Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight, the imitation in yellow, drew her hood over her head and stopped being me.
Another stage trick. The hood hid her imitation of my face behind soft yellow ripples like wind across water, then she straightened up as if she had been bowing, and my face inside the hood was gone, replaced by the pale mask with empty eye-holes. A bottomless depth stared back at Raine and I. A hole in the world, fringed in yellow.
I expected her to vanish, to wink out of reality or spin into nothingness with a glint of sunlight on brass and a hint of chlorine gas. She’d made her intention clear, however mangled by the need to express it through my borrowed mouth; the ‘play’ would resume until I learnt the appropriate lesson. The only force capable of compelling her otherwise lay inside my own head, in hyperdimensional mathematics and heart-sick pain, and I suffered too much of the latter right then to rally the former.
But Seven-Shades stood there, silent and rippling and beyond human communication.
Like a friend who goes to the doorway to leave, then lingers to talk further.
Nasty little prima donna.
Seven-Shades had also given up imitating my height, and my head swam with an impossible paradox; I regarded the mask with my neck unbent, but the Yellow Robes seemed so tall that surely they brushed the ceiling. Without the softening appendage of a copied human head, the Yellow Thing was all Thing, a grease stain smeared upon the surface of reality, rotten fabric slithering across dead flesh, bile running from between slack lips. I was staring into the vastness of a yellow gas giant, from orbit, turning slowly in the void.
“What you waiting for, you lanky streak o’ piss?” said Raine.
At the edge of my perception, I felt her tense up, saw the matte-black flicker of her knife.
Without my face in the way, Raine was ready to give violence a chance.
I made an incoherent noise at her over my shoulder that may have been a hiss and may have contained her name, and which definitely meant, ‘I have already told you not to stab this thing, do not make me say so again’.
“She said she won’t hurt me,” Raine purred, voice low and focused. “Why not give it a go?” And I knew from experience that she was a hair-trigger touch away from going at Seven-Shades with her knife.
“Because I don’t know why she hasn’t left,” I hissed back. “And how are you not freaking out at this?”
In the corner of my eye, Raine shrugged.
I almost couldn’t deal with Seven-Shades, not like this, not without my face, not when she’d robbed me of the clarity in anger. Weird pneuma-somatic life was one thing – bizarre animal amalgamations and slime-dripping proboscises and be-tentacled woodland giants striding across the landscape, they were old hat, especially since Tenny. Almost old friends. But Seven-Shades was a level of unnatural that made my ape-brain cringe away as if from a visible sickness.
The abyssal thing in me did not care; it saw an equal. I gripped that as hard as I could.
“Well?” I demanded of Seven-Shades, trying to rouse my temper again through all the dysphoric misery. “I thought you were going to resume the play? Going to conjure up another way of mocking my need for the abyss? You’re not human, you never were human, you’re not even pretending to be human, how can you understand that pain? You-” I almost choked up. “You get to be whatever and whoever you want. Get out. Leave me alone.”
Slowly, with all the solemnity of an executioner with axe in hand, Seven-Shades turned her head, her mask, her hood, to look at Raine.
And with a quick gesture from those pallid hands, she performed her miracle a second time. Seven-Shades dipped her head, lowered her hood, and shot us both a beaming grin.
My heart fluttered in my chest, same as when the real Raine grinned at me like that. Confident and toothy, bright and irresistible, her total attention and a promise of more. The smile which pressed me up against a wall and made me forget the world existed beyond my own body, the smile which told me everything was going to be okay because Raine would take care of it, that I deserved affection and care and love, the smile which had peeled me out of a dirty toilet cubicle last year and bid me to live again.
Stolen. With Raine’s warm brown eyes and Raine’s short chestnut hair and Raine’s fine cheekbones.
The real Raine had gone very still.
“I … I thought you said-” I struggled. “ … no loved ones … ”
“Ahhhh, well, about that, yeah.” Seven-Shades shot me a wink, Raine’s wink. “But this ain’t for you, Heather. I’m thinking about a parallel production, if you know what I mean. You’re not the only one who needs to be down for a three-way. Somebody else needs a play too.”
Next to me, Raine adjusted her footing, every muscle coiling like a spring.
“Raine,” I hissed at her. “Don’t-”
“But for you, Raine?” Seven-Shades told her, with that familiar confident grin. “Just existing? Hoooo, that’s already a play and a half every day, ain’t-”
Raine lunged, knife out for the kill.
A couple of months previously, Raine had attempted to explain to me the basics of knife fighting, with the assistance of some youtube videos presented by men who seemed like the greatest physical threats they’d ever face were heart disease and hypertension, not blades in the dark. I didn’t retain much except for her enthusiasm – and the rather enjoyable sight of her stripped down to tank-top and shorts to demonstrate ‘footwork’, which gave me lots of excuses to stare at her toned abs. All the stuff about forty-five degree angles and repeated drills and proper grips went over my head. I did care, but only because she cared, and because it was something she was good at and enjoyed.
But a few of the most basic of basics had lodged in my memory, if only because they ran so counter to what one saw in television and movies – how ninety-nine percent of real knife fights end up on the floor within seconds, that avoiding or retreating was always superior to actual combat, how you should keep your body behind your knife, and the core importance of self-control.
Raine went for Seven-Shades because she lost her temper, and the basics went out the window.
Two steps to close the distance, fast enough to make me flinch and stumble back. Knife twisting, arm positioning for a gut-stab. I watched in open-mouthed horror as the blow landed, as Raine drove her knife into where Seven-Shades’ stomach should be, as black steel parted layers of yellow cloth like rancid butter and Raine ripped the knife sideways, tore open a great rent in the yellow robes. Her elbow shot back again and she rammed the knife home a second time, slashed across Seven-Shades’ chest, caught the dangling edges of one sleeve. She stabbed and tore and cut, left ragged tatters trailing in otherworldly wind.
It was like assaulting the ocean; beneath each layer of slashed yellow cloth was just more yellow, more ripples, more infinity. I had warned her.
Raine seemed to sense that her fury was spent in vain. She span the knife into a backhand grip and reared up to stab Seven-Shades in the face or throat or through an eye. Her face, her throat, her eye, a mirror staring back at her.
She couldn’t do it, couldn’t bring the knife down.
“Had enough? Sure you want Heather to see this?” Seven-Shades sighed with an indulgent grin, a knowing grin, Raine’s grin.
“Raine, stop,” I hissed. “It’s pointless.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” Seven-Shades said in Raine’s voice, easy and accepting, the very same acceptance Raine gifted to me so often. “Get it all out if you need to. Better than beating yourself up, yeah? Oh, heh, oops.” Her grin turned cheeky.
Knife held in out front like a quivering shield, Raine retreated two unsteady steps and bumped into the table, heaving rough breaths through her nostrils, eyes wide and overwhelmed. Her attack had shredded the robes at Seven-Shades’ belly and chest. Great flaps of yellow fabric hung down, strips dangling askew, loose threads stirred by invisible breeze. I half-expected the rippling ocean to close over the bloodless wounds, for the garment to re-knit itself, but it just lay naked, cratered and torn.
Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight didn’t seem to mind.
“Not like you can actually make me bleed,” she told Raine. “’Cos hey, I’m not a real person.”
“I’m real,” Raine said.
And I’d never heard her so angry. So thin and cold.
“You are!” Seven-Shades agreed, with all of Raine’s confidence behind her words. “You are, Raine, that’s the point. But you know what I think? You need a full-blown production to tear down all that messy shit and prove it to your subconscious, so why don’t we-”
“I said no more tormenting my friends!” I snapped, and lost my temper far worse than Raine would ever be capable of.
Temptation had almost overwhelmed respect – temptation to allow Seven-Shades to keep talking. But in the end, I loved Raine more than that.
Was this what lay beneath Raine’s deflection? Was this a glimpse into her worst fears, as the cruel play and Seven-Shades’ authorial exposition had been for me? And I was so hungry to see beneath Raine’s surface, to understand what bizarre value system had provoked the only explanation I’d gotten that had even come close, her words that still rattled around in my head every night as we lay cuddled up in bed together, that reminded me I knew vanishingly little about this woman who I was deeply, insanely in love with – “I do not wish to be surplus to your requirements.”
But whatever else this was, it was violation. If I had a choice between Raine keeping her secrets forever, or having to watch me stand by as she was filleted and dissected, there was no choice.
Seven-Shades laughed Raine’s good-natured laugh at my anger. “Heather, come off it, you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few legs, ‘n you know well as I that she’ll never-”
Words were dangerous and blades did nothing, but I needed neither to give Seven-Shades a ‘rough old time of it’.
Later, after I’d recovered and had time to think, I suspected that was the only thing I did that surprised her. My threat to unravel her, her appearance before us, her wearing of our faces, even our retreat to the Medieval Metaphysics room in the first place, all of it had been predicted – or stage-managed. We had been directed across the stage to produce a specific effect in our own hearts, all for the sake of drama. Whatever Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was beneath the masks and the yellow ocean, she did understand human beings and how to manipulate them.
But whatever descent she might claim, she did not understand the abyss.
We didn’t actually fight, so I don’t know if I would have won. I doubt it, in retrospect; Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was older than me, purer, more in control, not a clumsy half-made thing with a foot in both words, but a true amalgam. But I do like to think I could have given her a good slapping. Perhaps I’m just ‘tooting my own horn’, as Evelyn might say.
But as soon as I made the threat concrete, Seven-Shades made herself scarce, which implied she hadn’t seen this coming.
She ducked her copied head so fast she didn’t even have time for a final word. She drew that hood up with sheer force of motion, and simply stepped sideways, out of my path, away from my anger, and vanished. Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight slipped far further backstage than Raine or I could follow, even in my current state. She left us standing alone and shivering in the muted light cast through the blanket-curtains of the Medieval Metaphysics room.
And I felt great.
It took me several full minutes to come back from what I had done to myself to scare her off. By the time I finally made human response to human stimulus, Raine was frantic with worry.
I’d sprouted my full compliment of pneuma-somatic tentacles, built them in visualisation and imagination, anchored them to the deep tissues inside my torso, hooked them to supporting muscle and wrapped their roots snug around my spine and hipbones, made them real with a wrist-flick of hyperdimensional mathematics, and unfurled them to encircle Seven-Shades with a shiver of delicious physical euphoria. Perhaps where a knife had failed, pneuma-somatic flesh might peel back the yellow layers, aided by brainmath I was on the verge of preparing.
But the abyssal euphoria – the sweet relief of being a touch closer to what lay trapped inside my wet meat – triggered a deeper layer of recognition between myself and the Yellow Interloper. We were alike. And just as I had not really possessed tentacles and fins and gills in the abyss, just as these things were mere approximations reduced to human senses, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was not rippling yellow fabric.
So as my tentacles had whipped out to surround Seven-Shades and she had begun the motion of stepping sideways, I had attempted to see her.
I tried to see and hear and smell as I had in the abyss.
Another trick of hyperdimensional mathematics, performed without even thinking about it, let alone pausing to consider the implications. A simple switch from one to zero, from meat-senses of pressure and heat and reflected light, to a sensory suite that I did not even possess in this ape body, indigestible by the soft grey fatty blob inside my fragile bird-egg skull. The wrong input flared like lightning across my brain in random arcs of nonsense.
But I had another mind, another processor.
The abyssal thing in me, it saw. It – me, I? – saw with all the glorious simplicity I had possessed in the abyss.
I saw Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight step sideways, into a fold in reality, the million frills of her trailing skirts an ostentatious display of power and style – yes, style, seen through abyssal senses. Style had not existed out there in the oceanic dark, where there was no role for anything but survival and camouflage and utilitarian phenotype. But here, or Outside, what wonders could flourish, when built from abyssal principles?
Canary-soft frills and lemon-sharp grace and butterscotch flesh – or at least, something akin to flesh.
There was no face, no hands, no humanity at all, nothing that would be rendered such in human senses.
But just for a second, as she slipped away, seen through abyssal eyes and without her masks, Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was the kind of inhuman beauty upon which religions are founded.
I was not sad to see her leave though; she had tried to hurt my mate. That mattered more, to both ape and abyss. She left, and calm settled, and for a long, quiet moment I just felt, because for the first time in quite a while I felt good to be me.
According to Raine, what I actually did was have some kind of fit.
Twitching, spluttering, eyes rolling back, suffering one nasty nosebleed. She rammed her knife into the table, point-down, and caught me as I flailed at random, making weird little hissing and burbling noises in my throat.
I do have vague memories of some indistinct ape nonsense going on at the time, a mouth close to me pushing out gasses and flapping meat against meat, but I was too absorbed in seeing the structural truth beneath the world, the clarity and precision in the dance of photon and electron, the stacked beauty in the core of every atom, the mathematical structure that describes reality itself. Here was the very substrate I manipulated with hyperdimensional mathematics, and it was, to abyssal senses, as lovely as a sunrise.
At one point I apparently stopped breathing for a full thirty seconds; Raine was on the verge of administering CPR and calling an ambulance.
I came back when my body’s energy ran out and my tentacles collapsed back into ash. Pain lanced deep into both flanks, then inside my torso in a web of bruising, scraping red-hot pokers, leaving behind nerve-compression tingles and a throbbing bone-ache. A flash of cold sweat passed over every inch of my skin, and my stomach opened like a black pit in the centre of my being. By that time, Raine had set me down in one of the armchairs, which was lucky because otherwise I would have fallen over.
The first thing I did as I crashed back into my body was curl up and groan like I had the world’s worst stomach ache. Which I kind of did.
“Heather! Heather, hey, hey, say something, hey?” Raine’s hands were all over me as she squatted in front of the chair, squeezing my arms and trying to get me to respond. “Heather, come on, say-”
“Back again,” I managed, then groaned a second time. “Ow.”
“Hey, hey, you’re alright,” Raine laughed with relief. “Where’s the pain, is it serious? Are you bleeding? Heather, I need you to concentrate, tell me where it hurts. Listen to my voice: where does it hurt?”
I managed to shake my head like a sleepwalker as the tears started, as the awful dysphoria of loss crept over me like a wave of freezing horror at the wrongness of my own body. “The-” I heaved for a breath. “ … the usual. S-sorry. Tentacles, and … shouldn’t have, no, I know-”
“Heather, okay, shut up,” Raine said, strict but not harsh, and took my face in both hands to raise my eyes. “Shut up and look at me.”
I did as I was told. Raine raised my face and looked into my eyes, her hands so warm against my clammy flesh. She smoothed my hair back from my sweat-soaked forehead and used a tissue to wipe the messy nosebleed off my face. She watched me carefully for so long that if I’d been less wiped out I would have been blushing with self-consciousness.
“Mmmm?” I grumbled.
“Making sure you’re all here,” she said with a smile. “Now, where does it hurt?”
“If you’ve got internal bleeding, I need to get you out of here right now, nothing else matters. Piss-robes can harass us in the hospital for all I care. Heather, where does-”
“No,” I said, and tried to force air into my shuddering lungs. “Pain is … uh, normal. I can make tentacles without ripping myself apart. That’s not … not what took … I rewired my senses,” I admitted. “Um, I didn’t know I could do that. Saw Seven-Shades for real.”
“Oh yeah?” Raine asked. “And there’s no burning pain, no stabbing pain, nothing like that?”
I shook my head.
She stared into my eyes again, felt my forehead with one hand, pressed two fingers to my throat to check my pulse. “Mmm. You seem alright. I think.”
“You’re so beautiful,” I said, and took a long moment to realise that I’d said it.
Raine’s eyebrows shot up and her mouth curled with amusement, but I meant what I’d said – though perhaps not in the way she took it. My sensory processing had changed. I still suffered that lingering abyssal difficulty in recognising what she was. Seeing past the flapping meat and the jumble of ape parts took a twinge of conscious effort, but even without full recognition, she was beautiful on some mechanical, mathematical level. I’d cut a square peg to fit a round hole, made my parts join differently.
“’Course I am,” Raine said. “I’m your girlfriend, aren’t I? Only the best.”
Then I blushed. “Uh- I mean- it- I can’t-”
She laughed. I would have laughed too if it didn’t make my lungs ache, but it still helped.
“She’s gone, right?” Raine asked, glancing around as I took difficult sips of water from the bottle she handed me.
“Piss-robes.” Raine shot me a grin. “Whatever you did, it got her to bugger off right sharpish. Well done. And thanks, by the way. I was kinda losing my shit there.”
“ … mmm, are you … are you okay, Raine?”
“Yeah.” She shrugged and straighted up, still watching my eyes with close attention. “Listen, I gotta call Evee, let her know what’s happened. Maybe she can bring Lozzie to campus, get her up here to take a look at you.”
“I can walk, just … just give me fifteen minutes.”
“Uh-uh, no way. You are not walking all the way home until I’m certain it’s safe. I’d carry you, but I’m not sure if I should even move you yet. Just hold up for now, Heather, okay? Wait right there.”
I took another long sip of water as Raine gingerly left my side, but I was pouring liquid down a borehole. Sustaining pneuma-somatic tentacles for four or five full minutes had drained me to empty, as if I’d run three marathons back-to-back. Low blood sugar cursed me with fragile shaking. If Zheng had presented me with a live squirrel right then, I would have happily eaten it, bones and all.
Raine pulled her knife out of the table and slid it away inside her jacket, then crossed the cosy little space of the Medieval Metaphysics room to scoop her phone off the floor where she’d dropped it earlier.
“Hey, no cracks in the screen,” she said. “Minor miracle there.”
“I need food,” I murmured. “I-I’m gonna- mm-” I made a good-faith effort to stand up, but that wasn’t happening. My head swam. “Oh. Okay then.”
“Woah, Heather, woah, take it easy.” Raine crossed back to the chair. “Doctor’s orders, okay? You go bumping around you might tear something. Here, let’s see, see if I’ve got anything.” She gave her leather jacket a quick pat down, then rummaged through the inside pockets, the ones where she kept dangerous things and dark secrets. “Aha, here we go.” She produced a rather battered looking fruit and nut chocolate bar. The wrapper was intact but it looked like it had been in that pocket since before we’d met.
I snatched it when offered, tore the wrapper open, and shoved it into my face.
While I embarrassed myself with the table manners of a starving pig, Raine rubbed my shoulder with one hand and called Evelyn with the other. I didn’t hear much of the conversation, I was too busy chewing – physically, then mentally once the chocolate bar was all gone and I was washing it down with more water – but I gathered that Evelyn was none too pleased. Raine was not allowed to finish a single whole sentence other than “Hey, Evee, it’s me”, and Evelyn hung up first.
Raine lowered the phone and shot me an ironic grin. “Cavalry’s on its way. We’re to stay put and you’re not to move, or Evee’ll use my intestines for bunting.”
I nodded. “Lozzie too?”
“Uhhh, yeah,” Raine said, glancing down at the phone. “I think that’s what some of the shouting was about. Doctor Lozzie is making a house call, to check you haven’t torn your stitches.”
“First time for her, visiting campus,” I croaked.
“Hey, don’t worry about that. Evee’s nothing if not incredibly paranoid, Lozzie’ll be safe on the way here. Probably make her hold Praem’s hand the whole way.”
Raine gave my shoulder another reassuring squeeze, then left me again to perform a check of the room. Rather pointless gesture, I thought, considering our uninvited guest could come and go as she pleased, doors be damned, but maybe Raine found the process comforting. She double-checked the door was locked, gave the old racking a once-over, and then peeled back the edge of the blanket curtains to peer out into the thin spring sunlight across the university campus.
I watched her, with both admiration and wonder.
“How are you not freaking out?” I croaked.
“Ah?” Raine tucked the blanket curtain back into place.
“At everything that just happened, I mean.”
Raine shot me a grin and shrugged. “S’what I do. Evee asked me the same question once, long time ago now. Couldn’t give her a good answer either. Guess I just have strong foundations.”
I cleared my throat, the iron tang of nosebleed still in my mouth. I gathered what little scraps of energy remained to me; no better time than the present. We were stuck here without distractions, until the others arrived to make sure I hadn’t done myself an internal injury.
“Raine,” I croaked. “What was that all about?”
“Ahhh?” Raine raised her eyebrows. “Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight? Cute enough name, sure, but she’s no genius play director, just a drama hound. Whatever she showed you back in the lecture hall, don’t take it to heart. All the stuff she said in here too, who knows? More like Seven-Shades-of-Shit-Stirring, am I right?”
“No, I mean … I … ”
“Hey, you think she’ll try this with Zheng too? Imagine how bad that’ll go. Hoooo.”
“No, Raine. I mean, what was the doll of you about? What did it mean? What did any of that mean?”
Raine’s grin didn’t die; there was no horrifying repeat of her hard stop last week, but her little sigh, the way she wet her lips, the way the paused was enough to send a tremor of fear up my spine. She doubted her own answer.
“You are real, right?” I asked. My voice shook in a way I had not intended.
“Heather? Woah, hey, what? ‘Course I’m real, what-”
“Seven-Shades said it. One of my worst fears,” the words spilled out, shaky and difficult. “About you, about Evelyn, when we first got together- no, before that, when we first met. That you were too good to be true, everything I wanted and needed. I was afraid that I was locked in a padded room back in Cygnet children’s hospital, my veins pumped full of drugs, and both of you were just a fantasy, a hallucination. But I know that’s not true, I know I’m not mentally ill, at least not in that one specific way. I’m not schizophrenic. But … but Raine, whatever you are, I accept you. Okay? Whatever that meant, I accept whatever you are.”
Raine stared at me for a heartbeat too long, then allowed a mischievous grin to creep onto her face.
“Raine? Raine, I’m being serious!”
“Hey, so am I. Accepting me? Well.” She did this big theatrical tut and shrugged her shoulders, wandering back to me and perching on the arm of one of the other chairs. “That might be extra difficult, Heather.” She leaned in closer and closer as she spoke, eyes boring into mine, a grin playing across her lips, exuding all the animal pressure and confident self-assurance that made me melt at her touch. I felt myself shiver, and not in a bad way.
“Because I’m the worst, nastiest creature you can possibly imagine,” she murmured, voice dropping. “A nightmare from the depths, a shadow from a million years ago, the most bloodthirsty horror to ever walk this earth.”
She leaned in all the way, until she filled my vision from horizon to horizon.
“A human being,” she whispered.
I huffed hard enough to give myself a sore throat, shuddering with relief and exasperation in equal measure, and narrowly resisted the urge to belt Raine in the face when she burst out laughing.
“Oh, that is such a ridiculous cliche!” I said. “There are much worse things than human beings. I should know!”
“Yeah,” Raine said through the laughter. “But you get my point.”
“Raine. Raine, really. You almost had me going for a moment there, you terrified me.”
“Uh huh.” Raine’s eyes twinkled as she dialled down her chuckle. “You love it though.”
“I … well … I-” I blushed and frowned.
“See it as payback,” she said. “Normally I’d be a bit miffed at having to reassure a lover that yes, I’m real. I’ve had you all over my face a triple-digit number of times, Heather, and yeah, those orgasms were not the work of your own hands, I really am that good.”
“Raine,” I huffed, blushing rather harder than before. “You’re doing that thing again.”
“That thing you like?”
“That thing where you use sex to deflect a difficult question. It works because I like it, but … please?”
“Ahhhh,” went Raine, and to my incredible relief she neither froze up nor found a different way to deflect my actual point. “No worries. I am real, I am a human being, and I am really here. Where to begin? Well, first, I was born at a very young age.” She cracked another grin, then held up a hand before I could tut. “No, seriously. I’m a regular human being. I wasn’t put together in Evelyn’s old cellar, I’m not a demon-host, or a ghost, or a zombie, or anything along those lines. I’ve never lied to you about where I came from, or what I am. Human, all the ugly bits included. Promise.”
I’d become quite adept at telling when Raine was deflecting, and how far the deflection went. This was the truth, but it answered nothing.
“So what did the doll of you mean?” I asked. “You said ‘ow’, that was pain, I couldn’t ignore it, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t see. It made me feel really bad for you too, Raine.”
Raine began to shrug, but then she caught the look in my eyes, the hard-squint of curiosity, beneath even the shuddering, hungry exhaustion and the throbbing ache down my flanks and inside my bones. She stopped and had the good sense to look sheepish for a moment, then actually took the time to think about her answer. I respected her for that. She was trying.
“You can tell me anything, Raine. You do know that, right? Even when I’m like this.”
She let out a sigh, accompanied by a knowing smile. “Yeah. Yeah, ‘course I can.”
‘I can’ did not mean ‘I will’.
“Seven-Shades showed me literally one of my worst fears,” I went first, blinked first. “That trying to rescue Maisie is going to get all my friends killed, that I’m using you all, for my own ends, one that’s not even going to work. She knew that about me, knew how to hurt me, in here.” I tapped my chest with two fingers, over my heart, then had to lower my hand because my arm felt like it was going to fall off; the calories from a single chocolate bar had only gone so far. “She hurt you the same, even more with the things she said to you.”
“It was an ugly mockery of me,” Raine said, a little too fast. “That hurt, yeah, you’re right, it did.”
“ … and that’s all?”
“Have you heard of impostor syndrome, Heather?”
“Um, a little bit.”
“I get it sometimes, you know?” She grinned for me again, all beaming confidence, not the shaking, furious Raine who had lost control of herself and gone berserk at Seven-Shades. “Fake it ‘till you make it and all that, and no matter how good you are at something, sometimes you still feel like a bit of a fake, and you’re just waiting for everyone to discover, and then they’ll think less of you. ‘Course I know it’s nonsense, up in my noggin’. I’m the best at what I do. No worries, just an ugly old thought she shoved in my face.”
Now that, that was a tower-shield of deflection, a nuclear-disaster sarcophagus of compartmentalisation. It wasn’t a lie – Raine wasn’t lying to me, she hadn’t done so in months. I suspect that on some level I had rendered her incapable of lying to me. But Seven-Shades had made her angrier than I’d ever seen her, made her lose control, and this explanation did not make sense.
But I was exhausted, I was fragile beyond words. At that precise moment I would have gladly traded all Raine’s secrets for a roast chicken.
All I could think of was, “Why did you lose your temper with her then?”
Raine grinned, puzzled. “My temper?”
“I did see, Raine,” I grumbled, not even trying. I sighed, ready to slump back, preparing a surrender on my lips; if she didn’t want to talk about it, she only had to say. I would respect that, if that’s what she needed.
But to my horror, it almost worked.
“My life is not a play,” she said, with a shadow of that same anger.
She didn’t direct that anger at me, but off to the side, as if talking to herself. Pure instinct bid me rise from the chair again, to go to her, but my sides screamed with pain and my lungs quivered and I only managed to shuffle forward an inch.
“ … R-Raine? I-”
“What I am is not a play, not a game, not false. I’m real. Everything I’ve made of myself is real. I count, I matter.”
She frowned to herself, harsh and punishing in a way I’d never seen before.
“You do. Oh, Raine,” I said. “You matter, of course you do. What is this? Raine, where is this coming from?”
She looked up at me and a rueful smile returned to her face, natural and unforced. She shrugged. “When your formative experience is homelessness, it … does things to you.”
“Oh. Oh, Raine, I never … I never thought about … ”
I trailed off in private horror. I could tell when Raine was lying, when she was deflecting, and I like to think I had learned to tell when she believed what she said.
She’d just managed to do all three at once.
I had no idea what I was looking at.
“Hey, was that there before?” she asked, and snapped me out of it.
“Raine, don’t change the subject,” I said. “I … I know you were homeless as a teenager, and it makes my heart ache to think of you like-”
“Heather, hold up,” Raine repeated, harder, in serious mode again, fingers raised to stall my sympathy. She got up from the arm of the chair and took a step around the table, her eyes fixed at a spot on the floor. “Seriously, was that there before?”
I had to lean to the right to see what she was indicating. The movement sent a quiver of bruised pain down my flank.
A strip of torn yellow cloth.
It no longer rippled like an ocean seen from miles up, but lay on the scratchy old carpet like a dead slug, a shrivelled scrap of dried flesh, looking as if it might crumble away to nothing when touched.
“Oh,” I breathed. “When you … Raine, when you cut Seven-Shades … ”
“Yeah,” Raine agreed. She slid her knife from her jacket and squatted down in front of the piece of fabric. “Maybe from her sleeve, you think?” She went to poke it with the tip of her knife.
“Don’t touch it!” I hissed.
“Said she wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Yes, but that’s not Seven-Shades, that’s a part of her … her body, I suppose.” I shivered as I recalled what I’d seen behind the veil of human senses, and not in disgust. “Do not touch it, Raine. It could be dangerous. Wait for Evee to get here.”
“Right you are then, boss.” Raine stood up, put her knife away, and stepped carefully back from the Outsider material. “Evee’ll know what to do.”
I sighed heavily, a lump growing in my throat. “Actually I don’t think she will. I don’t think anybody knows what to do with all this. About all this. About what I saw.”
Now I’d gotten some answers from Raine – as piecemeal and confusing as they’d been – the weight of Seven-Shades’ prediction settled on my shoulders once more. Evelyn would get here soon, maybe in the next ten minutes, and I’d have to tell her.
“I have to tell her everything,” I said out loud, staring down at my hands limp in my lap. “I have to tell everyone, all of it. That I’m going to be the death of them if they keep following me. The death of you. Everyone has to know, I can’t do this to Lozzie either, or Zheng, or any-”
“Tell me first, then.”
Raine’s tone almost made me sob. She sat down in the nearest armchair, reached over to take my hand in hers, and took me completely seriously. If she hadn’t been there, I think I would have curled up in a ball.
And I am an idiot, because that was all it took for me to accept any amount of deflecting she’d done earlier.
“Tell me about the play again,” she said. “Before, you were rushing, tripping over your own words. I got the jist of it, but gimme the details. However grisly. Come on, I can take it. Take anything for you.”
So I did. While we waited for Evelyn and Lozzie to turn up to ensure I hadn’t torn another hole in my lungs or my guts, I told Raine exactly what I’d seen on stage, and why it mattered.
“And I’m too weak,” I sniffed. “You- you’re so devoted, but I can’t ask for that when I don’t even have a plan.”
“Last I checked, you had a pretty rad’ plan.”
I shook my head. “Looking for books to make us invisible to the Eye? What’s the point? Seven-Shades, oh blast, whatever she is, she was right. I can’t ever fight the Eye. It’s like planning to fight … I don’t know, the sun. A black hole. What does ‘fight’ even mean in that context?” I shrugged, wanted to cry but couldn’t, too exhausted from summoning my tentacles. “I don’t understand what Seven-Shades meant. What else can I do with brainmath? Even tiny things make me bleed from my face like a stuck pig.”
“You can give yourself tentacles. That’s working.”
I managed a weak smile. “And? Growing tentacles is like Evelyn’s artificial leg. It works, functions, but it’ll never be real.”
“They looked pretty real to me, that one time I saw ‘em,” Raine said. She cracked a grin. “Pretty cool, too.”
“Thank you. Thank you, Raine. But they’re not real. They’re only an approximation. And look, how would they even help? I could no more defeat the Eye with a few tentacles than I can in this.” I gestured at my own body, and suddenly felt weird phrasing it that way. Alienated from my own flesh.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Raine was peering at me in an odd way, with a twinkle in her eyes. “Didn’t you just tell me you rewired your senses? That’s new.”
I shrugged. “Suppose so. It was … it was beautiful. It was. And Seven-Shades was … was so … ” I began to choke up. It had been beautiful, to see like that, my place in reality had made more sense.
But next to Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight I was a mewling, crippled thing, dredged from the depths and asphyxiating on the shore.
“Hey, have I gotta be jealous of her too?” Raine cracked a cheesy grin.
“No, oh don’t be silly.” I sniffed hard, managed a tiny laugh. That was better. “Rewiring my senses was nice, but it gave me a fit. If you hadn’t been here I would have brained myself. What’s the point, how does that help?”
“You’ve done miracles before, Heather. Everything you do is a miracle. You just have to find the right way.”
I sighed heavily, shaking my head. “Yes, miracles, right. I saved Sarika, that was a miracle, but I had to leave my body to do that. If I go again, I don’t think I’ll come back. That’s what Maisie said.”
“Are you certain Maisie’s right about that?”
“Raine, don’t,” I whispered, urgent and hard. “You can’t say that to me, you can’t tempt me like that. I want to, I want it, but- no, I would- I’d never save her that way. You’d never see me again either, I’d just … I’d go.” I took a huge, shuddering breath. “Why am I even trying? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” I tried to thump the opposite arm of the chair with my fist, but my arms were still shaky and weak with exhaustion. “And I know I’m going to try it anyway. Even if you don’t come with me, even if none of you come with me. I will still go to Wonderland, I will still try.”
“Hey, Heather, I believe in you, I believe you can do this.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t. I don’t know what I’m doing! Raine, you don’t have to dedicate yourself to a lost cause.”
“Evelyn said exactly the same thing to me, once.” Raine shrugged. “Same tone of voice, even. She was a lost cause, nothing left, given up on herself for dead. But she didn’t die. I played a little part, sure, but it was more because she decided to fight.”
I puffed out a humourless laugh. “You make it sound so easy. Like a fairytale. ‘Just have faith’, is that your secret technique, Raine?”
“Grace. Friendship. Solidarity,” Raine echoed Seven-Shades’ words. “Those seemed like pretty clear clues to me.”
“Oh Raine, it’s not a riddle, it’s never that simple, reality is never that simple.”
“Maybe it is? Hey, look at it this way.” Raine stretched out her legs and reached up to rub the back of my neck. Despite everything, I felt my eyelids flutter shut, felt a purr rising in my throat as her fingers kneaded me. “To the people who built the first aircraft, or the first combustion engine – or hey, first nuclear bomb, there’s something to toss at the Eye – those were riddles, right? So maybe Seven-Shades-of-Sucking-Shit was onto something, though she could be less of a catty bitch about telling you. A way to beat the Eye, to keep it on the ropes for just long enough to rescue your sister, how is that any different?”
“ … because magic isn’t a science,” I murmured. “Evee taught me that.”
“Maybe not for mages. But for you? Who’s to say you can’t do actual theory?”
I blinked several times and pulled away from Raine’s hand, which was a testament to how mad the idea sounded.
“I can barely read my own notebooks on hyperdimensional mathematics without being violently sick,” I said. “How am I supposed to do theory?”
“Rewire your senses?”
I stared at her for a long moment, then at the floor, then at my hands.
“I mean, it’s just a suggestion,” she went on. “I’m spit-balling, throwing stuff at the wall until Seven-Shades pops back up and I can tell her to shove herself up her own arse. You’ve got a problem, and I’ll do everything in my power to feed you ideas to help solve it. Hell, if I could read the notebooks for you, I would. I will be your eyes, Heather, I will be your hands, if I can.”
I looked back up at her. “You really mean that, don’t you?”
“Well then … my hands, you may resume rubbing the back of my neck, please, while I think about how to rewire my senses without either giving myself a seizure, or giving Evelyn cause to have us both tied up.”
“Anything for you,” Raine purred.