Our tripartite hug collapsed in body – though not in spirit – when home blossomed around us. The magical workshop, full of familiar clutter; rain drumming on the roof; the distant creak of the pipes struggling to heat the iron radiators. A wet Saturday afternoon, in grim old Sharrowford, had rarely felt so welcome.
I fell over and vomited on the floor. Very dignified.
Deep in the conspiracy between nervous system and subconscious, I had planned to leap into action. To whirl away from Evelyn and Praem, to call out for Raine, to locate where Zheng had stashed Amy Stack, to check on Lozzie, to see if Twil had arrived, to make sure we weren’t currently under siege by Edward Lilburne in this moment of weakness. To know everyone I loved was alive and in one piece – or on their way to the hospital, or on their way here, or just plain here.
Wasn’t quite sure. All I knew was Raine was hurt, and somebody needed to take charge.
But I’d bruised my grey matter with brainmath twice in under half an hour. I’d spent the time between those uses pumped to the gills with adrenaline, and then torn through the membrane between Outside and home – the mental equivalent of using my forehead as a battering ram. Staggering to the kitchen and dunking my head in the sink would have been a challenge. Rallying the troops was akin to a moon landing in a hot air balloon.
If I’d clung hard to Evelyn and Praem I probably could have sunk to my knees and rolled onto my back, but no, I took a single wobbling step away, burped out a syllable that didn’t sound remotely like the beginning of Raine’s name, and found myself on an trip to make intimate acquaintance with the ground.
Brought up a mouthful or two of bile, then lay there, cheek on the floorboards.
I blacked out briefly, or merely slipped off into a nap which achieved the opposite of rest. At some point a pair of strong capable hands rolled me into the recovery position. I mumbled a noise which was meant to be ‘thank you Praem’. Consciousness slowly filled back in; eventually my lizard brain and abyssal instinct surrendered the controls back to my frontal lobe, which made me wince and groan and try to sit up.
“Lie still,” Praem said, musical and calm.
“No,” I croaked. “No, thank you.”
Getting my own backside underneath me was an interesting challenge. My phantom limbs didn’t even try to help. My body knew on every possible level, abyssal or ape or amalgam or otherwise, that this was the time to lie very, very still, not leap up and shout and look for more problems. But I got there, legs splayed out in front of me, head hanging, eyelids like lead, because I needed to know where Raine was.
“Heather, for fuck’s sake, lie down,” Evelyn said – but her heart wasn’t in it.
She and Praem were sitting on the floor too. My ground buddies. Floor friends. Floorboard family.
Ah, and there was the delirium. Lovely.
Evelyn had collapsed too, perhaps from the stress of cross-membrane journey, perhaps the aftermath of attempted librarianification, or perhaps just emotional overload. She sat in a shivering heap of coat and overspilling notebooks and dry tears. Her eyes were very red, and her prosthetic leg stuck out at an uncomfortable angle.
Praem knelt in front of her, somehow prim and proper and resplendently dignified in the rags of her ruined uniform, watching Evelyn’s face.
We three mice had scurried back through a bolt-hole in the walls of reality, back to hallways and rooms built for human sizes and human purposes, filled with human objects and human smells. We had escaped the vast spaces beyond, designed for giants and hive-minds and ancient oversexed magicians who were confined to living inside hamster balls.
Evelyn and I looked at each other for a long moment, both exhausted. Little mice, panting and shaking and alive.
“I am a incredible mess,” she said eventually.
“Me too,” I croaked.
Evelyn nodded weakly. Then, by slow degrees, as if she couldn’t bear to do it all in one go – like bandages teased away from puckered flesh, prolonging the pain, dislodging blood clots, wound flowing fresh and clean – she looked to Praem. First at the floor, then at Praem’s small hands on Praem’s neat knees, then up, to meet those milk-white eyes.
“I … I’m not … I can’t be your-” she tried to say.
The doll-demon leaned forward and gently, slowly, with careful fingertips seeking silent consent, eased Evelyn into a hug. Something old and brittle and knotted, like scar tissue, came apart inside Evelyn’s face. Her eyes fluttered shut.
I had to get up.
I had to get up and call for Raine. And locate Zheng and Lozzie and find Twil. And without raising my head I could see droplets of crimson smeared on the floor of the magical workshop. That was Raine, had come from Raine, her blood from her veins, and the house was so quiet, too quiet, not even Tenny bumping around upstairs, and I blinked at a single scarlet-smear boot print just by the half-open door through to the kitchen and-
And I lurched to my feet. Scrabbled for a chair, almost knocked it over, clung on like a shipwrecked sailor. Head swimming, vision pulsing black at the edges, I stared at that bloody boot print. My fault.
“Raine!” I called – shouted, croaked, throat cracked and broken. “Raine-” Then coughed twice, spewing blood into my own hand. My nose was bleeding again.
“If she’s got any sense,” Evelyn said, “she’ll have gotten herself to the hospital.”
“Raine rarely has sense.”
I had a dozen things to say to Evelyn, several of which involved her sex life, and one of which was about parenting. At least one of those things was going to be the couples’ therapy equivalent of repairing a space shuttle with masking tape and craft glue, and this was absolutely not the time for any of that. But before I could stagger away, I had to be certain she was all here, all Evelyn, that we’d not left part of her behind in that library. At least she wasn’t pushing Praem away. Probably a good sign, under the circumstances.
“ … are you … alright?” I croaked.
Hollowed-out, red-rimmed, raw as she was, Evelyn mustered a tiny frown at my stupid question.
“Okay, yes, you’re going to be fine,” I said.
My shout finally summoned attention. Deep in the house, a door clicked open, creaking on rarely-used hinges. Swift feet skidded over floorboards, slammed into the kitchen and knocked over a chair with a clatter on the flagstones. I held my breath and gathered what mental strength I had left, tried to dredge up the right equation to flatten whatever came through that door, or at least pretend I could flatten it, to bluff and stall until Twil arrived. If Twil was arriving. If Lozzie had contacted her at all.
An awful lot of Twil arrived. Teeth bared, panting hard, wild eyes and half-wolf body, Twil yanked the workshop door open, ready to fight monsters. If I’d been a fraction less exhausted, I might have flinched.
“Oh good, there you are,” I wheezed.
She burst into a grin, laughing and panting with relief. “Fuck!”
“Apt word,” I managed.
“Don’t,” Evelyn said to me, a tremor of new panic in her voice.
“I wouldn’t dare,” I said. “That’s between you two. But we’re going to talk about it, later. Everything is going to be okay.”
“What? What’s this?” Twil blinked between the two of us, stepping into the room and dropping her wolf-mist-form with a shiver of her shoulders and a shake of her snout. Her face came back up as angelically pretty, framed by her mass of dark curls, but pale and worried like she’d been crouched in a foxhole under fire for hours. She went for Evelyn without hesitation, took one of Evee’s shoulders and squeezed, though she didn’t try to join the hug on the floor. “Evee! The hell were you doing? Why didn’t you call me to come with you this time?”
Evelyn blinked up at her, blank guilt, cornered.
“You don’t have to do it right now,” I wheezed.
“Evee?” Twil frowned at her. “Everyone said you got like, hypnotised or some shit?” She waved a hand in front of Evelyn’s eyes. “You okay? Evee? Yeah?”
Evelyn’s face hardened into that same tiny, emotionally exhausted frown she’d given me.
To my surprise, Twil neither backed down nor balked nor blushed. She frowned right back and almost snapped in Evelyn’s face. “Okay, stupid fuck-arse question, whatever. You got any bullet holes in you? Wounds we need to bandage? Can you walk? You in there, in one piece? Hey, Praem,” she turned to the doll-demon instead, the other half of the hug. “Is Evee okay? Do I need to call another ambulance or what?”
“She will be perfect,” Praem sung, softly.
“Okay, cool, thank you Praem.” I’d never heard Twil sound so utterly done with a situation. She straightened up and met my eyes, and shrugged with long-suffering exasperation. “You could’a let me know about all this too, Heather.”
“Where’s Raine?” I croaked.
Twil lit up, anger forgotten, as if she’d only just realised I would very much want to know this one small matter. “Oh, shit, yeah. Hospital!”
“Hospital,” I echoed. Cling on tight, Heather.
“Yeah. Lozzie got in the ambulance with her, took her phone too. So she’s not alone, you know? Ambulance peeled out like, ten minutes ago. They’re fast round here, not like out in the sticks.” She pulled a grin. “Don’t worry, Raine’s tough as old nails, right? She was up and moving around, talking clearly, not woozy or anything. Er, moving around too much actually. You know, how Raine is.”
I resisted an entirely appropriate urge to scream. “Twil, please, I need you to be specific.”
Twil’s grin faltered into the whipped-dog grimace she used when trying to put a good face on something bad and dumb. “Uh, well, she … she didn’t wanna go to the hospital. Said you and Evee needed her.”
“Idiot,” Evelyn hissed.
“She was talking like a machine gun – er, bad metaphor,” Twil winced. “Tried to bind up her own thigh with an old towel and go back through the gateway after you. I had to sort of, uh, turn it off to stop her.” She gestured at the gateway mandala on the back wall, inert again, just blank plaster in the doorway. Some of the paper-and-masking-tape parts had been ripped off, and now lay on the floor. “When we finally got her to go, she insisted on walking all the way to the end of the road, so it didn’t look like she’d got shot at home. Said she and Lozzie had to get their story straight.”
“She needs me,” I said, and almost fell over when I tried to step away from the chair, shipwrecked and slipping into deep water. Twil caught me awkwardly under the arms.
“Uh, yeah, Heather, but like, you can’t walk, yeah?”
“Lauren Lilburne should not be out in the streets without protection,” Evelyn grumbled, finally disentangling herself from Praem, who sat back without complaint. Evelyn wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve, still looking fragile as blown glass.
“She’s not. She’s in an ambulance,” Twil said. “And she’s with Raine.”
“Raine will shortly be in an emergency room operating theatre, up to her eyeballs in morphine, with a surgeon rooting around inside her leg.”
“Oh. Ah. Um.”
“I feel sick,” I murmured.
“Let the NHS do their job,” Evelyn said. “Raine is going to be fine. Heather, Raine is going to be fine, I’ve seen her covered in a lot more blood than that.” She let out a little shuddering breath, gave the lie to her own convincing words. “But somebody needs to be with Lozzie. Somebody capable of deterring a kidnapping attempt.”
Twil went wide-eyed. “You think they’re gonna make a move on us?”
Evelyn paused, gaze turned inward, her mind chewing on practical problems; perhaps as a way of avoiding emotional ones. She swallowed and sniffed back the remains of her tears.
“No. No, I don’t think so,” she said eventually. “Edward didn’t plan for any of this, doesn’t know where Lauren is. He’s cautious and careful, and he made a mistake. And he has, in a way, kept his word,” Evelyn grimaced. “He may be expecting us to strike at him. Maybe. But no good strategic thinker leaves an opportunity ungrasped, unless he thinks it’s a trap. And he may have other ways of determining where his niece is. Better safe than sorry. Somebody needs to be with Lauren.”
“I,” Praem intoned.
“No, you don’t leave my side,” Evelyn said, a soft crack in her voice.
“I have to- I need- at least call Lozzie-” I stammered as Twil propped me up against the edge of the table and stepped back, hands out, like she was balancing a piece of wood. I think she was worried I might vomit on her. “Where’s-”
“Zheng’s in the basement, with Stack,” Twil told me, face hardening. “We tied her up, proper tight like. Actual rope.”
“Oh. Um. But- Zheng-”
“Yeah, I think Zheng gets that we’re not supposed to like, eat her.” Twil pulled a face. “Kim’s at work. Tenny’s upstairs, apparently asleep, ‘cording to Lozzie. S’just us.”
“Get me the box of strawberries from the fridge.” Evelyn gestured at Twil. “And painkillers, the bottle with the red label on the second shelf in the end cupboard. And water. And chocolate, for Heather. Make her eat it. She needs the serotonin, the quicker the better.” Then she added, awkward and rushed: “Please, Twil.”
“ … right, yeah, sure.” Twil lingered on Evelyn for a moment, then hopped out of the workshop in two quick steps. A second later we heard her rummaging around in the kitchen.
I gripped the table hard, trying to take deep breaths, my knees shaking and head pounding. Where was my mobile phone? Where I’d left it before the trip to Carcosa, on the kitchen table. No point taking it out there beyond reality. I reached for the chair, planning to use it as a large and unwieldy crutch.
“Heather, please do not fall flat on your face and break your nose,” Evelyn said. “The last thing we need right now is more injuries.”
“My girlfriend has been shot,” I croaked at her.
“Twil is bringing you chocolate, and water, and painkillers, and she is going to escort you to the hospital when you can walk, so she can watch Lozzie, and if you go in there with a face covered in blood there are going to be questions, and there are going to be questions anyway, and you need to get your head in order for that and do not make me do this right now,” her voice shook into a panicked crescendo. “Raine has been shot, yes. I cannot- I can’t argue- just do as I say.”
I blinked hard, several times. “You- you don’t have to be in charge, Evee. Not to make light of it, but ten minutes ago you were trying to feed yourself to a giant tentacle. You’re allowed to decompress a bit.”
“I don’t need to ‘decompress’. I need to sleep for a week, and … ”
“Evee, you can’t let Twil take me to the hospital, you need her here, somebody here. Maybe it’s silly, but I’m worried you might try to go back. I-I don’t know how far that effect extended into your mind-”
“Everything is different now,” she told me, voice quivering, and glanced at Praem.
“She will not be alone,” Praem sang.
I had nothing to say to that. Standing in the room when they made eye contact with each other felt like I was an intruder on a private moment. Well, a private moment that had played out in front of hundreds of squid-faced librarians on the other side of the walls of reality.
Twil returned with all of Evelyn’s requests, and I did as I was instructed. I sipped water to soothe my raw throat, wiped blood off my face, chewed chocolate with numb lips, until I could finally taste the cocoa and sugar and milk. My senses woke back up and I felt a little more like a living being, instead of a conduit for heavenly mathematics and adrenaline. Evelyn confirmed that the two books we had liberated from Carcosa were safely stowed away – Lozzie had left them on the workshop table, dumped in panic – and she added Edward Lilburne’s nasty letter to the haul.
My aches and pains and headache stabs slowly stopped being a blanket and became more specific, made worse by the peaks and valleys of the soft argument Evelyn and Twil had decided to begin.
“I’m going to need so much coffee,” I murmured.
“Do as I say,” Evelyn was saying to Twil. “Somebody needs to go with Heather.”
“And what?” Twil spread her arms. “I’m supposed to leave you here with the brick shithouse watching the psycho in the basement?”
“I am here,” Praem intoned.
“I … yeah … I mean, you are … I guess.” Twil frowned at Praem.
“Do not start a rivalry,” I grunted through the headache pain, and past a duet of blushing and stuttering from other sources. “You both love Evelyn in completely different ways. Now either fetch my mobile phone or carry me to it, or I’m going to fall over.”
When Twil finally helped me out of the workshop and into the kitchen, Evelyn was still sitting on the floor with Praem, feeding her strawberries by hand, one by one, until the whole box was gone, and she had only herself left to give.
The kitchen was a much bigger mess than the workshop. As Twil helped me to a chair, I imagined the scene of Raine and the others stumbling in here in panic, bleeding and confused and scared for those they’d left behind. Raine’s homemade riot shield lay on the floor, dumped in a heap with her motorcycle jacket and truncheon and handgun, all smeared with drying blood – A dark and violent version of discarded coats and wellington boots after a walk in the woods. Rain dripped down the kitchen windows, from leaden clouds above.
Amy Stack’s firearm sat on the kitchen table.
Black metal like an alien spacecraft, it dwarfed all mundane clutter, a horrible ugly thing. Reaching for my phone amid the discarded breakfast bowls and debris of pre-expedition prep felt like stealing from a scorpion.
Just beyond the door to the utility room, the little-used cellar door stood wide open, a gaping dark mouth, lit by the thin glow of two naked bulbs from far below. I’d only ever been down there twice. Zheng’s rumbling voice teased the edge of my hearing, like rock shifting beneath the earth.
“Let her know I’m okay, please?” I croaked to Twil.
“She knows. Knew the moment you turned up, which was weird. But she won’t come up here.” Twil shrugged. “She doesn’t trust me to watch Stack alone. As if I’m going to let her get away or some shit.”
I stared at the open basement door, an invitation into darkness and conspiracy, into an interrogation of Amy Stack that I did not want to initiate.
“She’s not going to … hurt … ?” I let that linger.
Twil shrugged and looked profoundly uncomfortable. “In the like, ten minutes I was down there, Stack said nothing that wasn’t trying to like, goad us into losing our temper with her, but it all sucked. Like, I dunno, she doesn’t get how to piss somebody off, not for real.”
I nodded and screwed my eyes up, crammed the headache down. “Later. Just … later. We need to let Raine know about Evee. And me.”
Twil nodded, then slipped down into the basement to make sure Zheng wasn’t eating Stack’s liver. I pulled up my phone’s contact list with shaking fingers, terrified at what might emerge from the speaker as I lifted it to my ear, and waited for somebody to pick up Raine’s phone.
“Heathy!” Lozzie. Breathless and relieved.
“There’s so many doctors and nurses and it’s going to be okay I think but I need to keep hiding but it’s going to be okay they said only twenty minutes it’s not hit anything important but Raine kept trying to get up and she won’t sit still and-”
“And you can’t think of anybody who would want to shoot a gun at her? Maybe even by accident?” the policeman asked me – for the fourth time.
He was running out of new ways to phrase the same question, with his big droopy mouth set below big droopy eyes like a tired basset hound, poised over a tiny notebook he’d produced from the pocket of his stereotypical black overcoat. He kept his voice low and casual as he sat across from Twil and I, in the opposite row of uncomfortable sea-green wipe-clean plastic chairs, in the visitors’ waiting area next to the accident and emergency department in Sharrowford General Hospital.
“No. No, nobody at all. I’m sorry,” I lied again.
He nodded, pulled a face like a pouting dog, and pretended to read his notes.
I took a shuddering breath and wrung my clammy palms together. I briefly considered taking Twil’s hand, but that would have entailed asking her to unfold her arms, which would spoil the wonderfully unstudied grumpiness she had adopted from the moment the police officer had walked over and introduced himself – detective Mark Stuggan. And I did not need to act frightened and fragile to flatter detective Stuggan’s authority. Those emotions were real, they just had nothing to do with him.
Twil and I had stepped off the bus two and a half hours ago, but we still hadn’t seen Raine.
Or Lozzie, which gave rise to an entirely different order of concern.
This visit was nothing like when Raine and I had spoken with Sarika in her hospital bed. Back then, Nicole Webb had waved us through the byzantine layers of medical bureaucracy, soft and jagged alike. Here, we were stuck in an A&E waiting room so close to the panic and blood and beeping machinery. Night had not yet arrived with the split eyebrows and finger bone fractures and drunken fights of a Saturday evening, though the sky beyond the windows had turned inky-dark, held at bay by the too-bright florescent hospital lighting. But the waiting room was busy anyway, with minor injuries and strange stomach complaints and hollow-eyed, silent children with their worried mothers.
We’d had to go up to the desk, ask for Raine, explain who we were, sit around, go to the desk again, sit some more. Time crawled at a second per minute; tedium turned fear into chewed nails. Twil bought crisps and chocolate bars and fizzy drinks from a vending machine, under strict orders from Evelyn to make sure I ate, but my stomach was mounting a very successful insurgency.
I’d called Lozzie instead.
“But where are you?” I’d hissed down the phone at her manic giggle of greeting. “Lozzie, we’re in the waiting room, you need to come join us, it’s not safe for you to be alone-”
“I’m with Raine!” she’d hissed back. “Shhhhh!”
“But Raine’s in surgery, isn’t she? Or- or recovery or-”
“I’m hiding in plain sight because plain sight is the best place not to get asked my name because my name might be on lists and lists are the first thing the pigs will check and they’ll talk to Raine but I’ll make sure they don’t check. Okay? And they’ll talk to you too so I can’t be there.”
Lozzie’s voice whispered off into fairy-dust, as if tugged away on the wind before she hung up.
They didn’t think to tell us Raine was out of surgery, not until Twil went up to the desk a third time. We waited more. My headache got worse. I wanted to stand up and scream. Or go to sleep.
Then detective Mark Stuggan turned up and proved Lozzie right.
He’d ambled up to the front desk and exchanged a few words with the nurse on duty. She’d pointed at us, and over he had wandered. A very tall man, gangly like a tree with an exotic fungal disease, dressed in dark suit and long coat and sensible shoes. May as well have been a uniform.
He’d wanted to ask us some questions. Routine questions. Very serious questions. Small questions. A random drive-by shooting like this, with no motive? The police wanted to trace the firearm, get it off the streets, catch the criminal. Very important. Very serious. We understand, yes? Not under arrest, of course not. We understand. We’d done nothing wrong. Raine had done nothing wrong. But we might know something that would help.
He’d folded himself into the chair, too small for his limbs.
“Somebody presents for treatment with a fresh bullet wound, the hospital quietly lets us know,” he told us through his big droopy smile that was not a smile at all. “Not that this happens much in Sharrowford, but we get some spillover now and again. You wouldn’t believe the number of times somebody takes a bullet on Merseyside or in the Manchester suburbs, and gets driven out here to sleepy Sharrowford because they think they’ll avoid notice.”
“I weren’t there,” Twil had grunted. “Just here as moral support for Heather. S’her girlfriend, you know?”
“Does she go to a lot of parties?” he’d asked, about six different ways.
“Not at all,” I’d told him. “She spends almost all her time with me, or in class.”
He smiled that hangdog smile again. “Don’t worry, I’m not narcotics, I’m not gonna take her down to the station for an ounce of weed. But drugs make people crazy for money. If she was buying stuff at a student party – and hey, we know it happens – then she might have owed somebody money.” He frowned, fatherly in a sleepy sort of way. “She could be in trouble. It’s better we get to that trouble before something worse happens to her.”
“She definitely doesn’t owe anybody money. And she doesn’t take drugs.”
“Mmmm.” He’d made a little note, in his little book. “And who does she hang out with?”
He said it like an afterthought.
“What about ‘Evelyn’?” he asked, faux-casual.
“Evee. That’s the other girl we live with, yes. Evelyn’s practically a hermit and she’s afraid of loud noises, let alone drugs.” Then, because I was tired and frightened and angry and wanted this man to go away, I added, “I know where Raine is all the time, officer. She’s mine. If she was doing things with bad people, I would know. And I wouldn’t let her.”
The detective didn’t even raise an eyebrow at that. He pulled the corner of his mouth up in that droopy not-smile.
“Everybody keeps secrets, miss,” he’d said. “Even from their loved ones.”
“Not Raine,” I lied. “Not from me.”
He knew I was lying, about knowledge of who’d shot Raine and why.
I looked like a wreck, though I’d wiped the blood off my face and fortified my mind with coffee, hastily brewed back home before we’d left for the hospital. Perhaps he could see that my stress and tension was not merely the result of my lover being hospitalised with a serious wound. But the truth would have upended his mind.
He was a lot sharper than he looked. Perhaps the look was intentional, but his face lacked the tell-tale puffiness and broken capillaries of an alcoholic, or the dark eye-bags of a depressed divorcee, or the emptiness of a man going through the motions. He treated us with respect, as adults, didn’t call us ‘you girls’, phrased his questions carefully and intelligently and found a dozen different angles from which to repeat them, and that made him dangerous. He was not entirely different to Carcosa’s squid-faced librarians. A representative of an institutional – rather than literal – group mind, which could process and destroy us as gruesomely as any nightmare cellular machinery from Outside.
I was painfully aware that our home was full of criminal evidence which made no sense – Raine’s own illegal weapons, her bloodstained clothes, and a room full of occult madness. Not to mention a hostage tied up in the basement. And here I was, poorly deflecting a police detective who made a living of appearing to be a stereotype.
“I am sorry to keep pressing you, miss Morell, under the circumstances.” He finally raised his eyes from his notebook. “But any little detail might be important.”
“Frankly, officer, talking to you is at least distracting me from having to think about the fact my girlfriend has been shot in the leg.”
Twil smothered a snort. Not my intention, but I was too exhausted to care.
“Well, how’s about this for a distraction?” He smacked his lips once. “Our ballistics guys have told me they can’t find the bullet.”
He let that statement hang in the crowded waiting room air. Twil shifted, probably looked guilty.
“So? What does that mean?” I asked. No need to fake my total lack of understanding.
“Well.” He scratched his chin. “When I interviewed Raine, she told me she was shot about where the ambulance picked her up. End of Scotswalk street. But-”
My heart caught in my chest, on a net of barbed wire. “You’ve spoken to her?” Is she-”
“Shhh,” he raised a finger and lowered his voice. “I’m not supposed to divulge patient information, that’s for the doctors. But between you and me, she seemed alright. The nurses don’t let us talk to patients if they’re not in any fit state for it, anyway. I think your girl’s gonna be just fine.”
A sigh of relief shuddered through me, a knot of horror loosening in my chest – but I knew this was a ploy. A way in through my emotions, or to judge the truth of my words. I nodded and thanked him and shared a smile with Twil.
“But,” he said. “There’s no bullet, despite an exit wound. Should be in the pavement, the dirt, somebody’s garden wall. But it’s not. Which means maybe your, uh, girlfriend, maybe she walked a way after getting shot. Which happens more than you’d think, people often try to keep going. But still, funny, isn’t it? If we can’t find the bullet, it’s that much harder to trace the gun.”
“I don’t know what that means, detective. I do know Raine is very tough, and she never quits. She was probably trying to walk home.”
I also knew the bullet from Stack’s gun was embedded in floorboards in the library of Carcosa. Beyond a world away. At least they’d never find it.
“Your Raine,” he said, turning grave. “It’s not impossible she’s trying to protect the person who shot her-”
I almost laughed.
“- or protect herself from further retaliation, or protect you perhaps.”
The only person protecting Amy Stack was me. I was the only thing between her and Zheng’s teeth.
He misunderstood the shake of my head. He shrugged and smiled, and reached inside his coat to pull out a little laminated card. Handed it to me, and I just held it awkwardly. Two phone numbers were printed on it, beneath the shield-and-feather crest of the Sharrowford Police.
“If you’re worried about Raine,” he was saying, “if anybody approaches her with threats related to the shooting, or she’s making phone calls and hiding them from you, or you remember anything at all, call that number. Goes straight to my desk.” He reached forward and tapped the card. “If she’s involved with dodgy people, if you think somebody might be putting her in danger, don’t hesitate to give me a call. In absolute confidence.”
“I’m the only one who puts her in danger,” I let slip out loud, a sob threatening deep in my throat.
That finally drew a curious twitch of his eyes, because it made zero sense. What did I look like, to this man? A mousy, skittish, scrawny college girl, a prey creature attached to a slightly older and much more dangerous predator.
“S’not your fault,” Twil muttered, and nudged me gently in the side. “Hey, Heather. It’s not. Yeah?”
“Why would it be your fault, miss?” Detective Stuggan asked, a snake creeping through a chink in my inexpert armour.
I sniffed away the ugly threat of tears and wiped my eyes on the back of my sleeve – one of Raine’s hoodies, black and baggy, two sizes too large for me, smelling of her and our bedroom and sleep. Couldn’t very well wear the same clothes I’d taken to Carcosa, bloodstained from my own nosebleed.
“Should have made her stay at home,” I managed.
Good luck making sense of that, detective.
He opened his mouth to lay some tripwire, but my eyes went past his shoulder; pastel-pink and pastel-blue and a band of white, fluttering through the double-doors which led deeper into the warren of the hospital, mixed with the starch of nurse uniforms and the tired-eyed doctors.
Lozzie, up on tiptoes to wave her fingers at us across the waiting room.
Detective Stuggan began to turn. Twil’s eyes went up too. My heart leapt for news of Raine and for Lozzie to hide before the police saw her – but then there was a nurse next to us, standing over us, getting our attention with a sharp clearing of her throat, distracting all three pairs of eyes away from the wisp of tri-colour pastel that vanished back into the crowd.
“Are you Heather Morell?” The nurse was saying to me, wide and middle aged and very practical, pinch-faced and strict around the mouth. “You and your friend here are here to see Raine-” She broke off to check the clipboard tucked under one arm. “Haynes. Yes?”
“Yes, yes that’s me. I’m Heather. Is Raine-”
“You can go in to see her now. She’s awake and on the mend, and we’ve moved her out of intensive care.” My heart soared and a great breath went out of me. Twil put a hand on my shoulder and the nurse managed a practised, grey smile. “Room two-two-four, just down the corridor there and into the second left, almost at the end of the row. Just follow the numbers, you can’t miss them.”
“Thank you, thank you.” I looked at the double doors. Lozzie had vanished completely.
“She’s got a private room, since, well.” The nurse cleared her throat and glanced at the detective. “But that’s all over and done with. Miss Morell, are you going to be taking her home?”
“Uh … yes, yes, of course I will, what-”
“We should be able to discharge her in three to four hours. We don’t expect she’ll have to spend the night, but she’s a walker, that one.” The nurse gave me a purse-lipped look as if Raine’s behaviour was my fault. “And she’ll tear out all her stitches if she tries to walk home.”
“I’ll take her home. On the bus.”
“One of the doctors will be in with proper aftercare instructions shortly, but I suspect miss Haynes is going to need external motivation to keep her off that leg. Do you live at the same address?”
“I’m her partner,” I said without missing a beat. “She does what I tell her. I’ll make her rest.”
Standing up and gathering myself after hours of waiting set my stomach churning again, made my head throb with renewed tension headache, my knees weak. My hands were shaking, so I shoved them into the front pocket of the too-large hoodie.
“Call me if you remember anything,” detective Stuggan said, rising with us. “Thank you both for your time. Miss Morell, miss Hopton.”
He shook our hands, then ambled off toward the front desk again. I was too numb and nervous to think, so Twil steered me toward the double-doors with a gentle hand on the small of my back. We plunged into the monastic labyrinth of the hospital corridors, oddly hushed between the pale plastic walls and squeaky floors.
“Never tell the police anything,” Twil grumbled under her breath. “You did cool though, Heather. Kept it cool.”
“You sound like Lozzie,” I managed a weird little laugh, voice shaking.
“Where’d she go, anyway?” Twil hissed, looking over her shoulder and into every open doorway we passed.
“Back to Raine, maybe.”
By the time we reached room 224, at the end of a blue-floored corridor lined with similar doors and reeking of antiseptic cleaner, I was ready to vibrate out of my own skin. Abyssal instinct ached to sprout a dozen tentacles to pull me down the hallways in a headlong rush, screaming at me to rescue my mate, find my other flesh in this place that brought back so many bad memories of other hospitals.
On a conscious level I was afraid for Raine’s health, but paradoxically also scared to see her, as if contact would catalyse a change I was unprepared for.
Raine’s pain in Carcosa, that unique pain on her face, more than mere physical. Worse than a bullet in her leg.
The door to 224 was closed. I hesitated but Twil didn’t notice. She knocked twice and pushed it open.
Inside was a cramped hospital room, dominated by one of those overcomplicated adjustable beds with side rails. Clean white walls made it feel like a cell. A little dispenser for hand sanitiser was bolted to the wall beside the door, and a pair of chairs made it feel less sparse. A bundle of Raine’s clothes lay on one of the chairs, the possessions she’d been admitted with. Wide windows looked out across a jumble of hospital buildings and car parks, shrouded deep in the oncoming night, dotted with little lights.
In the space between one heartbeat and the next, I thought I saw a shimmer in those darkened windows, a reflected glimmer in headache yellow.
But then it was gone. A trick of the light.
A cluster of drip stands with electronic readouts and bags of saline and other fluids accompanied the machine-like hospital bed, their lines currently stretched out near maximum extension, to-
“Raine!” I breathed in relief, an unbidden smile bursting on my face – and then freezing. “Raine, what are you … doing?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” said Twil, striding forward.
Raine blinked at us, a rabbit caught in car headlights.
She wasn’t resting. She wasn’t even in bed. She was halfway across the room, thin green hospital gown hitched up over a truly impressive mass of dressing and bandage and gauze, wrapped expertly and neatly around her upper left thigh, otherwise bare-legged and bare foot. We’d caught her in the attempt to wriggle one arm out of the garment, her dirty bloodstained tshirt in her other hand, ready to pull it on over her head. Her weight was distributed all wrong, leaning on her good leg, half-balanced against the wall. Chestnut brown hair wild and messy, eyes ringed and stress-dark, skin gone grayish.
She looked so vulnerable. My heart broke.
Then Twil reached her and took the tshirt off her with a curse, and I was in front of her, trying to touch her arms but afraid to embrace her lest it hurt her somehow. Raine was blinking back and forth, confused and startled, as if she didn’t know exactly where she was and-
“Heeeeeeeeeeeeey,” she lit up with a huge shit-eating grin, the shutters coming down, the walls going up.
“You’ve been shot, you massive pillock,” Twil was saying at her. “Get in bed and stay there.”
“Raine, Raine are you-” I was babbling. “Well of course you’re not okay.”
“Heather!” Raine said my name with such exuberance my heart did a little flip, but the grin on her face kept flickering and jerking, like she wasn’t sure if I was real. She pulled me into a hug, then quickly thrust me back again, eyes shooting past me to the open door. “Where’s- where’s Evee? Is she- Heather, you-” She grinned at me again, then paused and swallowed, emotions glitching out.
“Evee’s safe,” I said gently. “She’s at home, I brought her back fine. We called Lozzie, she said she told you this. She did tell you, yes?”
Raine blinked at me as if struggling to focus, breathing a bit too hard. Her pupils were dilated, too wide. “ … yeah. She … she did. She told me that. Right. Yeah!”
The grin struggled back.
“You need to lie down or you’re gonna fall down,” Twil said. She shrugged the backpack she’d been carrying onto the chair with the rest of Raine’s possessions. A change of clean clothes, a bottle of water, toiletries because we’d expected an overnight stay. “Heather, tell her to lie down. You know she only listens to you.”
“You do need to lie down, Raine.”
“They took my trousers!” Raine told me, still trying to grin. “Cut them off me and wham bam, gone! Wanted those, not every day you get a gunshot trophy.”
Twil caught my gaze and tapped her own temple.
“Yes, I know, she needs to rest,” I said. “Raine, you need to lie down, they’re going to let you go home in a few hours.”
“Can’t keep me here,” she said through the grin. “I’m invincible. I feel great, I am great.”
I gave her a look, and either my intent or the depth of my exhaustion penetrated her panic mania, or whatever this was, and she obediently took me by the shoulder, righted herself, and glanced at the bed, a little sheepish around her sunken, manic eyes.
“Wait up,” Twil said. “Where’s Lozzie?”
“Canteen,” said Raine. “They got lasagnaaaa-aaa-ahhhh-ahhh!”
Twil shook her head and grumbled under her breath. “I’ll go look for Loz. Heather, just get her to lie down.”
“I’ll call a nurse if she won’t. Twil, please find Lozzie, I can’t deal with two … two, of this.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Twil.
“I’m going, I’m going!” Raine said, hobbling toward the bed, forcing me along with her as support, propping her up. “Look at me, going all the going-ness-thing, yeah, back to bed, bedtime for Raine.”
Twil rolled her eyes and hurried back out of the hospital room, pulling the door gently shut behind her.
I helped Raine limp over to the bed. She listed to one side like a ship in a storm, wincing softly whenever she put weight through her injured thigh muscle. She sat down on the edge, but when I went to help her lie back, she wouldn’t go. She gripped my arm and glanced through the wide windows at the darkness outdoors, as if something had caught her attention, then back to me, blinking and swallowing and panting softly.
“I … yeah, I’m here.” The grin flickered back on, then off, interrupted by a heavy blink. “Let me get some, uh … just get up and … ”
She tried to rise again but I pressed down on her shoulders, awkward without leverage. Could she still overpower me, injured as she was? Probably. Raine could carry me without breaking a sweat.
I’d never seen her so vulnerable, not even when she’d been tied up in the Sharrowford Cult’s safehouse, enduring hours of unknown fate and the screams of the cultists dying downstairs. She wasn’t merely worried about me or Evelyn; some essential fulcrum of emotional regulation had slipped. Like she was trying to smile through the verge of a panic attack, or having a manic episode during a crisis, or didn’t really believe that Evelyn was safe and just had to escape to go help her old friend. But also none of those things. Those things I could have said something to, reasoned with. She was in shock of a kind that I did not understand, having a hard time coming back, out of her element, hurt, and would not stop.
“Raine, just sit down, please.”
She obeyed, breathing slower with concentration, then laughed softly. “It’s- it’s the morphine. I am hiiiiigh as a kite, Heather. Out through the stratosphere, with Venus and Mars. Space cadet first class.” She sketched me a salute with one hand, brandishing the dosing button on her drip-line with the other, pressing it and pretending to shiver as the morphine hit her veins. Maybe it was real. My heart ached for her. That was Raine, that was normal, but not like this.
“I-I’ll take space cadet, over … ” Tears threatened, at memory of Raine’s blood. “Over-”
“Hey, hey, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Raine hugged me awkwardly around the shoulders, almost slipping off the bed until I pressed her back. She relented with a wink and gestured at the dressing on her bare leg. “Doesn’t hurt much, not with all the drugs in me. And it’s far better than it going in you.” She poked me in the shoulder.
“But you got shot. Raine.” I had to blink back the waterworks.
“Ahhhhhh, it’s nothing. Serious, they told me it was pretty shallow, missed everything important.”
“No it didn’t. It hit you.”
“I’m gonna have a limp for a few weeks and it’ll hurt like a bitch, maybe ache in the cold when I’m old and grey. Gonna have to change the dressings myself, and come back for tugging all the stitches out – five in front,” she pointed. “Six in the side where it came out. But that’s all, no rehab, nothing. I’m gonna have the coolest scar, Heather.”
She already had scars on her thigh. Shallow rakes across the front and side, wounds from our confrontation with Zheng and the Cult’s awful hound-things, in the folded space inside Willow House. Months ago. Another scar, taken for me.
A few tears escaped my control as I stared down at her thigh.
All my fault. I’d taken her Outside, and she was only human.
“I love you,” Raine told me suddenly, voice weak and breaking soft. “I love you, Heather.”
“I love you too, Raine. And I’m sorry.”
She started to lie down sideways, eyelids flickering halfway shut. I shifted the pillow for her. “What happened, after I … you know. Evee?”
“It’s really complicated,” I said. “Which is the understatement of Evelyn’s life, I think, and mostly her business. But I got her home in one piece.”
Raine’s eyes drifted shut all the way. “I thought I was going to lose … had lost. Both of you. Both of you,” she mumbled, voice fading, drug-addled and exhausted. “Useless, violence for violence sake only goes so far. No purpose. Run myself out, run myself dead. Can’t function without you, not with both of you gone. Couldn’t be me. Wouldn’t be anything.”
“ … pardon?”
I froze, inside and out, as Raine’s eyes fluttered back open, as she crested the wave of painkiller high and came back down to earth, as she realised exactly what she’d just said, and that I’d heard every word.
Lucid, all here, she stared back at me, caught.
“ … it’s just the morphine talking.” No grin, no energy, no bright Raine.
“I … R-Raine I can’t let that one go. What did you mean?”
And then she grinned and laughed, and I thought I’d lost her again, but she said: “Okay, that was a real transparent porky, I respect you more than that.”
She pulled herself back up into a sitting position and ran a hand over her face, let out a sigh that sounded like she’d been holding it for years. She was actually shaking, shuddering, quivering with opiate high or fear or something less comprehensible. “Ahhh fuck.”
“N-no, no. Wait.” I held up a hand in panic. I wanted to know, wanted to know everything about Raine, but I was terrified everything would change. “You’re sick, you’ve been shot, you need to rest, it doesn’t-”
“And hey.” She shrugged. “You’ve got Zheng now, maybe you don’t need me-”
“Raine!” I snapped, anger flaring from somewhere hidden and secret. “Stop thinking like that. Right now. I love you, you idiot.”
She met my eyes as if surprised to hear that, then sighed her way into a smile, nodding slowly but still shaking. “That’s good. Yeah. It is good, because without you there’s no such thing as me. There’s flesh and blood, sure,” she nodded down at the dressing on her leg with an attempted ironic smirk, but it dissolved into the cracking pain of her voice. “But there’s no Raine without a reference point.”