paying attention to it, but the tentacle-tip was very much paying attention to Twil; it zeroed in on her like a curious kitten, darting one way then the other, as if trying to sniff her out. Twil cringed to the side, then batted ineffectually at the tentacle with one hand. It dodged around her swat, came up inside her reach, and darted for her face.
Twil jumped out of her skin, leapt back in a tumble of limbs as she blundered into the wall, and suddenly the tentacle was facing a maw full of canine teeth. Tenny turned in surprise, big black eyes blinking at Twil.
“No no!” Tenny said. We all stared at her.
“Call her off! Fuck!” Twil growled.
“She’s only playing,” said Lozzie.
“Yes,” Evelyn sighed. “Stop over-reacting.”
“She’s fucking going for me!” Twil spat. “Like she did with Zheng! Even I’ll die if I get my bloody head pulled off!”
“If she was doing that, she’d be considerably faster,” I said. “Tenny? Tenny, what do you mean, no?”
“No,” Tenny repeated, a weird fluttering noise beneath a flute of air, like a parrot with the lungs of a spider. “No, touch?”
“She just wants to pet you,” Evelyn said with a nasty smirk and a shake of her head. “Maybe she likes the smell of wet dog.”
“Don’t pretend you’re any different,” I said. Evelyn went red in the face and let out a splutter, but unfortunately Twil was too focused on the tentacle.
“Look, I’m cool with her and all,” Twil said. “But I don’t wanna get-”
Without warning, the tentacle shot forward, right for Twil’s face. Twil yelped, Lozzie gasped, I flinched in my seat through I was halfway across the room.
Praem’s hand shot out and grabbed it mid-flight.
Tenny let out a noise like a squirrel hit by a flying rock. The tentacle in Praem’s hand turned to face her, but Praem stared at Tenny’s eyes, expressionless and impassive, milk-white eyes meeting void-dark as Tenny looked back, huffing and hissing, a very unhappy puppy.
“Concentrate,” Praem intoned.
She let go. Tenny pulled the trapped appendage free, paused, and looked at Twil again. She tilted her head to the side – almost all the way to the side, revealing just how far one could contort their body when not limited by silly things like ‘having a spine’.
“Ahhh come on, don’t do that Exorcist shit at me!” Twil said.
“Calm down, she’s thinking,” I said. “Concentrating.”
“Please,” Tenny managed. The word was half-mangled. She couldn’t quite get the ‘l’ sound right, rolled it at the top of her mouth, elongated the ‘s’ too much and repeated the word twice, refining her own speech. “Please? Please?”
The tentacle waved at Twil’s face.
Twil grimaced, looked to the rest of us for rescue.
“She won’t hurt you, and she’s asking nice,” said Lozzie. “Promise-promise, yes Tenny?”
“Probably just wants to pat your head or something,” Raine said.
Evelyn looked on, unamused. I wondered if she was jealous.
In the corner of my eye I noticed another tentacle, one we’d all missed, creeping across the table and sneaking into the half-finished mug of coffee I’d been drinking from. It dipped inside and sucked up the dregs. A further tentacle slid past and right up to me. I offered it my hand, and it slipped in, wrapped around my fingers and palm and up my forearm. Warm, smooth, soft, but tough; human skin blended with silk and rubber.
“See?” I held up the hand-holding. “A little unorthodox, but she’s not trying to eat my hand or anything.”
“She bites me, I’m gonna bite her back,” Twil hissed through her teeth. “Just like, don’t stick it up my nose or anything, yeah? Then we’re cool. Be cool, okay? Be cool.”
Tenny’s exploratory tentacle edged forward. Twil grit her teeth, wincing in slow motion as it drew near her face.
The tentacle brushed against Twil’s hair, then twirled several locks of it around the tip, flicking it up and down. After twenty seconds of this, it became apparent to everyone watching that Tenny just wanted to play with Twil’s hair.
“Why me?” Twil asked, in the strangled voice one might use while being investigated by an elephant’s trunk.
“You’re the only one of us with curls,” Raine said.
“’urls,” went Tenny.
“She likes you. Deal with it,” Evelyn said, a hint of strange bitterness in her voice, too many layers deep for Twil to notice right now.
“At least she’s clean now,” I said. “You won’t have to wash your hair.”
“Clean,” Tenny managed, though it sounded closer to ‘cream’. Lozzie praised her with much excited patting and negotiated the damp towel back out of her hands after a bit of gentle tugging.
“Okay, uh, right, well.” Twil still cringed away from the curious tentacle, but she also reached up and touched it, gently removing it from her hair as she stared at Tenny with a smile of forced politeness. Tenny tilted her head sideways again. “Now that’s over, can we like, eat something? I’m starving here.”
“I don’t like this uninhibited curiosity,” Evelyn said.
I blinked at her. “Evee?”
“This,” Evelyn pointed at Tenny’s smooth dark tentacles, eight of them all over the kitchen by now. One was even worming its way into the utility room in the back, perhaps to investigate the muffled thump-thump-thump of the dryer hard at work. “Tenny? Tenny.”
Evelyn clicked her fingers. Tenny looked around and stared at her.
“Evee, don’t snap at her,” I said.
“Are you intelligent enough to understand you can’t do this in public, that you have to hide? Can you use those wings for that, are you even aware of that?” Evelyn asked her, then sighed and shook her head when she got no reply but a blank stare. “If she doesn’t understand, then we’re going to have to keep her confined, in the house. Indefinitely.”
“Awww!” Lozzie said with a long face. “But she needs to learn how to use her wings!”
Evelyn turned cold eyes on Lozzie. “And what if she flies over a farm, hm? Spooks some red-faced idiot with a flat cap and shotgun and takes a full load of buckshot in the chest? Or if she gets a taste for live meat again and snatches a child off the streets in Sharrowford? Or hell, if she’s even seen, we’ll have every UFO nutter and conspiracy crank in England descending on the city within days.”
Lozzie pouted, sad but not defiant. One hand lingered on Tenny’s neck, fluffing her fur.
“Gaaah?” went Tenny.
I sighed, heavily. This conversation was inevitable, sooner or later, but I’d hoped Evelyn would put it to one side for at least the first night of Tenny’s physical life. I rubbed the bridge of my nose, my eyes aching with tiredness. Part of me wanted to stand up and walk out and just let everyone else figure this out without me.
“What’d somebody … uh … ‘normal’,” Twil made air-quotes with one hand, “even remember if they spotted her? Like, what would they actually see?”
“That is the question, isn’t it?” I said.
“Cuteness!” Lozzie declared.
Now she was warm and dry and no longer dripping with her own amniotic fluids, Tenny looked even less human than when she’d slopped out of her cocoon. Dove-white, velvet-soft, varying in length from peach-fuzz to inch-thick carpet around her belly and hips, her fur had fluffed up after a good clean and the five or six minutes Lozzie had managed to make her sit still while subjected to a hairdryer. The fur on the inside of her wings was particularly dense, perhaps as insulation against the cold, and the wings themselves moved as she did, making little adjustments as they hung down around her body like a living cloak.
She hadn’t extended her wings to their full span again since the first stretch outdoors in the garden, which was lucky because she’d probably knock half the furniture over if she tried. The front room could perhaps accommodate a good stretch, but only if she stood sideways.
As she moved, her wings seemed to briefly take on the colouration or outline of the kitchen cabinets and open doorway behind her, but the effect was always blurred, half-hearted, incomplete, an autonomic bodily function rather than conscious action.
Her antennae twitched constantly, also on automatic. My private theory was that those functioned as hearing. No ears on the sides of her head.
Perhaps she could hide, if one saw her at night, with her wings pulled tight like a real cloak, concealing the swirls and curves of fur on her midnight skin. And if she wasn’t looking at you with those giant black eyes.
Perhaps then, one could mistake her for a human being, however briefly.
“The Sharrowford mothman, most likely,” Evelyn said. “Or a bag of carpet cuttings glued to an ambulatory eight-ball. Or they’d remember nothing except a screaming fit, a trick of the eyes, a ghost.”
“How far does that kind of mental editing go?” I asked. “Could anybody actually see her for what she is?”
Evelyn shrugged and sighed. “Search me, Heather, I don’t bloody well know. Most zombies, demons, whatever, they break down long before they reach this level of … irregularity.” She gestured at Tenny, and Tenny watched her hand in motion, then moved a tentacle closer to Evelyn’s chair. Evelyn watched it approach, unperturbed. Above our heads, the upstairs floorboards creaked softly as something massive stalked across them.
“Some may see the evidence of their eyes at first,” Evelyn continued, “then later deny what they saw. Others might panic, or remember nothing, not even see her. One or two might see but not react at all, and that would be very dangerous. I suppose we could invite your detective friend over and ask her what she sees.”
“I think I broke in miss Webb quite badly already,” I said. “We all did.”
“What about that super-long tentacle she had?” Twil asked. “She might sneak it out while we’re not watching, right?”
“I suspect that was only the pupa stage,” I said. “Still pneuma-somatic. It did go dead in my hand before she woke up inside the cocoon.”
“Yes,” Evelyn tutted. Tenny’s exploratory tentacle finished its approach, and Evelyn put one hand confidently on top of it, pinning it gently but firmly to the tabletop. Tenny let out a noise of complaint, and Evelyn fixed her with a look as she spoke. “A twenty-mile long tentacle would require a much larger physical body, huge support structure, probably a different respiratory system as well, not to mention massive calorific intake. We’re not Outside, our reality can’t support such things, not in the physical. She’s made herself physical and human-sized, and that imposes certain limits. Doesn’t it, Tenny? You might not know this, but the process of your metamorphosis certainly did.”
Tenny puffed her cheeks out – a mannerism I realised she’d picked up from Lozzie – and wriggled her tentacle out from Evelyn’s trap.
“Naaah!” she fluttered.
“As long as we understand each other,” Evelyn said.
“Be nice,” Lozzie said, suddenly small and worried. “Please?”
“I-” Evelyn almost snapped, but Lozzie’s puppy-dog-eyes stopped her cold. She huffed and hesitated and opened her mouth to try again, then sighed and ran a hand over her face, looking away with embarrassment. Tenny’s tentacle darted back, tapped her on the top of the head, and darted away again as she flinched and frowned at it.
Tenny let out a rapid panting, throaty and jerky, like air forced through a paper flute. We all stared, and she trailed off, confused at our confusion.
“Was that a giggle?” I asked.
Startled by the strange, alien vocalisation, we’d all missed the subtle tread of bare footsteps making their way down the stairs. Except Raine. She noticed, and when I looked back on the moment I realised she tightened her grip on my shoulders ever so slightly. She just thought it would be funnier this way.
Evelyn sighed again. “Look, Lozzie, I am trying to be nice. This is me, being nice. I am attempting to figure out how to dissuade Tenny from endangering herself.”
“She can learn,” Lozzie said.
“Can she learn fast enough?” Evelyn gestured at Tenny, then tapped on the tabletop with a fingernail. “Sharrowford is not-” tap “the safest-” tap “place-” tap.
We never figured out if it was the tapping or the challenge. Evelyn swears the former was the cause. Lozzie thinks it was the latter, that Tenny had taken offence.
Personally I think it had more to do with Zheng appearing in the kitchen doorway like a huge, naked ghost.
On the third tap, Tenny’s wings exploded into a blur. One moment she was turning toward Zheng, all her tentacles whipping back to her shoulders, wings wrapping around herself like a cloak in a storm. The next moment she was gone.
“Ooooh!” Lozzie clapped her hands. “Bravo!”
“ … woah,” Twil said.
“About time,” Evelyn drawled.
Tenny had created an optical illusion. The space where she stood was now occupied by the shapes and shadows behind her, as if interpreted by an artist mainlining psychoactive drugs and seen through a chunk of glass or crystal. The exterior of her wings – part of which she’d somehow lifted over her head, a hood perhaps? – matched the line of the kitchen doorway, the colour of the cupboards, the fall of the shadows. I found myself blinking, struggling to focus on her. The visual effect made my eyes water, unless I stopped trying and just accepted she wasn’t there.
“Shaman,” Zheng purred, stepping into the kitchen, naked except for a single small towel hanging over her shoulder. A grin split her face. She knew exactly what she was doing. “I need clothes.”
The imitative jumble where Tenny stood backed up a step and let out a muffled hiss.
I tried not to stare at Zheng, and I failed. I’d never seen her clean before. Red-chocolate skin steamed softly, her hair stuck up in all directions, the remains of her tattoos flexed across her abdomen and thighs and chest, marked with huge missing patches where I’d removed their power. A thick dark thatch of hair between her legs made my eyes pop out of my skull, before I mercifully managed to lower my head, hands up as if to protect myself, red in the face.
“Uh, um, um, yes, clothes, good, yes,” I stammered.
“Bloody hell,” Twil said, and I heard the laugh in her voice. “You’re fucking massive.”
“Yes, very mature, indeed,” Evelyn sighed.
“Discretion, better part of valour,” Praem sing-songed. I wasn’t sure if that was directed at Zheng’s nudity or Twil’s admiration.
Raine was laughing.
“No, don’t scare her!” Lozzie said, not batting an eyelid at this sudden confrontational nudity. Her hands found Tenny’s hood, or whatever it was, and tugged it down. Suddenly Tenny’s white-furred head reappeared in mid-air, blinking those massive black eyes.
“Puppy,” Zheng greeted her.
Tenny hissed at her again, very loud, mouth wide open.
“Shaman, clothes,” Zheng purred, ignoring Tenny and stepping closer. Lozzie managed to get her arms inside Tenny’s wings somehow, holding her back, though several tentacles snaked overhead. “Unless you prefer me naked?”
“I-I don’t- I- maybe we should- uh-”
“Lemme take you upstairs, see if there’s anything in my old wardrobe,” Raine said, stepping back from my chair and imposing herself between Tenny and Zheng, looking the demon-host up and down with a quick nod. “Yeah, I think I’ve got some over-sized stuff that’ll last you the night, but we need to pick up something more your size, right? You can hardly come out shopping with us, but we can do that for you. Me and Heather, at least.”
Zheng gave her an amused look and a flash of teeth. “Yoshou?”
“Can somebody get this naked woman out of the kitchen, please?” Evelyn asked.
I stood up too, face burning, mortified and aroused and embarrassed and feeling like the inside of my head was spinning out of control. “Yes, of course, I-”
“Hey, Heather,” Raine said, and her tone was so easy, too easy, layered over an unquestionable command that could have told me to do anything in that moment. She caught my eyes, flint in her own. “Relax, you’ve been going all day. Let me deal with this.”
Let me deal with clothing the giant zombie to whom you are terminally attracted, Heather. You’re not going to be alone with her, not now, Raine’s body language said. Sit down.
I nodded. Averted my eyes. “’kay. Okay.”
We really needed to have that talk.