Raine was never fearless.
Perhaps back when we first met, her burning confidence in the face of the unnatural could have convinced me otherwise, in my falsely sheltered naivety. But we’d shared too much intimacy for me to elevate her to that particular pedestal. I had become all too familiar with the mechanics of self-risk, of sacrifice, and of deciding that certain things are more important than fear. To believe Raine’s bravery effortless would do her a grand injustice.
I have watched Raine face down monsters without flinching, and fight them without a second thought; I have cowered behind her while she stood between me and certain death and I listened her laugh without care; I have followed her stride into dark places without hesitation, seen her challenge ancient undead creatures and professional psychopaths alike to knife-fight duels, and heard the ring of unstoppable burning certainty in her voice.
And she did all of that without magic, or regenerative tissue, or pneuma-somatic tentacles. A soft, squishy, vulnerable human being. She knows fear, as truly as I do.
But that is not true courage.
A wiser person than I once said that courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. I admire Raine, for standing up to creatures and sights and places that any sensible human being should run screaming from. But that is not what is most remarkable about the woman I love.
Far more worthy of awe was her decision to invite me into her life in the first place.
She has trusted me with – almost – everything. Me, Heather, a traumatised mess, not pretty, and not much fun. Fussy, stuffy, weird little Heather, who brought into Raine’s life mostly just danger and problems, who might not even be human anymore, who wanted to grow alien limbs and swim the infinite dark and pit myself against a outer being I could never hope to best. I was quite possibly the most high-maintenance girlfriend imaginable, but she hadn’t hesitated. Not once. She had given freely of herself.
She had loved me, with only one final reservation. And now she was at her most vulnerable in the one way I believe truly counted for her – not because she’d been shot in the leg, not because she was in hospital, not because her back teeth were swimming in morphine, but because the foundations of her identity had been threatened. She did not know what to do, had no way out, and no route forward.
She thought she was beaten before she’d even started.
But she’d done it anyway. She had revealed herself as a sculpture of spun glass in my trembling grip, and trusted me to be very, very gentle.
That was bravery.
“There’s no Raine without a reference point?” I echoed back at her.
Raine, dressed in a pale green hospital gown that looked about as flattering as a mat of anaemic seaweed, her eyes bloodshot and ringed with the kind of dark internal exhaustion I usually only saw in the mirror, pupils dilated wide with opiate painkiller in her bloodstream, face drawn and pale, her hair a wild mess, a bullet hole in her leg closed with stitches and gauze and bandage, one arm hooked up to drips and machines, managed a nod.
She was shaking. All over. Tears brimmed in her eyes, her breath came in little jerks and starts. Even that nod had cost her.
I pulled her into a hug.
It was a little awkward, with her sitting on the edge of the hospital bed and me standing up, my knees bumping against the thick plastic railing that could be raised to stop a patient rolling out of the covers. It was odd feeling taller than her, with her chestnut-brown hair tickling my cheek, her arms going around my waist and gripping hard. It was weird the way my pneuma-somatic tentacles tried to help, to enclose her in a safe warm cocoon of me that she couldn’t feel. But it didn’t matter how awkward this was; we could both have been filthy and covered in blood, and I would never have let go. She shook in my grip, so I squeezed and squeezed and squeezed and felt her tears making a wet patch on my shoulder.
After what seemed like minutes, I said, “We can just stay like this, if you want?”
“And … ” Raine swallowed, and tried again with a quivering smile in her voice. “And crab-walk home? Local dykes vow to never let go, impossible to get anything done.”
“If that’s what you want.”
“I can’t,” she murmured.
Slowly, carefully, and very reluctantly, Raine pulled away. She did not want to leave the hug, but seemed almost pulled by some inexorable counter-force inside her own muscles – but then she gripped my forearms instead. Anchored herself on me.
She shuddered like a derailed train, or a clock shaking itself apart because some tiny gear had slipped out of position. The soft machine of Raine’s body did not know what to do, stuck between an impossible return and painful forward motion, and for once this was a problem she couldn’t solve by readying herself for violence.
Seeing her like this hurt. Seeing my dashing, heroic, rakish Raine crying and wounded. I wanted to take her home and feed her healthy foods and tuck her into bed. I wanted to tell her everything was going to be okay, she didn’t need to lift a finger, physically or mentally. She needed to rest, to close her eyes and not think too hard. I wanted to stroke her hair until she fell asleep and listen to her breathing to make sure she wasn’t having any bad dreams. I wanted to take responsibility for changing the dressing on her leg, preparing her meals, running her a bath – could she bathe, with her leg like that? I would do it for her then, sponge-bath style, and I wasn’t even remotely joking.
I wanted to lie, say I’d forget all of this, if only she would rest.
But that would be a betrayal of the trust she’d placed in me by speaking. I was so scared of hurting her.
“No Raine without a reference point,” I echoed a second time, gentle, trying to cushion her with my words. “I’d love to know what that means. Do you want to share?”
Raine took a great shuddering breath – and started crying in earnest. She didn’t sob, but tears began rolling down her cheeks. She swallowed hard and shrugged, as a half-laugh accompanied a terrible mockery of her usual confident grin, a twitching broken thing that flickered onto her face.
“Yes … and also no,” she managed. “Never have before.”
Then she picked up the morphine-dosing button attached to her drip-line again, and pressed the big red button to ask the machine for more not-caring juice.
“Raine, Raine, it’s okay, it’s going to be okay.”
“Ahhh, who am I kidding? I’m obvious. Evee’s probably got me all figured out anyway.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that. I don’t think Evee knows everything about you.”
Raine’s awful rictus grin flickered up again. “Lady of mystery, am I?”
I said it as affectionately as I could, but that wasn’t enough. Guilt and pain deepened behind Raine’s eyes as she raised the morphine button again.
“It’s a trap, you know?” she said, crying and laughing and shaking all at the same time. “The button doesn’t actually give you more unless it’s time for the dose. S’just to stop you calling the nurses.”
She kept pressing it anyway.
“Raine, Raine, here, Raine.” I tried to take her face in my hands, to wipe away her tears, but she was flying apart in my embrace. “Raine, you’re not going to break us. You’re not going to break our relationship by opening up. I won’t let you. I love you, and … and you took a bullet for me, you idiot! I don’t care how complicated or confusing or weird or unique you are inside. I … I don’t care if you’re a … a,” I hiccuped. “A sociopath. Or if you’ve got really bad dissociative identity disorder and there’s a dozen of you in there, or if you’re … I don’t know, a lizard in a person-suit. Yay lizard people, in that case.” It sounded funny, but I wasn’t laughing. “I can probably extrapolate some of it myself, but I don’t want to get it wrong, I don’t want to get you wrong, you deserve better, and you’re not going to break us. I’m not going to reject you.”
Raine forced down three sharp breaths like she was drowning.
“No,” she said. “I’m not afraid o’ that. Come on Heather, we both know I’m far too hot for you to ever give me up.”
“Raine.” I tutted gently.
“Hey, I’m deadly serious. No, really. You think I’m joking?”
“I … ” I rolled the dice. “I think you’re trying to deflect with humour, maybe trying to get your defences back up so you can feel safe again. But you don’t need defences, not with me. I promise. Raine, I promise.”
Raine laughed through her tears, unstable and warbling. “Not deflection. It’s all just me. All me, all over, all the time. Twenty-four seven, three sixty five. Every second I draw breath, it’s me. That’s not what’s messing me up, Heather. I’m not scared of you rejecting me. I’m scared of breaking myself.”
I hiccuped. Loudly.
“Then I won’t let you do that either,” I said.
To my surprise, Raine blinked at me and nodded – and took a long, slow, steadying breath that filled her lungs but somehow seemed to deflate her at the same time.
She wiped her eyes on her arm and looked away from me, out of the darkening windows. The rain had picked up again, plunging the city beyond into true night an hour or two ahead of schedule, forming streaks down the glass against the backdrop of Sharrowford streetlights. Raine glanced at the closed door to the hospital room. She was orienting herself in space, trying to peel back the layers of opiate high and opiate fog and opiate cushion. The subtle sounds of the hospital reached us, beeping machines and shuffling feet and soft voices and television chatter, muffled by dozens of walls and miles of insulation and pipe and cable and wipe-clean wall and the living bodies of hundreds of people.
This should be happening at home. But important things rarely happen where they should. Raine needed help, right now, and if I spouted some weak platitude about how I was always there for her, then she might never reach for help again.
Still, a thorn of guilt lodged in my chest. Was this the only way to have this talk? While she was on morphine?
Her eyes lingered on the door.
“If Twil returns with Lozzie, I’ll make them wait in the corridor,” I said, trying to compensate for the guilt. “Out of earshot. If Lozzie eavesdrops I will get angry with her. I mean it, I’ll shout at her. I’ll be furious, and she’ll cry and I’ll tell her off anyway and-”
“S’alright,” Raine murmured.
Like a puppet with her strings tugged, she suddenly drew herself up and took a deep breath. She rolled her shoulders back and tilted her chin up and looked me right in the eye, and suddenly I was the one feeling a little touch of fear, as she woke her physicality, her muscles, her taut stomach and the tilt of her chin, the flex of her biceps and the power in her back as she puffed her chest out. She reached up and ran a hand through her hair, opened her mouth with the kink of a grin, started to say a word.
And fell apart all over again.
This mock-up of her usual self collapsed back into a single shivering sob. She lost it, groped for me again, clutching for support. Tears ran down her cheeks as the words stuck in her throat. She shook so hard I thought she was about to have a seizure.
“Raine, it’s okay, you don’t have to pretend to be-”
“I am a conscious and deliberate construction.”
She panted the words out hard and painful, like regurgitating a jagged rock.
“Always have been”, she carried on with superhuman effort. “Everything I do, everything I am, is something I choose. All the time.”
I waited, nodding, wide-eyed both inside and out. But that seemed to be all. “ … okay?”
“Ahhhhhhhh,” she let out a huge sigh and grinned – a real grin at last, not through the tears and the shaking but part of them, effortless, as if saying those words and drawn back all her confidence. “Oh wow, it’s real, what they say. Truth really does set you free. Never said these things out loud before.”
I blinked at her, but that seemed to be the long and short of it. Apparently that was meant to make full sense.
“Okay. Okay, that’s … that’s okay,” I tried. “Raine, I won’t think any less of you if you admit to feeling scared when you’re protecting confidence. That’s normal, I think. You can be a mess and scared and weak and I still love you. I don’t care if your … your ‘hero-thing’ is a front, and-”
“No,” she snapped – actually snapped. “No, I am not a fake.”
I almost jumped out of my skin, would have stumbled back if she hadn’t been gripping my forearms, her fingers digging into my flesh. Raine, angry, losing control, blinking at me through hot tears in suddenly clear eyes.
“O-okay, Raine, I-I’m sorry, I-”
“It’s not a front over some ‘real me’, it is me. I feel, I think, I am.” She almost struggled to say it, to believe it herself. “None of me is fake, nothing I’ve chosen to do is false, or a front, or an act. None of it. Choosing doesn’t make me any less real. I’m real. I am.”
She’d said that once before.
In the Medieval Metaphysics room. To a certain theatrical Outsider.
A ball of lead settled in my belly. Shock turned to a shiver of cold sweat down my back.
Raine must have seen the change on my face, because she let go of my arms and held her hands up, horrified, like she’d caught herself about to hit me. I stepped back from her and turned my head to look out of the window, at a memory of less than a reflection. At the shimmer of yellow I’d seen when we’d opened the door to this secluded hospital room.
If this was Raine filtered through morphine and stress, that was one thing. We could deal with that, together. But if she had been pressured into this emotional breakdown, I was about to write a very sharp theatre critique.
“H-hey, Heather, I’m … I’m sorry,” Raine was saying. “You didn’t deserve that. I know you didn’t mean that, it just set me off.”
“What?” I blinked back at her, my mind already moving seventeen steps ahead of where she’d fallen before I realised what she must have assumed. “No, Raine, no, you’re fine. You didn’t upset me. Listen, very carefully. Did anybody visit you here, in this hospital room, before I arrived?”
Raine blinked her tears away and all her shaking stopped. She focused on my words with an effort of will. Bless her she is incredible, I thought to myself. Even in the middle of what might be the worst emotional crisis of her life, my tone of practical concern, of dangerous mystery, of potential threat, sharpened her mind to a razor’s edge. Raine deals with stuff, that’s what she does. Even with a bullet wound in her leg and a hole through her heart.
“The doctors, a couple of nurses,” she said. “Lozzie was in here. That’s all.”
“Nobody said anything … odd, to you?”
She shook her head. Her eyes flickered to the door, alert and ready.
“No, no,” I sighed and stepped back to her and awkwardly touched her head to make her look away from the door. “Don’t … don’t do that. We’re not about to be in a fight. It’s not that.”
“ … oh.” She smiled an ironic, self-deprecating smile. “Pity. Would’a helped, probably. Not that I’ve got a knife on me. You didn’t bring my knife, did you?”
“No, I didn’t fancy getting arrested if the detective decided to search me.”
“Why would he frisk you?” she laughed, a little weak.
“Well, I am carrying that little can of pepper spray you gave me.” I sighed. “Which is illegal enough in the first place, so I may as well have brought the knife along too, I suppose.”
“Heather!” Raine smiled, impressed. “We’ll make an urban commando out of you yet.”
“Listen, Raine, I’ll just say it plainly. You are telling me all this of your own volition, yes?”
“Yeah,” she said. She wasn’t crying anymore, but the return to topic drew the smile from her face and put a quiver in her voice. “I want to. Even if this is the end for me. Even if it destroys me. Better to go out with a bang, hey?”
“I won’t let it.”
She pulled this pained smile, and I realised that Raine had finally encountered something she believed was beyond me.
“I thought Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had gotten to you,” I said. “Gotten into your head, perhaps.”
Raine raised an eyebrow at me. “Oh. Nah. If she’d insulted me again, about this, I would’a done for her. Knife or no knife.”
“I can believe that.”
Raine nodded, and glanced down at her hands, making and unmaking her fists. She didn’t try to sit up and look cool this time, she just let the tension flow out of her shoulders. She relaxed, consciously, muscle by muscle, until she was throttled all the way down to the lowest possible ebb, idling to keep the engines ticking over.
I had the sudden terrible and certain knowledge that in that precise moment, Raine was just as dangerous as she was at full tension with a knife in her hand. It was like standing in front of a coiled cobra.
My mouth went very dry.
“I’ve never hidden anything from you, Heather,” she said. “I just haven’t told you … ” A big sigh, a sad smile. “Where the hell do I start?”
“I’m pretty sure you’ve been hiding some real emotions. Some. Poorly, I might add.”
Raine laughed softly, and hooked one bare foot around the back of my calf. Under the circumstances, it made me shiver – and not unpleasantly. She tugged me closer, and I obeyed.
“Emotions, no. You get me raw and unfiltered, believe it or not. Like I said, I’m no act. A constant ongoing process of self-creation. All the time. But no act.”
“Okay,” I allowed, and did my best to believe.
“But I’ve told you one lie. Told it to Evelyn too. Told it to everyone who’s ever asked.”
“ … and that lie is?” I hiccuped. “Raine, please.”
“Remember when I told you my parents kicked me out? That’s how I ended up homeless before I met Evee?”
“Well, they didn’t.”
I blinked at her. “That’s your big dark secret?”
“Yeah. I mean, hey, they were probably about to. But I beat them to the punch, left before they could get around to it. ‘You can’t sack me, I quit’. Anyone asks about my family, that’s what I tell them – parents kicked me out because they found me necking with a girl. They hated me enough to do it, stuck-up little-Englander God-botherers with a butch dyke daughter, ‘course that was gonna end bad. Best of my knowledge they’ve never looked for me. An easy lie, because most of it’s true.”
“Whatever else you’re about to tell me,” I managed. “F-fu … fuck your parents.”
“Heeeeeey.” Raine grinned and laughed. “That means a lot, from you. What is that, your entire year’s swearing allowance?”
“I’m making an exception for them.”
“Thanks. Really. Even after like, wow, what, seven years now? Nearly. Even after all that time, that’s nice to hear.”
I squeezed Raine’s shoulder. She kissed my wrist and rested her head against the inside of my arm for a moment.
“But that’s not why I left,” she said.
“Then … why?”
“Because I had no purpose,” Raine said. “Without purpose, if I’d stayed, I’d probably have killed them both.”
Raine’s eyes bored into mine, and I realised she’d stopped smiling. My throat closed up, I couldn’t swallow. Was she watching me for the correct reaction? Part of me attempted to pull an ironic smile, puff out a little laugh, as if she’d cracked a bad joke. But I couldn’t even twitch my lips.
“I dunno, maybe I should have done.” Raine rekindled her smile and shrugged. “Maybe they deserved it. Maybe I’ve got a little brother or sister I don’t know about now, dealing with their shit all alone ‘cos I’m not there. Maybe I should’a killed my parents. But it wouldn’t have had any purpose, and that’s worse.”
“ … you’re not even remotely exaggerating, are you?”
Raine cocked an eyebrow at me. “I know what I am, Heather. You used the word earlier. Used it before too, I bet. Maybe even said it to Evee?”
“I-I don’t think you’re a-”
“A sociopath?” she finished for me. “Maybe not. Sociopaths aren’t supposed to have any impulse regulation, any empathy. But I got both of those. At least, I know I do. Because I choose to.”
I nodded, guilty in my own relief. “Yes, yes, you’ve never seemed like a real sociopath, not really. But you … I mean, you can … you’re able to … you know.”
An echo of Raine’s smug grin ghosted behind her bloodshot eyes.
“Violence,” she said. “Yeah. Comes easy for me, and I enjoy it. I do. I enjoy it because I’m good at it, because it’s what I was made for – but only when I have a purpose.”
Raine reached up to brush a lock of hair away from my cheek and tuck it behind my ear. Perhaps she was testing to see if I would shy away from her touch, perhaps she just wanted to let me know she was still mine, or perhaps the gesture had no meaning at all, merely an animal reaction to being face-to-face with her mate, her lover. I did not move away.
“Does that frighten you?” she asked, smile a little sad. “Do I frighten you?”
I let out a gigantic sigh I hadn’t know I was holding and gave her an eye-roll worthy of the grumpiest of teenage sulks, mostly to cover for the way she was making me quiver inside, how the spark of her words and her easy intensity had set a low fire burning deep down in my belly.
“Don’t be so perfectly absurd,” I said.
She blinked twice at me, genuinely clueless.
“It probably should frighten me,” I carried on. “It’s supposed to, any sensible girl would run a mile, but no. You know full well that I’m turned on by that sort of thing, that I’m … I don’t know!” Blushing furiously, I averted my eyes. “If you’re weird and unique and deviant, then congratulations, you found the one girl who fits you like a puzzle piece.”
Raine’s grin blossomed across her face. She didn’t say a word, she didn’t need to. I blushed and huffed.
“None of this explains ‘no Raine without a reference point,’” I said. “You said you don’t know where to start, why not try the beginning?”
“Ahhhh, the beginning, yeah.” Raine nodded and managed to keep a straight face as she said: “I was born at a very young age.”
“Raine,” I tutted. “That’s the second time you’ve made that joke.”
“And I didn’t speak a word until I was eight.”
That drew me up sharpish. I blinked at her, trying to work out if she was joking.
“Selective mutism,” she said, soft and calm and a little sad. “Technical term, s’what the doctors said. But they got that wrong, because, hey, they didn’t know what they were looking at. Kids with selective mutism, that’s from trauma, or an anxiety disorder, and I wasn’t anxious. There was no me to feel anxious.”
Slowly, feeling a desperate need to be closer to her, I sank down until I was sitting on the bed at Raine’s side, still touching. “Go on.”
She shrugged. “I dunno how to explain it. Don’t think you’ll find it in any diagnostic manual.”
I tutted. “That doesn’t mean anything. I should know.”
Raine smirked. “I guess it was like being dissociated, all the time. Maybe I did have some kind of rare identity disorder, I dunno. It was like I had no ego. I knew I was different to other kids, that bit was kind of obvious. Parents thought I might be autistic, but it’s not that either. It’s just … me. Over time I started mimicking things I read, and bits of other people, but it was all conscious, I had to do it deliberately. I had to build myself, and I chose every brick.”
“Then you chose some good bricks,” I said, because I wanted Raine to feel good about herself.
“You know it. Once I built enough to be a real person, that was about when I realised I’m real good at violence.”
“Cut my teeth on school playground bullies. Never pulled the wings off flies or tortured cats or anything, so I thought hey, can’t be a psycho. But then there was this incident. I was ten, I think, and I broke another kid’s ribs. Bigger kid, actually. Some unimportant fight, he was bullying some other boy, just kids being kids. Didn’t even matter who. But I just thought ‘hey, if I keep hitting him, he can never do this again’, so I did.”
“You broke somebody’s ribs at ten?” I gaped at her.
“I mean, I had a rock.”
“ … okay.”
Raine laughed. “It’s no different than what I do for you.”
“I … I suppose so.”
I tried to imagine tyke-sized Raine, beating the snot out of some other kid, a rock in her hand, until the dry crack of shattering rib bones. It was all too easy. Made me shiver, and for once not in the good way.
“He lived. I didn’t kill him or anything. Two ribs broken. Things got kinda messy after that,” she said. “But the school dealt with it. When I got a little older, I realised I like girls, and that made things easier.”
“I can relate to that part.”
“Bet you were never like me though.” Her eyes flashed darkly amused even through her emotional exhaustion. “I was wild.”
I laughed softly. “I can imagine, Raine, I-”
“No, Heather, hey. I’m serious. If you’d met me back then, I would’a scared you off, and you’d have been right to run. The me here now would not want the old me anywhere near you, no way. Got borderline predatory, and I had no shame, didn’t give a fuck. I never forced anybody, nothing like that, never crossed that line, because that would be cross-purposes with the entire ‘me’ I was trying to build, but I am pretty sure I taught more than a few girls how to kiss. Pretty sure a lot of them weren’t even remotely lesbian.”
“Okay. I … I suppose that’s … I … hmm.” I felt myself blush.
“You’re thinking something like ‘I wouldn’t have turned that down’. Trust me, you absolutely would have done.”
“If you say so.”
“I needed violence, Heather. Violence or sex, or at least sexuality. Those were the only things holding me together. And neither was enough, neither was purpose. I couldn’t finish building me, and I was … spinning faster and faster.” Her voice got shaky again and she had to blink away the memories. “When my parents were gonna throw me out, I thought that might be what I needed. Get away from all these in-groups that weren’t really in-groups, get myself alone so I could figure out what was me and what was just adaptation, what I was supposed to do, what my purpose was. I wanted to know what I was for.”
“And you were for Evelyn?”
“Not at first.” Raine’s voice had taken on that breathy quiver again, the weight of memory pressing on her chest. “I wasn’t just homeless, though that’s bad enough. Ask anybody who has been. I went … feral. I stopped thinking. It was like being a kid again, there was less and less of me to hold onto. Turns out without any reference points, without an anchor, I just slip away.”
“Raine.” I wanted to hug her, but she needed to keep going.
“And then I found Evee, yeah. And I knew this was the only way to function. The thing I’d been missing my entire life, the thing I should have been born with. Somebody to protect. Purpose.”
As she spoke, she brightened like a sword in the forge, hot enough to burn to the fingers, eyes like molten steel. My heart skipped a beat.
“I was almost gone when I first saw Evee,” she was saying. “I think that’s why I accepted all this magic shit so easy, when it was right in front of my eyes. I was already … vestigial. When I rebuilt myself alongside Evee, I was just re-incorporating that stuff. That’s why it doesn’t bother me much, I think. I still remember the moment. I was sitting on the wall of that estate, gonna break in, don’t recall why. She’d been allowed out into the garden to walk around, chaperoned by … well, by two somethings not unlike Zheng.” A smile, almost manic, flickered on Raine’s lips, an echo perhaps of how she used to be. “And then I saw her. Small, fragile, limping, hunched. And she didn’t like those zombies at her side, oh no, she didn’t want to be there at all. She was as close to destruction as I was. And I knew.” Raine leaned in close, eyes wide, and gripped my shoulder. I’d never seen her like this before, in the throes of an almost religious ecstasy. “I knew. My violence, everything I am, has a purpose, a purpose I could choose for myself. Protect this girl I didn’t even know. That’s what I’m for.”
Speechless, I just nodded.
“And I felt the same thing when I first saw you,” she told me.
Raine came back down with a full-body shudder, like the tail end of an orgasm. She let go of me, then patted my shoulder with a shaking hand, as if she didn’t know where to go after that.
“My knight errant,” I murmured without meaning to – then blushed tomato-red, stammering. “I-I, s-sorry, Raine, I don’t mean to make light-”
“No, exactly.” She lit up with a grin. “Exactly. Heather. It’s what my violence is for. It’s what all violence should be for.” She laughed with self-conscious irony. “Protecting those who cannot protect themselves. That thing back in Medieval Metaphysics room, remember that? The doll dressed like me? The thing Seven-Shades made?”
“Of course I do.”
“Well, it wasn’t wrong.”
I thought back to that cruel mockery of Raine, dressed in patchwork, wrapped in garden-wire.
“The wires … the two red wires wrapped around it,” I spelled out slowly, as much for myself as Raine. “They represented what, sex and violence?”
“No. Oh, Heather. No.” Raine shook her head and smiled with hot tears returning to her eyes, such pain I wanted to kiss it off her lips. “The wires holding me together are you and Evelyn.”
My heart did a little flip. “Oh. Yes. Of course.”
“Generalised sex and violence, sleeping around, getting in pub fights, none of that is enough. It’s like style without substance. Empty calories. It’ll kill me. I have to have a reference point, a foundation to build myself on. An in-group to protect. A … a family? I don’t know. There’s no me without being needed. I never expected you and I to turn out like this, but I fell for you, Heather, hard. And now I need you, I need to be what you need.”
Raine finished with a sigh like the world leaving her. She didn’t wait for me to reply, didn’t expect anything profound, but only laughed a sad little laugh as she wiped her eyes on the shoulder of her hospital gown. She groped for the morphine dosing button again and pressed it a couple of times, but the machine failed to deliver.
“Well,” she said eventually, into the growing silence which I could not fill. “Well, there I am. That’s all of me. Sorry, Heather, for having to show you behind the curtain and ruin your-”
“Raine, shut up.”
I grabbed her face in both hands and kissed her.
I kissed her in the kind of way that two people in a hospital room should not be kissing, lest an unfortunate nurse walk in on them and drop her tray of medical instruments like a cartoon. I kissed her in the kind of way one cannot fake, with a frantic need to communicate a concept that cannot be put into words, a desire to inhale her scent, taste her mouth, consume and imbibe and drink in everything that made her. Raine would have called it ‘necking’, if I’d let her come up for air. Later on, I called it emergency affection.
We parted, both panting, Raine flushed in the face and blinking at me. I touched a fingertip to my lips, her taste still in my mouth, shocked at my own response.
See how you like being taken by surprise for a change, I thought.
“Have you ever read Robinson Crusoe?” I asked.
Raine blinked at me again, and mercy of mercies, blessed be the contours of her face and the beating of her heart, she smiled in bemused incomprehension. “Um?”
“I promise it’ll make sense, just trust me to get there,” I flustered. “This is the only way I have to explain this. Have you, or not?”
Raine shrugged, still smiling. She wasn’t crying anymore. She was interested, excited to listen to me being a weird literary goblin who couldn’t explain half of what was in her own head without referencing a book.
“I know the story,” she said. “Kinda. Much as anybody does.”
“Crusoe is a fantasy. A total fantasy.” I babbled at high speed, losing control in my desire to make her see what I saw. “He’s shipwrecked but he builds a shelter, a house, he creates this whole mini-version of European society alone, just exploiting the island and his surroundings and other life and it’s a lie, Raine. Do you know what happened to the kinds of real people the novel was based on? Real castaways on real islands? They mostly ended up very, very mentally ill from isolation. Living on lichen and rats, drinking seal blood, sleeping in caves – at best. It’s all a fantasy. Nobody is an island. Nobody stands alone. Not even you.”
Raine blinked at me, and I realised she was blinking back more tears, softer this time.
“ … ah.”
“You’ve had to do consciously what most people do without thinking about it,” I carried on. “We all have to make identity, and nobody can do that in isolation.” I felt like I was reaching into a well, to pull her up, like our fingers had just brushed and I had to strain a little further. “Nobody’s an island, Raine. Isolation drives anybody to insanity. And I mean that literally, that’s not colourful language. You’re just describing a more extreme version of what everybody does, and I don’t love you any less for it.”
“But will you still need me?” she asked, quiet and grim.
“Raine, even if you were an invalid, if you couldn’t walk, couldn’t hold a knife. If I had to wipe your bottom for you and spoon feed you, I wouldn’t stop needing you, because I’m in love with you. And maybe you’re the one not understanding this. Love is a choice too.”
“No, no, Heather, it’s not, not a choice like I have to make all the time, of what to be-”
“Yes it is! Raine, it is a choice. I made it. I can’t unmake it.” I looked down to the mass of bandage and gauze around her left thigh, and very gently touched the edge of the dressing, and realised my fingers were shaking. “This. This is my fault, Raine. You got hurt, Evelyn got hurt too. Taking Lozzie, or Zheng, or … or even Praem, Outside. That’s one thing. But you and Evee, you’re just human beings in the end. Not like me. You got hurt. You can protect me, yes, but sometimes I’m going to protect you.”
Raine opened her mouth, tears shining in her eyes, and for the first time I could remember, she closed it without knowing what to say. She bit her lip, struggling inside, the machine trying to shunt itself back onto its own tracks with emergency power and elbow grease. She needed one final shove.
When she said the words, they came out so tiny, so small, the truest of her fears.
“But that’s not what I’m for,” she said.
“But it’s what I need you to be.”
I had to wring my own hands together to stop them shaking as I waited for the shot to land. I’d taken the best option I could see, grabbed Raine as hard as I could, braced my legs to pull her up from the hole she’d fallen into, but she had to want it, and she was staring at me, wide-eyed and blank faced, bloodshot and the lowest she’d ever been and what if I’d misunderstood, what if I didn’t get her at all, what if I’d hurt her or failed or-
And suddenly she laughed and coughed at the same time, panting with a hysterical fragility. She smiled and shook her head and wiped the threat of tears away on her arm.
“Does that … ” I couldn’t help myself. I hiccuped. “Does that help? If you need, I could take that ba-”
“No!” Raine came up in a huge grin, shaking her head. “No, you never get to take that back. Never. Heather, you are too clever by half.”
A nervous little smile pulled onto my lips too. “And that’s why you love me.”
“One of many reasons, my dear. Shall I enumerate the stars in the sky?” Raine’s grin grew self-consciously theatrical and before I could stop her, she was getting to her feet, standing up and turning to face me with a ironic little bow like a courtier, absurd in her green hospital gown. Her eyes were shining, no longer with tears. “Thine beauty and wit are beyond counting, the strength of thy limbs and the spirit of thy brow … something something,” she collapsed into laughter, “I’ve lost my train of thought, Heather. Thank you.”
“Raine,” I tutted softly, blushing. “Improvised ‘ye olde’ poetry is not the way to win my heart.”
“I’ve already won it, haven’t I?” She winked.
“And you need to rest,” I tutted.
“I need to dance, more like. I could dance with you right now, you know? Spin you round the room and sweep your off your feet.”
“Don’t. But also, good. Are you feeling-”
“Never better.” She sighed and shot me a little salute. “Your psychopath construct girlfriend is ready to resume being herself.”
“Raine! Don’t say like that you’re going to … close up.”
“I’ve never been closed. And this ain’t no act.” She leaned forward, planted her hands either side of my thighs on the bed, and drew in close, suppressing a wince as she put weight through her wounded leg muscle. The position made my heart leap, even more inappropriate than the kiss earlier.
“It’s just me,” she said.
“ … we … we need to talk about us.” I went squeaky in front of her sudden aggression. “Sometime. And jealousy. And … Zheng. But not right now. You’ve had enough for one night.”
“Oh?” Raine’s lips kinked. “I don’t think I’ve had anywhere near enough of you.”
“Now that is the morphine talking,” I squeaked.
A knock on the door – three short raps – forced us apart like a pair of teenagers in a bad melodrama, or at least it would have if Raine had been able to straighten up fast enough, or cared enough to try. I was left to do all the work of making it seem like we hadn’t been about get intimate on a hospital bed, scooting back and sideways.
The door opened on cue and Twil stood there in the doorway, paused, and raised her eyebrows.
“ … Heather, you were supposed to put her to bed, not bed her,” she said.
“I’m not!” I blushed a deep red as Raine straightened up and laughed.
“Yeah, Twil,” Raine shot back. “Get it right. I’m the one doing the bedding here.”
“Raine!” I hissed, and swatted at her arm.
“Whatever. Save for it home,” Twil grunted. “No coppers coming back to talk to you two in a minute or something, right?”
“Nobody else has been in yet,” I told her. “Why? And where’s Lozzie? You did find her, didn’t you?”
Twil sighed and shrugged and looked back over her shoulder, down the length of the hospital corridor, and gestured with a nod.
A second later, Lozzie appeared in all her fluttery, flouncy glory of pastel poncho and bouncing braid, happy to see us from beneath her heavy eyelids. Both of her arms were hidden all the way inside her poncho, folded around her midsection as she hunched forward, as if nursing a stomach ache.
“Oh, Lozzie, there you are,” I sighed in relief. “Are you okay? Are you feeling sick or something?”
“Sneaking mission success!” Lozzie announced with a fey little giggle. She skipped into the room and Twil pulled the door shut behind her, closing the four of us in.
“Found her in the canteen,” Twil said. “But I had to hang around to uh, play lookout, like. I think hiding from the rozzers has got her kinda hyper?” She was trying to sound unimpressed, but couldn’t quite get there. I blinked, uncomprehending.
“Lasagna!” Lozzie announced.
She straightened up and used an elbow to flip up the hem of her poncho, like a stage magician revealing an animal beneath a cloak. Cradled in her arms lay a stack of four transparent plastic food containers, the kind one might obtain from a hospital canteen. Each one held a very sloppy and meaty looking lasagna.
“Lasagana. Lasaaagaaa,” went Lozzie.
“Did … did you steal those?” I asked.
“No! I charmed a lunch lady! She was very pretty!”
“ … you mean you sweet talked her, yes? You didn’t hypnotise canteen staff or something? Lozzie?”
“She was very convincing. And technically didn’t lie,” Twil told me, as Lozzie set about tucking the boxed lasagnas into a carrier bag she’d apparently lifted from elsewhere. I boggled, Twil shrugged, and Raine went: “Lasagna!”
“You seem more with it,” Twil said to Raine. “So, got shot, huh?”
Raine winked and pointed double finger-guns at Twil. “First tiiiiime!”
“Last time,” I said with an unintended whip-crack in my voice. Raine pretended to flinch and salute – then winced hard.
“Ow. Okay,” she said. “Still bruised from where I fell over after the bullet. Feels like I’ve been kicked in the arse with a steel boot. Morphine only does so much.” She waved off my useless gesture of comfort – what would I do, anyway? Rub her backside?
Twil rolled her eyes. “You need to be in bed, fucko. And not with Heather.”
“Do as she says, please, Raine,” I told her.
“Yes ma’am, right away ma’am, my pleasure ma’am,” said Raine – but she finally sat down, with a wince as she grasped her leg, and let out a long breath as she stretched out on the bed. I put my hand in hers.
“We still waiting for the doctors, right?” Twil asked. “To give Raine her marching orders and all that?”
I nodded. “I’m staying right here with Raine until she’s discharged,” I said. “And I suggest you both do as well. And then we’re all going home. We have a lot of pieces to pick up.”
“Where’s Stack?” Raine asked. “Under lock and key?”
“Under Zheng,” I said. “Don’t think about her yet, please.”
“I’m going to eat so much lasagna,” Lozzie stage-whispered.
Twil twisted her head sideways to look at the dressing on Raine’s leg, and let out a low whistle. “S’a big one alright.”
“Yeah, might have to borrow Evee’s stick for a few weeks,” said Raine.
They were looking at each other, Lozzie was looking at her pilfered food, and for a brief moment only I was looking at the wide windows out onto the night.
Our reflections stood in the darkness, broken up into static by rain and the distant lights of Sharrowford at night. Lozzie, Twil, Raine on the bed, and me, sitting, looking back at myself.
My reflection winked.
‘Good show,’ mouthed Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight as-me, in private silence.