“Friends, idiots, demons, lend me your ears,” Evelyn said, and managed to instill not a speck of levity into her little joke. “Let me be crystal clear. This is not a stroll in the woods, or a hike on the moors in fog and rain and cold, and it is certainly not a trip down to the local branch library. This will be the single most dangerous place any of us have ever set foot.”
On my lap, Lozzie let out a giggle-snort, and hid her mouth behind one sleeve when Evelyn shot her a sharp frown.
“Speak for yourself, wizard,” Zheng purred.
“I dunno, Evee,” Raine said in faux-contemplation. “Your house when your mum ran the show? Could give anywhere a run for its money.” Then she shot a nasty wink at Zheng. “Would have eaten you alive, barbarian bitch-bait.”
Zheng ignored her, the same way she had all of Raine’s colourfully creative insults over the last day and a half; small mercies.
“Yeah, I mean, come on?” Twil squinted. “We’ve been to some pretty gnarly places, Evee. How weird can it be? S’just a lotta books, right?”
“Here,” Praem intoned.
“Wonderland,” I said, and everyone looked at me. I cleared my throat. “Well, it’s true.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and gave her audience a very unimpressed glare. “Alright, fine, Heather and Lozzie have been to more dangerous places, but that’s all. The rest of you are flirting with sheer arrogance.”
Zheng’s mouth creased in a mocking grin, about to wind up Evelyn again, but before anybody could speak, Evelyn went blazing at Twil.
“And that goes triple for you, you … you … numpty.” Evelyn jabbed a finger at our blameless werewolf. “You are not invincible. This,” she gestured at Zheng, “brick shit-house and Praem can perhaps afford a certain laxity, but I don’t care what you’ve got stapled onto your brain, you’re still human. You’re as vulnerable as anybody else. When we’re in there, you don’t move unless I say, you don’t speak unless I say. You touch nothing I don’t put in your hands. Behave.”
Twil stared at Evee like she’d been slapped with a dead bird, then looked around for help.
“Evee, we all know the drill,” Raine said, soft and easy.
“There is no drill,” Evelyn growled. “What do you want me to say? We’re going to camp out? Have tea with the locals? Consult a convenient catalogue to find the books? It’s Outside, you bunch of reprobates.”
We six reprobates – myself and Raine, Lozzie perched on my lap, Praem standing prim and neat and laden down with equipment, Twil looking rumpled and lost, and Zheng lounging against the wall with her arms folded – were all gathered around the deactivated gateway mandala in the magical workshop, as Evelyn held court.
Evelyn seemed more organised and ready than I’d ever seen her for anything. She stood before the blank rectangle of bare plaster, walking stick straight and solid in one hand, dressed in coat and boots and sensible skirt and thick, warm leggings loose around the deceptively spindly ankle of her prosthetic leg, her golden-blonde hair carefully tied back. Her coat pockets bulged deep with several notebooks, a series of small jars, her scrimshawed thighbone, and a dozen other bizarre magical tools she hadn’t taken the time to explain.
Waiting to her side, Praem carried the rest. She had a big sports bag slung over one shoulder, full of cereal bars, bottled water, a first-aid kit, half a dozen powerful torches, hand-warmer heat packs, glow-sticks, duct tape, a dozen collapsible hiking sticks – not for hiking, this time – and a carrier bag filled with Evelyn’s secret weapon: dozens of heavy iron nuts with short lengths of torn cloth tied to them. For later.
Evelyn had not forced Praem to get changed, except for the heavy, practical boots on her feet beneath her long skirt.
It wasn’t as if anything Outside would understand the sartorial semantics of a maid outfit anyway.
We were going to bring walkie-talkies as well, but Evelyn had informed us that they would not only malfunction, but may also present an ‘informational hazard’, a phrase that made me want to scream.
To my right, Raine had donned her makeshift riot armour, padded motorcycle jacket over her shoulders, helmet hanging from her belt, home-made riot shield all thin metal and rubber backing leaning against the table. The long black threat of her truncheon swung lazily in one hand, but she had undoubtedly tucked away more lethal options inside her jacket.
Raine’s other hand slowly massaged my shoulder, which was beginning to irritate me. Even I could eventually get tired of physical contact; barely ten minutes had gone by in the last thirty-six hours without her touching me – not since I’d confessed everything.
I was the only one sitting in a chair, and I’d busied my hands with re-braiding Lozzie’s hair while she sat on my lap, in a vain effort to still my churning stomach. Lozzie’s pastel poncho spilled out over my thighs, over her borrowed warm jumper and slim jeans. She carried little, but was as ready as any of us, though I suspected she needed it the least. Twil seemed most unready, her hands in her coat pockets, all clashing blue and lime, still a little rumpled and flushed, presumably from whatever had passed between her and Evelyn last night. Good things, I hoped, but I hadn’t the spare courage to ask.
I was wrapped up for an outing too, in coat and hoodie, with pepper spray in one of my pockets and warm socks on my feet and a notebook of math hidden in my coat. But all my real weapons were in my head.
Mostly, I tried not to look at Zheng. If I did, she might grin at me again.
At least she was clean. She stood slightly apart, leaning against the wall with heavily lidded eyes as if barely paying attention.
The only person in the workshop not ready for the trip was Kimberly – because she wasn’t coming. She sat as far away from us as possible, on the old sofa at the back, feet tucked up and arms around her knees, trying not to chew her lips too much. It had taken half an hour of coaxing – and Evelyn’s all-too-patient explanations of her safety – to convince her to keep rearguard vigil for us in between checking on Tenny upstairs.
Soft spring rains pattered against the windows and the roof, an almost invisible drizzle against the backdrop of fat grey clouds. A damp, wet, cold Saturday.
At least we weren’t going outdoors.
“Listen to Evee, please,” I spoke up. “She’s not exaggerating. Raine, Twil, … Zheng, none of you have been Outside, not even for a minute or two. This isn’t like the cult’s castle, this is the real thing.” I gave a tiny, sighing laugh. “In a way, I really don’t want to do this.”
“Thank you, Heather,” Evelyn said, tight-voiced. “And please do not back out now, you are essential.”
“I know. I know.”
“Okay, alright.” Raine raised one hand in a gesture of helpless surrender, the other still kneading imaginary knots out of my upper back. “How dangerous can this be? Serious question, not teasing. I need to know. You already gave us the whole spiel about the locals not being an issue if we don’t step on the cracks and count to ten or whatever. What are we looking out for otherwise?”
“The shaman, yoshou,” Zheng rumbled.
“Great joke, real knee-slapper, well done big zombie, great sense of humour,” Raine replied, smiling razors.
“Raine,” I whispered. “Please don’t.”
“Yes, not now. Both of you shut up,” Evelyn said. She caught my eyes and shrugged, and I shrugged back, helpless, and mouthed ‘I tried.’ Evelyn cleared her throat. “The problem is the place itself. Every step is a risk, and we can’t stay there for long.”
“So how long is too long?” Twil asked. “Like, couldn’t you just set me to run for-”
“I don’t know!” Evelyn snapped. “For you, as short a time as possible. Look, this isn’t just about getting into a fight, or the physical dangers – which are bad enough – it’s about getting … ” Evelyn swore softly. “Overwhelmed. The only time I went Outside – which, by the way, was one of the most stupid mistakes I’ve ever made, and the fact I’m admitting that should be proof enough – was one of the most indescribable, revolting, alien sensations of my entire life, and I will remind you that I have been possessed by a demon before. I was there, what, an hour before you came for me, Heather?” I nodded, though I couldn’t actually recall how long Evelyn had been stuck before I’d rescued her, so many months ago now. “And everything about that place, the fog, the sounds, the … ground beneath me.” She swallowed down a wave of revulsion. “These are not places we can remain for long as human beings.”
“It’s not that bad,” Lozzie said in a tiny voice.
Evelyn gestured at her, scoffing. “There. I rest my case.”
“There are many places Outside perhaps not so alien,” I came to Lozzie’s rescue before an argument could start. “Places Lozzie showed me, beautiful places. The Library of Carcosa is not one of them.”
Lozzie turned on my lap to pout at me. “I thought you like libraries.”
I gave her a sad smile. “Lozzie, sweet, it was terrifying. The scale was all wrong. The … inhabitants. We’re not meant to be there, not in places like that. Body and soul, it’s not for us.”
“Um,” went Twil. “Alright Heather, you’re givin’ me the creeps.”
“Good,” Evelyn grunted.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Don’t be.” Twil did this big performative all-body shiver. Zheng chuckled at her. “I think I get the picture. Right. No sticking around.”
Evelyn cleared her throat, her tone slipping into the reluctant teacher. “The Library of Carcosa is one of the most commonly described locations Outside, one of the most well-travelled spheres beyond our own, but it’s still absolutely, inimically non-human. In Unbekannte Orte, Paulinus speaks of getting lost in a labyrinth of his own mind, and he was a philosopher, a proper one, not exactly given to flights of fancy. There’s a long passage in Tote Kugeln, where Mechthild recounts the loss of five companions she took with her, all in different ways, one of whom she describes as having ‘her mind devoured morsel by morsel by the very words she dared to utter,’ another who was eaten by a ‘twist of the air’ – God knows what the old bat meant by that – and another which was led off – willingly – by the librarians. Even Abdullah al-Hazrad warned against going there, and he was madder than a cesspit rat.”
“Librarians,” Raine said. Not a question.
“Presumably the tentacle-faces,” I said. “I did see them, both times I went there.”
“Why is it always bloody tentacles?” Twil muttered.
“This is not a colonisable space,” Evelyn spoke over Twil. “We don’t go running roughshod in there like a bunch of nineteenth century aristo twats with gunpowder and Christianity for the natives. Do not touch anything. Do not speak to anything. Certainly do not read anything that I don’t explicitly tell you to look at. And do not attack, harass, molest, or otherwise interact with the locals, other than in the exact ways I instruct you to do so.” She jabbed the head of her walking stick at Zheng. “Do not get in a fight. You will put all of us, including Heather, in danger.”
Zheng blinked very slowly. “Where the shaman goes, I go.”
“Not everywhere, rot-breath,” Raine said with a grin at the giant demon-host. “Not bed.”
“They won’t bother us,” Evelyn went on, trying to ignore the verbal slap fight as I blushed into my hand, “whatever they look like, however close they approach, unless we start destroying books or setting fires. Ilduara and Teoda in the Broken Notes are very specific about this. Displays to scatter them are fine if absolutely necessary, but you wait for my instruction. If you start pushing them around or bloody well eating them … ” Evelyn trailed off, shaking her head.
“They wake up?” Twil asked. “Like poking an anthill?”
Evelyn wet her lips, obviously uncomfortable. “I don’t know. I don’t know what might happen. There’s nothing in my books.”
“And if you are wrong, wizard?” Zheng rumbled, blinking sleepy-tiger eyes.
“I’m not.” Evelyn stared back at her. “I’m not. There are multiple sources on this. Mages have been to Carcosa before, smarter and better informed than I. Besides, we have what the locals want, they will respond according to ritual, the Broken Notes is clear about that too.”
“They did advance on me, that one time, with Praem,” I said.
“They would have stopped,” Evelyn said quickly, then swallowed. “You weren’t trying to start a fire or destroy books, they would have left you alone eventually.”
“Eventually is eventual,” Praem sing-songed. “Uneventful would be preferable.”
We all stared at her in surprise. Evelyn shot her a sharp frown.
“What if you are wrong though, Evee?” Twil asked. “Just hear me out, yeah? What do we do? Get in a huge scrap with dozens of weird beasties?”
Evelyn gave her a level, unimpressed look. “Why do you think you’re coming? Not for your scintillating conversation or Latin literacy, that’s for certain.”
Twil looked a little crestfallen. “Evee? What- what’s changed? Come on, we were like … ” She glanced around at the rest of us, equal parts confused and embarrassed and helpless. “You were … last night-”
Evelyn made a noise halfway between a strangled cobra and an angry badger, a sort of growling shush, going red in the face.
“E-Evee?” Twil blinked at her. I put my face in my hand for the sake of these two idiots.
Raine started laughing. “Keep up, Twil,” she said. “Look, you and I, we’re muscle for this trip. Our whole purpose is to deal with shit if this all goes south. Praem too. Three casters,” she indicated Evelyn, Lozzie, and I. “One tank,” she winked at Praem. “And two dee-pee-ess.” She said it exactly like that, ‘dee-pee-ess’, and I had to ask her later what on earth she was talking about, and even then I didn’t really understand. “Plus one ablative meatshield,” she grinned at Zheng. “Perfectly balanced party. Our job is keep frosty and don’t pull any aggro. Look after Evee, Twil, s’your job.”
“Oh!” Twil lit up. “Alright, that makes a lot more sense. Why didn’t you just say so?” she asked Evelyn, who was busy rubbing the bridge of her nose and looked like she wanted to wallop both of them. “Cool. We’re cool, right Evee? I’ll just keep my head down, unless you need something punching really hard?”
Evelyn sighed, trying to wipe the blush off her face. “Yes, yes, thank you. That is exactly what I need from you. And keep your mouth shut.”
A cheeky grin snuck onto Twil’s face, a dirty-joke kind of grin. “Keep my mouth shut, eh? That wasn’t what-”
“Twil Hopton.” Evelyn made her name sound like a whipcrack.
Twil kept her mouth shut, but the cheeky grin took a while to fade. Lozzie’s eyes shone at the pair of them, biting her lips in excitement, clapping together the tips of her fingers in front of her face.
Evelyn took longer than expected to compose herself. She untied the ponytail holding back her great fluffy mass of blonde hair and carefully retied it while Praem held her walking stick. Raine took the opportunity to catch my eye and knead the back of my neck.
“There may be things present other than the locals,” Evelyn said eventually, with much less confident fire. “Other things like us, searching for reference material. It’s not impossible. Or others, which never left. In that case use your judgement, but whatever you do, do not damage the books. Raine, did you manage to … ?”
“Not happening.” Raine shrugged. “Deal fell through, last thing yesterday. No boomstick for us.”
“Boomstick?” I echoed, wrinkling my nose, distinctly aware that Raine hadn’t left the house all day yesterday. Or used her phone. Or been apart from me for longer than it took to use the toilet. There had been no ‘last thing yesterday’. “Deal?”
“Yeah. Was trying to get us some better firepower,” said Raine, all matter-of-fact when she spoke about something utterly bonkers. “Bloke down the Nag’s Head – that’s the Nag’s Head on Spittimer Street, not the one down the high street or the one over Potter’s Way – was gonna sell me a sawn-off shotgun.”
I thought my eyes would pop out of my head.
“Woah. Cool,” Twil whispered.
“I think you mean-” Raine span her truncheon as if it was gun and blew imaginary smoke from the end of an imaginary barrel. “Groovy.”
Twil fell about laughing. “You fucking nerd!”
“Take this seriously, for pity’s sake,” Evelyn hissed.
“One boomstick, special order,” Raine was already going on. “Good for doming pesky deadites and demons and other possessed bodies, if you know what I mean.” She grinned at Zheng, aiming her truncheon-based imaginary firearm at Zheng’s head. “Present company excepted, ‘course.”
“Lead does nothing to me, yoshou,” Zheng purred.
“Oh my God, Raine, will you stop?” I blurted out, blushing tomato red. Lozzie put her hands to her mouth, scandalised, then to my face, trying to help, or perhaps trying to cool me off.
“What?” Raine laughed. “I’m just lightening the mood before we go over the top.”
“Offense taken,” Praem intoned, sing-song serious and totally unreadable. Raine slammed to a halt and grinned at her, all aggression forgotten.
“Oh, hey, not you, Praem,” she said. “Never you. You’re a sweetheart.”
“If you two keep this up Outside, I will leave you there,” Evelyn said. “Stop.”
“Yes, stop,” I agreed in a whisper, praying.
Raine shrugged and pulled a ‘not me’ sort of smile, a shit-eating, I-know-exactly-what-I’m-doing smile. Zheng grunted softly and blinked the slow blink of a predator at rest.
I couldn’t decide which was worse, that Raine had attempted to procure a second illegal firearm, right here in Sharrowford, from a dodgy gentleman in a shady pub – or that I suspected the deal hadn’t fallen through at all, and the real reason she’d failed to acquire said firepower was because she’d been unwilling to go out, to leave me alone in the house with Zheng for any length of time at all.
Two nights ago, in the flesh-hot aftermath of Zheng’s kiss, things between Raine and I had become very weird, very quickly.
I’d confessed everything within about thirty seconds of Zheng leaving our bedroom. Keeping it from Raine was unthinkable.
The giant zombie had vanished back downstairs into the deeper dark, like a panther slinking back into the jungle. If Raine had stayed in bed, if she’d turned me toward her and given me the slightest opening, I would have jumped her, I would have blotted out Zheng’s taste with Raine’s scent and the familiar, comfortable intimacy of Raine’s hands on my body – but instead, Raine asked me if I was unhurt. I fumbled some barely coherent answer which involved half-trying to kiss her, missing and mashing my cheek against her chin, then she said “One sec, Heather,” and clambered out of bed in the dark to shut the bedroom door, and I fell to pieces.
Alone in my own body for all of five seconds as Raine’s shadow crossed the room, I shivered in a way that had nothing to do with cold, then hiccuped, then blurted everything out all at once.
It was one of the most horrifying things I’d ever done – and I’d committed murder, swam the ocean void beyond reality, and once written off my own twin as dead.
The guilt did not lift as I unfolded my transgression, but underwent an alchemical transformation, into a sick, rotten feeling of self-destruction.
Raine flicked on the lights at some point I didn’t notice, soft and yellow, absorbed by the mass of bedcovers and the familiar contours of our bedroom – our bedroom for how much longer? She listened, attentive but unresponsive, and beautiful. Perhaps it was because the kiss had left me burning, but every little detail of Raine’s body seemed emphasised by the twilight bubble in the night. Her short chestnut hair, raked back and messy from sleep. The flex of her abdominal muscles. The surprisingly long lashes before those warm brown eyes. I felt tiny. To me, in that moment, she seemed as tall as Zheng.
“-and it was only a kiss, a-and I didn’t initiate it, and I wouldn’t, and I’m so sorry Raine, I’m so sorry.” I hiccuped again. “I-I can only ask for forgiveness and you- you’d be well within your rights to just … just deny me that and … Raine?”
But Raine wasn’t paying attention.
An all-too-familiar change had rippled through her body, a tightness in her musculature, a coiled-spring readiness on clearer display than ever before, as she was dressed for sleep in only a pair of small black shorts and a tight tshirt with a massive grinning cartoon otter on the front. For a terrible moment I thought her aggression was directed at me, and the pit of my stomach turned to ice. This was it. The serial killer moment. All the love and affection of the last few months was about to come crashing down.
Worse, part of me thought I deserved it.
Raine’s eyes touched the knife she’d left on the bedside table, then the bedroom door, then down through the floor, toward the kitchen.
“Zheng kissed you?” Raine asked. “Without your permission?”
Oh good, Raine wasn’t going to kill me in a jealous fit, she wasn’t like that; Raine was going to get herself killed duelling Zheng for my honour.
“No! Raine, no!” I reached out to restrain her, though I felt unworthy of even touching her. “Not like that, she didn’t force herself on me! Oh, God no. No. There was a … a … ” I hiccuped, had to keep going. “A moment of genuine … chemistry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, and she did stop, as soon as I said no. As soon as I said no.”
Raine looked at me, blinked once, and brightened instantly. All the killing intent went out of her like a fire doused beneath a wave. “Oh! Well, that’s different then. Almost got the wrong end of the stick there.” I was nodding in relief, until she smirked and added: “So heeeeey, what was it like?”
I think my brain shut down entirely and had to reboot itself piece by piece. I just stared at her, at her teasing, inappropriate grin. “ … a- … I … what.”
“What was it like?” Raine ran one hand through my hair. “Carnivore makeouts, huh? Bet she tastes like a badger’s arsehole.”
“ … I … Raine … i-it’s good that you’re not going to fight her, yes, please, please do not do that, but … Raine, I kissed another woman. Even if it was for a moment, I was unfaithful. It’s one of the worst things I can imagine. You- you don’t have to- you should-”
Raine’s grin turned dangerous, a twinkle in her eyes. “Want me to call you a bad girl and spank you over my knee?”
I came within a gnat’s wingspan of screaming yes, my insides saturated with this awful cocktail of guilt and lust. It probably would have made me feel better – bad Heather, needs punishing, pay debt – but it wouldn’t have solved a single thing. We’d end up back here again in a few weeks time, and then perhaps the wound would be fatal. I held back, because part of me knew that saying yes would mean using Raine.
“No- Raine, I was-” I hiccuped, twice, out of control. “Unfaithful. How can you- I don’t deserve-”
“Hey, hey, hey, woah, Heather.” Raine sat down next to me on the bed. She slipped one arm around my shoulders, and the other tightened in my hair. She caught my eyes and wouldn’t let me go, suddenly dead serious. “Whatever else you’re thinking, let’s get one thing real clear. You did nothing wrong. Zheng initiated. You said no. Unless you lied to me?”
I shook my head, eyes terrifyingly dry. “But I stayed behind. In the kitchen. When I knew it might happen.”
“Ahhh, but that’s not really intent. Heather, you are never responsible for other people’s actions. You were not unfaithful.”
“But I wanted it! I enjoyed it!” A hysterical hitch cracked my voice. “How can you not be angry-”
Raine leaned in and kissed me.
There shouldn’t have been anything remarkable about Raine and I sharing a kiss. We did this multiple times every day. But it felt like coming home. Warm and soft and familiar, I melted into her taste, full of sleep-heat and the scent of her body and the feel of a strong hand on the back of my head. She kissed me long and slow and deep, took control, and for a moment I thought she was going to just push me backward onto the bed and dispense with all this difficult talking. Almost panting through my nose in panic and lust and relief, I returned the kiss, hungry and flushed and vibrating in her arms.
Eventually she pulled away just enough to make me lean into her before we parted. She licked her lips and winked at me. “There. Claimed you back.”
“Claimed … ” I echoed, and realised I’d stepped on a second libidinal land-mine tonight.
“Mmhmm,” she purred. “All mine.”
One of Raine’s hands was already slipping beneath the hem of the borrowed jumper I’d dragged on earlier. Her warm fingers found my stomach and I gasped in surprise. My voice emerged as a strangled squeak.
“Why- Raine! Aren’t you jealous? I-I’m serious. Before, you … you said you didn’t want me to do things with … with her. You were very specific. How can you not feel jealous? A moment ago you were ready to duel Zheng for my honour – which, again, please do not do that, please don’t get hurt.”
Raine squeezed my flank beneath my clothes. “Would that get your engine revved? I would totally duel her for your honour.”
“Raine, stop it!” I snapped at her, pushed her hand back. “Stop that. Stop deflecting. How can you not be jealous?”
Raine’s grin switched off.
It didn’t die slowly, didn’t fade. It just went away.
It was as if the soft machine of her body had come juddering to a sudden stop. She reminded me of a robot from one of those silly 1960s science fiction serials she’d shown me a while back, a robot failing to integrate a paradox. I’d witnessed a shade of this once before, back during our trip to the Saye estate over Christmas, when Raine had admitted to lying to me. But that had been a mere speed bump; this was full halt. For a good two seconds, Raine just stopped.
“Oh. Oh, Raine, I’m-”
“This isn’t fair,” she said. “Don’t drive me into a corner.”
I’d never seen her angry with me before. It was not frightening for the reasons I’d always assumed it might be – none of the aggressive tension, the violent intent – but for an entirely new set of reasons. I had, in some way I did not yet understand, hurt her.
“I’m- I-I’m sorry?” was all I managed.
“I can be jealous, if that’s what you need,” Raine said, and the grin slowly worked its way back onto her face, then flickered in confusion again. “But if I push too hard, are you going to leap into Zheng’s arms?”
“ … no! Raine? I … I said no to her. I’m attracted to her, yes, I won’t lie, and she’s important to me, but I said no. Because I love you. Raine, what is this? I don’t understand.”
Raine swallowed once, unsmiling, then shook her head. “I’m not jealous about you kissing her. I’m not hurt. I am jealous, yes, but not … ”
She paused, a very long pause. Another all stop on the Raine express. I waited with my heart in my mouth.
“But not like that,” she finished eventually, dead serious. “You could even kiss her more, if you want-”
“No, Raine, don’t say that, I can’t-”
She spoke over me. “But I do not wish to be surplus to your requirements. Ever.”
“’Surplus to my requirements?’” I echoed. That way of speaking didn’t even sound like her. “Raine, what are you-”
“Just tell me.”
“No, you’re not!” I didn’t even have to think about that one. “Never. You’re not. You never will be ‘surplus’, that’s awful, awful. I promise you. I promise. Raine, we- we can ask Zheng to leave the house, if she’s still here. I don’t have to have her around, I understand if-”
Raine laughed softly as her habitual grin finally blossomed again, as she visibly relaxed, as she reached over and ruffled my hair. She resumed, everything oiled and smooth and running at a comfortable pace once more. “Hey, no need for that. She’s one of us, right? And she and I did make an oath. And we need her. And you wouldn’t like it if she had to leave, would you? You said it yourself, she’s important to you.”
“But not as important as you. Raine, if she’s a threat to-”
“To me?” Raine clucked her tongue through a grin. “Naaaah. Not to me. You don’t need to worry about that, Heather.”
Which turned out to be a huge lie.
In the morning we woke entangled in each others’ limbs and bits of sheet and a pillow wedged under the small of my back. Part of me prayed that Zheng would be gone, returned to her hunt, no awkward confrontation over breakfast, no terrible soap opera moments to make my life even more absurd.
No such luck.
Raine’s aggressive territorial displays began not long after.
“Hey, Dawn of the Dead reject,” she’d said, grinning despite her words, hanging round the door-frame of the workshop to talk to Zheng. The demon-host was half-asleep on the sofa in Evelyn’s workshop, huge and still like a lounging tiger. “Next time keep your hands to yourself, or you’ll pull back a pair ‘o stumps.”
“Oh my God,” I hissed, face in my hands, mortified as I sat in front of a bowl of soggy cereal in the kitchen.
Evelyn – still groggy with sleep, squinting at the the half-cleaned mess on the table after Praem had just lugged the leftover dead deer into the bins outdoors – raised a curious eyebrow. Praem was still silently bustling about with bleach and bloodied sponges. Kimberly was half out the door, but she froze at the naked aggression in Raine’s smiling voice, despite not being the target.
“We made an oath, yoshou,” Zheng purred. “No fight. You will do nothing.”
“Yeah, sure. But this isn’t a left hand, right hand thing. This is a Raine Philomena Haynes thing.” And my tongue almost fell out of my mouth at the sound of Raine using her own hated middle name. “Biggest dyke in East Anglia, Sharrowford, and the whole county of Sussex thing. Hands off my girl unless you want your eyes clawed out. Bitch.”
She said it like it was a joke, laughing and easy. From anyone but Raine it would have sounded absurd.
“The shaman is nobody’s girl,” Zheng purred.
“Oh yeah?” Raine shot back. “Who made her orgasm twice last night? Not you, bucko, you just warmed her up and got cack-handed before the finish line.”
I contemplated the mechanics of drowning myself in my cereal bowl. Evelyn was grumbling that they needed to take it outdoors, and Praem marched straight into the workshop.
The doll-demon clicked her heels on the floor, and sing-songed, “No more raw meat inside the house.”
“Little thing-” Zheng purred.
“No more raw meat inside the house.”
“You should try-”
“Will try you,” Praem intoned, and Raine started laughing, and that was that.
Twenty-four hours until Carcosa, and my two best protectors had declared cold war on each other.
By that evening, I was going out of my mind, and then Evelyn made it all so much weirder.
“I’m here to borrow your girlfriend.”
She’d stomped straight into our bedroom, walking stick clacking on the floorboards then muffled by the thick rugs around our bed, as Raine and I had been in the middle of playing a video game.
Well, Raine was playing the game, legs stretched out on the bed as she provided commentary and explanation for me. I was lying half-across her lap, emotionally exhausted and more than a little physically sore too, well aware that if I clambered off her to watch from any other angle, I would be mercilessly encouraged back into her lap, or she’d abandon the game entirely to pay attention to me. We were trying to put off the nerves about going to Carcosa tomorrow morning, and I was trying desperately to not think about the way Raine had been acting all day.
“Evee?” Raine raised her eyebrows and paused the game. On screen, a comically well-endowed ninja woman froze in the act of cutting a goblin in half with a giant sword.
“You heard me,” said Evelyn. “I’m here to borrow your girlfriend.”
I glanced between them. “Um … me?”
“Unless Raine has secretly acquired some crumpet on the side, yes you.” Evelyn frowned at me, then addressed Raine again. “This may be for several hours. As long as it takes me to fall asleep.”
“What,” I said, blindsided.
Raine’s face lit up with an awed smile. “You’re invoking the deal. Evee! Never thought I’d see the day!”
Evelyn frowned at this too, suddenly as confused as me. “What deal, what are you blathering about?”
“The deal! The deal. Come on, you gotta remember the deal.”
“This has nothing to do with any deal, real or spurious or from your bloody dreams,” Evelyn told her. “I want to borrow Heather for a few hours, yes or no?”
“Um, do I not get a say?” I asked, sitting up from Raine’s lap at last, brushing hair out of my face. “I’m not property, to be passed around.”
“Oh, you are most def’ not,” Raine said to me. “But see, Evee and I made this deal once, a little while after we first met, right? If I ever landed myself a beautiful girlfriend, like a real ten out of ten stunner, and Evelyn was high and dry and really needed the company, she could ask for it, anytime, no questions. And I can’t say no. Can’t believe she’s finally calling it in.”
Evelyn was giving Raine the sort of look one gives a very stupid dog that has just rolled in its own excrement. “Raine, we were idiot teenagers. I was dying. I am not gay for Heather, and if I was, I certainly wouldn’t treat her as your property to give away.”
“Ahhhh, but you do remember it!” Raine laughed. “It’s cool though, feel free, I’ll be up to like midnight at this rate. I can entertain myself.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and sighed. “Heather, will you come with me for a while and help me to fall asleep? I would deeply appreciate it. And before Raine says something filthy, I am not being weird with you. It’s not like that. You know that.”
I glanced back at Raine. She patted me on the bottom and said “Go on then!”
They were both waiting for me to move. I was so surprised, so utterly out of sorts from one of the most emotionally exhausting days of my life, that I just stood up, still clutching a pillow to my chest, and padded after Evelyn in my socks and pajama bottoms. I was in a sort of daze as she led me wordlessly across the corridor and into her bedroom.
I hadn’t visited Evelyn’s bedroom in a while, and it was easy to forget how fluffy and comfy she kept her personal spaces. The plush animals and magical girl figures on her chest of drawers stared at me like a welcoming audience. Lilac and pink softened every surface, turned smooth and sleepy in the shaded light from her tall lamp. Posters and stacks of books ringed her little desk, the closed laptop quiet and dark. I felt as if I’d stepped into the burrow of a small furry animal.
“Do shut the door,” Evelyn muttered once I was over the threshold.
She clomped around to the opposite side of her massive, overstuffed pink-and-lilac bed, and sat down heavily, rubbing her hip with a grimace. She hiked up her skirt around her thighs, revealing the naked black carbon fibre of her prosthetic leg, and the white plastic sleeve which kept it attached to her flesh.
“I said shut the door, Heather,” she had to repeat.
“Right. Yes. Right.” I did so, closing us in together. “Um, what is this … about?”
Evelyn rolled the white plastic sleeve off the stump of her thigh and sighed with relief, gently massaging the remains of her leg through the sock-like covering. She leaned back into the snowdrift of pillows against the headboard.
“You tell me,” she said.
“ … I’m at my wits end,” I admitted, my voice breaking softly. “I can’t deal with Raine. Today has been completely mad, I just can’t deal with her.”
“Yes, I noticed that part,” Evelyn said, low and grumpy but not with me. “That’s why I called you in here. I don’t actually need any help falling asleep, though I wouldn’t turn down your company if you’d like to stay, if you need some respite. You can stay in here as long as you want. I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable in your own home, whatever’s happening between you and Raine.”
I sighed very heavily and very suddenly and felt like a burst balloon. I had to sit down on the bed too, opposite Evelyn. “You noticed.”
Evelyn narrowed her eyes. “One would be blind not to. Anybody would think her hands are glued to you. You two have vanished upstairs together no less than three times today, and that’s not counting the hours I was out of the house, in class.”
I averted my eyes, and wished I’d had class today. “Four times,” I whispered.
Evelyn snorted. “I’m surprised you can still walk.”
“It’s not as if I didn’t want it.” I screwed up my eyes in a useless effort to contain a burning blush.
“And the cause does not take a behavioural scientist to unravel either,” Evelyn continued. “I distinctly overheard Raine calling Zheng ‘overfed bull-dyke guillotine bait’, to her face, and that’s extreme even for Raine.” Evelyn crossed her arms and gave me the tiniest, gentlest glare she could muster. “Heather, we are going to Carcosa tomorrow. Those two need to play nice, or stay home. I am … ” She cleared her throat awkwardly. “Look, I’m not good at this, I barely know how to begin, but you are … special, to me, so I am ‘here for you’, as the saying goes. But also, what the hell is going on?”
I told her everything. The kiss, the aftermath, the slide of Raine’s behaviour since this morning.
Raine hadn’t left me alone all day long. She’d maintained almost constant physical contact – inviting me to snuggle in her lap, touching my neck and my sides and sliding a hand up the back of my tshirt, accompanying me into the shower for the fifth session which I’d left out of my whispered confession to Evelyn. I didn’t dislike it, not exactly; Raine’s attention was a heady drug, I felt sated and pampered, and I could hardly complain about her attempts to lay firm claim to me after last night. But this was excessive, even for Raine.
And then there was the territorial aggression, aimed at Zheng.
Evelyn listened in tired silence, massaging her thigh above her amputated stump.
“And it’s not-” I hit the heart of the matter, and had nowhere left to go. “How can she say she’s not jealous then act like this? It’s not as if I don’t understand what she’s doing. And she has every right to do it, but I don’t understand why. Her reaction last night was so confusing, I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I feel like she’s just incomprehensible to me.”
“You … ” Evelyn spoke up at last, then paused to grimace. “You ‘snogged’ Zheng? That is profoundly disgusting.” She let out a huge sigh and dragged a pillow across her lap to lay her hands in. “But I suppose I shouldn’t judge. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If I ever found any courage with Twil, I’m certain it would appear vile to any casual observer.”
“Evee,” I tutted, but didn’t have any excess emotional bandwidth to tell her off for self-deprecation right then.
Evelyn considered the ceiling for a long moment. I heard the muffled sounds of Lozzie’s voice off in the depths of the house, of somebody else moving around in the kitchen downstairs, of beams settling in the gathering cold beyond the walls.
“Heather,” Evelyn said eventually. “You do know Raine.”
I managed a small smile. “Do I really? Sometimes it’s like she-”
“No, Heather. I mean literally.” She stared at me with a teaching frown and her voice took on the same rehearsed cadence as it once had when she’d taught me about magic. “There are no hidden depths to Raine, though there may be a few locked rooms full of junction boxes and loose wiring. With Raine, what you see is what you get. She wants to be your knight in shining armour. If you let her, she will be happy.”
I let out a huge sigh and could not conceal my disappointment. “You said that once before. I really don’t think it’s true.”
“No, I was entirely right about the knight in shining armour part.” Evelyn levelled a finger at me. “That wasn’t just me being a grumpy old bitch. My prediction she would get bored with you afterward, that was wrong, yes. Over the years that I needed Raine less, she … ‘re-calibrated’, she went looking for another damsel to protect, and eventually found you. I thought she’d treat you the same, if you ever grew strong enough to stand on your own, but I didn’t count on you being a huge lesbian.”
“ … excuse me?” I bristled involuntarily. “Evee, what difference does that make?”
Evelyn gave me a witheringly patient look. “Raine and I never went wrist-deep in each other’s cunts.”
My mouth made a little o-shape. “O-oh. Um. Evee! That’s not-”
“She loves you. Romantically. I used to doubt she was even capable of that, but she’s proved it enough times now. That makes your situation different, and I suspect you’re confusing the hell out of her.”
Evelyn huffed a big old sigh, but aimed at herself, at her inability to express her thoughts rather than at my difficulty understanding.
“Raine is loyal,” she said, jabbing at the pillow in her lap with her maimed hand, growing more agitated with each word. “It’s who she is. What she does. She finds a person worthy of her loyalty, and then she is loyal. She needs that, as an outlet or an anchor or something! I don’t know exactly, I’m not a bloody psychologist.”
“Evee, it’s okay, it-”
“It’s what she did with me and it … it … oh bugger me, Heather, I can’t-” She lost her temper and all but punched the pillow in her lap. “For fuck’s sake, I can’t say these things.”
“You don’t have to-”
“No.” She jabbed a finger at me again. “No. I do. Because I am not watching you two break up. You are the best thing ever to happen to her. And I suspect the reverse is true as well.” She sighed and visibly crushed down on her irritation. “This isn’t my place to say. It is Raine’s place to say, but if it can keep your relationship healthy, screw it, I’ll break the rules.”
She took another long moment to compose herself – and, I suspected, to compose the right words in the privacy of her mind.
“My memories of when I first met Raine are not easy,” she said eventually. “For both emotional and mechanical reasons. But I have come to firmly believe, in the years since, that Raine’s decision to protect me, to be my friend, to save me from my mother, was as much an act of self-redemption as it was altruism.”
“ … oh-kay? Okay?”
“I mean by saving me she saved herself,” Evelyn huffed, then frowned sharply at me. “Heather, the Raine that you and I know, that is not the Raine I met as a teenager. The very first time I met her, I was dead certain I was face-to-face with a serial killer, a monster, something far worse than the worst of my mother’s creations.”
Cold blossomed in the pit of my stomach. “Evee? Are you … you’re not joking.”
Evelyn shook her head. “Don’t get me wrong. She’s still the same person. She’s always had the same boundless arrogance, the self-assurance, always been so very unstoppably Raine. But she was not stable.”
“Stable?” I couldn’t imagine Raine as unstable.
“There was a twitchiness about her. A desperation. I assume she’s told you the story, about breaking into the house to say hello to me? Her ‘finest hour’ and all that?”
“Mmhmm,” I nodded, on the edge of my seat. Every crumb of Raine’s past was like a banquet, and I was starving.
“Did she tell you she knifed three of my mother’s zombies on the way in? No? Didn’t think so. A teenage girl, nothing much of her, against three things not entirely unlike Praem. She was covered in blood by the time she found me, had a dislocated shoulder, one eye swollen shut from a bruise. Gave me the fright of my life.” Evelyn lowered her voice as she spoke. “All just to speak to a crippled, bent-double girl who she didn’t even know. She was at the end of her rope as much as I was. Rail thin, hadn’t been eating, an infection in one foot, absolutely filthy. She was fearless – and desperate for somebody to protect. The moment I accepted her, she put herself between me and everything in that house. And I believe it gave her purpose, and that kept her alive.”
Evelyn took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. I reached over to rub her shoulder, and she nodded a thanks at me, eyes damp with old memories.
“I … I guess I never thought about the reality of that,” I said.
“Well. She did mellow, over time. After my mother. After we moved to Sharrowford. When I didn’t need protecting as much anymore. I got irritated with her, yes, I … I made her move out. A mistake. To me, Raine will always be the filthy, blood-covered idiot who saved me when I was almost dead. And I will always, always have her back. No matter what she is, what she does.” Evelyn sniffed, swallowed, and looked down. “Don’t tell her I said any of that, she’ll be insufferable until we all die of old age.”
“Promise,” I whispered, and put my hand over one of Evelyn’s.
Evelyn withdrew her hand and stared at me. “What I’m also trying to say is, well, unique relationship dynamics are your business, but if you are betraying her, if you cheat on her with Zheng, I will not be very happy with you. You have been … my … salvation,” she swallowed hard, “in a way Raine couldn’t, and I won’t know what to do if you hurt her seriously.”
“No! No, Evee, that’s the point. I said no to Zheng. I choose Raine. I do. Over and over, whatever conditions. She saved me too.”
Evelyn nodded. She cleared her throat. “Good,” she said very softly and patted my hand. “Okay. Good. Right. Let’s never mention that again.”
“If you like.” I smiled for her.
“So my guess – and my guess is a good guess, I’d put five hundred quid on it if I could – is that she can’t figure out what you want, because you don’t know what you want. If you want Zheng to take you over the kitchen table, I think Raine would happily watch, then trade places with her for a second round afterward.”
“Evee!” I squeaked, eyes bugging out at her. “You can’t be serious!”
“You mean … both of them?” I asked, boggling at her.
“I believe the technical term is ‘polyamory’. I looked it up.”
“I can’t do that. I can barely deal with one relationship as it is. I’d expire of dehydration. Is that even a … a real thing? I thought that was only in romance novels. Mostly bad ones.”
“You’re asking me for romantic advice? Me?”
“What is this conversation if not romantic advice?”
“Raine advice,” Evelyn grunted. “Look, if you want her to slap Zheng with a white glove filled with crushed gravel, she’ll do that too. She will be what you need her to be, as long as you are hers to be loyal to. But you’re pulling her in two different directions. She won’t push Zheng out of your life, because she knows you care. But now she thinks you want her to be possessive and jealous.”
“Oh, Evee.” I felt my shoulders slump, and reached forward for support. We shared an awkward half-hug, leaning over the bed, until I pulled back. “But I want to know what Raine feels, what she really feels. If she’s jealous, she can be. Just … naturally. Normally.”
Evelyn snorted one humourless puff of laughter. “Nothing about Raine is normal. Don’t tell me you’ve been pretending?”
My turn to laugh as well, just as empty of humour.
We drifted into comfortable silence, side by side as I pulled my legs up onto Evelyn’s plush nest of a bed. Part of me wanted to return to Raine and cuddle up with her, to let her know that of course I was still hers, but another part of me needed this peace and quiet, to think.
Was Raine a shell into which I poured my own emotions? No, I refused to believe so. That was not what I saw in her. She was not a mere sociopathic mimic going through the motions because she’d once decided to save Evelyn, no matter how weird her value system or how she’d arrived at it. I wanted to know, I was dying to understand her completely. Why had she never told me the reality about when she’d met Evelyn? Embarrassment? Trauma?
Maybe I should just trust her, and ask.
“You really are welcome to stay, by the way,” Evelyn mumbled after a while, and I realised she’d been drifting off, half-awake with her head back on the pillows. “I would actually appreciate the company, haven’t had any in a long time. Just … I should get out of this skirt first. Get under the covers and hold my hand? If that’s not … too much to ask.”
“Haven’t had any in a long time?”
“Ahhh. Well.” Evelyn roused herself a little, rubbing her eyes. “This is what Raine and I used to do. Platonic, though, you understand? Back when we first met. We shared a bed, for months. It was … it helped.” She took a deep breath. “I haven’t needed it in years, but even I’m not terribly comfortable about what we’re going to do tomorrow.”
I considered Evelyn’s face, the tired dark rings around her eyes, the sleepy flush in her cheeks, her mass of blonde hair loose over one shoulder.
“You don’t need me here,” I said. “You need Twil.”
She frowned. “Oh, for-”
“No, I’m serious. She’s got to be here tomorrow morning anyway, why not call her over to stay the night?”
“Because I can’t-” Evelyn snapped,
“Then I’ll call her for you. As a thank you. We’re going to Carcosa tomorrow. If not tonight, when?”
“Don’t say that,” Evelyn hissed, scowling. “Don’t say that like we’re all going to die. The point is to do this without anyone dying.” She folded her arms, glared at me, then down into her lap, then at her mobile phone lying on her desk next to her laptop, then back at me again. “If you want to thank me, you can have a word with your pair of admirers. If Raine and Zheng go at each other in the middle of the expedition, if they won’t work together … ” Evelyn shook her head. “We’re doomed.”
“I’ll talk to Raine. I mean, I’ll try to talk to Raine. She’ll understand, for our safety if nothing else.”
I swallowed, heart skipping a beat. “I’m not certain I can. She’s been practically ignoring me all day. I might … might lose myself. Maybe with Raine there … ”
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted.
We fell into silence again. I slowly slid my legs off the bed, eyes on Evelyn’s phone. “I’m going to call Twil. You don’t even have to invite her into bed, just stay up for an hour or two watching anime together. What’s that one with the magical girls who get married at the end? Show her that one. Maybe she’ll get the message.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes and huffed. She couldn’t look at me, only down at her lap.
“Carcosa tomorrow,” she muttered, then: “Do it.”
So I got up, and called Twil.
At least somebody would have a nice night before we visited the library beyond reality.