“I can’t believe I bought all these,” I said, again.
“Six,” Praem intoned softly, like the striking of a cloth-muffled bell.
“Technically speaking, you didn’t buy anything,” Evelyn said from beside me, punctuating her words with a clack of walking stick on concrete as we descended the pedestrian ramp in the multi-story car park. “I did, and I’m allowed to do whatever I want.”
“I do what I waaaaant,” Lozzie sang under her breath.
“But I still can’t believe it,” I repeated. “I’ve never even really picked out my own clothes before. I don’t feel like I’m allowed to. I can’t believe these are mine.”
“Seven, eight,” Praem continued.
“I really can’t.”
Raine was at the front of our little group, a few paces further ahead down the ramp. She pivoted on her crutch and walked backwards for two steps, pulling out a quick-draw finger-gun and flicking her thumb down to shoot me through the heart.
“Believe it, cutie!” she said.
“R-Raine … ”
Self-conscious, embarrassed – and enjoying it on a level I did not care to analyse right now – I choked out a giggle, or at least an awful little sound that passed for a giggle to my ears. I clutched the bag from Hartellies tighter against my chest, as if an unseen hand might take it from me, or the cold wind passing through the open sides of the multi-story car park might pluck it from my arms.
Raine shot me a wink, then stumbled ever so slightly as she pivoted forwards again. She hid the fumble well, suppressed the wince as she put too much sudden weight through her still-healing left thigh. She turned the weakness into a rolling swagger-step. But that didn’t stop my heart from leaping into my throat and my feet from scurrying to catch up with her.
“Raine? Raine, please be careful, I saw that. Please.”
I loosened my grip on my bag of goodies and put one hand awkwardly on her side, in case she needed support, in case the unthinkable happened.
She flashed a rakish grin down at me. “S’all your fault, Heather.”
“ … wa-wha-”
“I’ve gone all weak at the knees from the thought of your new getup.” She nodded down at the bag with a twinkle in her eye.
I tutted and blushed. If she’d used that husky, private, teasing tone with me in any other context, I would have melted like candle wax under a blowtorch. Inside, I squirmed with barely suppressed pleasure, but this was not appropriate, not when she was deploying the compliment as a shield.
“Raine,” I struggled to phrase a coherent sentence. “I do not appreciate-”
“The deflection, yeah, sorry.” She cleared her throat, not meeting my eyes but looking ahead to where the ramp opened out onto the car park floors. “I don’t like to stumble, that’s all. Thanks for being here.”
“Uh … of- of course, you’re welcome, yes. Always.”
I hadn’t expected an acknowledgement, let alone an apology, certainly not so quickly. Raine really had changed.
“Still serious about the outfit though,” she added in a faux-casual tone. “Should need a license to be that spicy. You’re gonna burn my tongue and present a choking hazard, if you know what I mean.”
I blushed harder this time, denied the bulwark of irritation. I stared down at my shoes for a couple of paces. “I still can’t believe I did it.”
“Ten,” Praem sang.
“Praem?” I glanced back over my shoulder at Praem, who was carrying the majority of the other bags. “I’m sorry, Praem? What are you counting?”
Praem locked eyes with me, and declined to answer.
Evelyn snorted a single laugh. “She’s keeping track of the number of times you’ve expressed disbelief at your own acquisitions.”
“Yes,” Praem intoned.
“O-oh … I’m sorry, Praem, I didn’t mean to make this day about me-”
“Us,” Praem interrupted.
She didn’t need to expand that point. I nodded and looked down, chastised by kindness.
Of course, Praem couldn’t possibly know how hard I was distracting myself right now. I would tie myself in knots over my new clothes to avoid thinking about what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had revealed to me.
“Day’s not over yet,” Raine said with rousing approval. “Gotta get you home and get you in that full outfit, hey?”
“Don’t be disgusting, Raine,” Evelyn drawled. “All these new clothes are going in the laundry first. You don’t wear new things without first … well … ” Evelyn trailed off, her eyes lingering on the pink cat-ears beanie which Lozzie was already wearing.
“It’s okay,” Lozzie stage-whispered. “I’m special.”
Evelyn cleared her throat. “Fair enough. Lozzie gets special dispensation, but you don’t get to make Heather wear anything without washing it first.”
“Dunno if I can wait that long,” Raine said, and flashed me a wink.
I clutched the bag to my chest again, burning and self-conscious, and trying not to think about polyamory.
The bag from Hartellies – or rather, my bag from Hartellies, in addition to the two Praem was carrying, along with the rest of our haul – contained some of the most lovely clothes I’d ever owned, not counting the incredible scale-patterned Superdry hoodie which Evelyn had forcefully bought for me earlier in the day.
Back in the clothing store, after Sevens had vanished from the mirror, I’d disappointed everybody by emerging still dressed exactly as I had entered.
“Aww, Heather?” Raine’s face had fallen with sweet concern, misinterpreting my stricken state. “It’s okay, it’s cool. You don’t fancy it anymore? We can try another thing if you like. Or just, hey, sit down and advise Praem, yeah?”
“No, I-” I choked on my words, on the sight of Raine’s face, on polyamory.
“She’s fiiiiine,” Lozzie stage whispered. “She’s changing her mind flipways!”
“Flipways, yes,” I gathered myself. Oh, Lozzie, you were more accurate than you knew. Or maybe you did know. But this was neither the time nor the place.
Sevens had one good point amid the madness; if I was going to do this, I may as well feel good about myself while breaking everything.
So I’d screwed up my courage, marched right across the fitting area with Lozzie bouncing at my shoulder like a pixie companion, and spoken to the attendant at the little desk.
And yes, as it turned out, they did have some less popular colours of ribbed sweater in the stock room. Old leftovers, stray returns, abandoned styles.
“Only this one I’m afraid, no other sizes,” the attendant had told me, and I’d had to remind myself forcefully that this pretty young woman was not Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight right now. “It’s in small. Is that-”
“Perfect,” I’d breathed, on the verge of hyperventilating with sheer nerves and brittle courage. “Thank you so much. Yes, I’ll take it. Right away. I-I mean, I’ll try it on. Thank you again.”
One polo-neck ribbed sweater. Tight like a hug. Bubblegum pink.
Raine’s face had lit up like a carnival.
The other components of Sevens’ sartorial suggestion were far less easy to source. Hartellies didn’t carry anything like the triple-layered skirt of frill and fluff and lace, it simply wasn’t that kind of place. Praem finished up her wardrobe randomisation session and carried an armful of clothes to the register, so Evelyn could pay, and I added my single sweater at her prompting.
“Are you certain you don’t want to get a new skirt too?” she’d asked me. “Because I will spend that money on you eventually, one way or the other.”
“No bullying,” Praem intoned. The young man behind the cash register had stared at that, at Praem’s musical tone, but his eyes had quickly slid off her.
“Can we save it for now?” I asked.
Evelyn raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”
“I’d like to look for something else,” I said. “Something specific. Probably on the internet. ” I shot a nervous glance at Raine, but she and Lozzie were checking out belts while we paid for the clothes.
“I’m going to assume I don’t want to know,” Evelyn said. “Fair enough.”
Evelyn had paid. The figure made my eyes water. Praem received two large, smart, stylish bags stuffed with self-definition.
“How much have you spent today, in total, Evee?” I asked.
“Never you mind.”
“Retail therapy,” Praem added.
By the time we plunged back into the labyrinth of Swanbrook Mall, my burst dam of heart-juddering white-headed courage had run out into a confused jittery trickle. Felt like my head was going to melt. I’d actually bought the thing. Not the jumper which Raine had suggested, not the little personal experiment in style, but element one of three of Sevens’ absurdly girly version of me.
Well, element one of four. But I was not going to dye my hair. No thank you.
Unlike homo abyssus, I could achieve this in reality without putting my internal organs at risk. And it was a wonderful distraction.
I wasn’t completely unaware of what I was doing. The events of the previous six months had proved to me that I did possess a certain kind of courage, the split-second decision making of life or death, and I had come through with that time and again. But this was different, this heady cocktail of self-indulgence and embarrassment and pleasure as fragile as dried petals. This courage was slow, grinding inside my gut like a bellyful of stones, and ultimately born of deflection.
I drew the courage to buy girly clothes from a steadfast refusal to face what Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight had told me.
We scouted out a couple more shops in Swanbrook Mall – Topshop and Next – but Praem seemed satisfied with her selections from Hartellies, I couldn’t find anything that even approximated the beautiful skirt Sevens’ had been wearing, and we were all beginning to slow down. It was high time to drive home and have a big late lunch. I resigned myself to internet shopping, with all the accompanying self-consciousness of Raine inevitably peering over my shoulder.
But then, as we decided to head back to the escalators, towards the suspended walkway which led to the multi-story car park, a vision in yellow led me astray.
We were passing by one of the offshoot corridors, the sorts of wrong turns which terminated in public toilets or service doorways with ‘Staff Only’ signs, little artificial alleyways lined with stores which had resigned themselves to missing out on most of the mall’s foot traffic, places that sold CBD oil or computer parts, with grimace-inducing names like Ye Olde Crystale Shoppe or Tekniks.
And in the corner of my eye, a figure all in yellow – a voluptuous figure of pure feminine physicality, wrapped in flowing yellow satin and trailing scarves fluttering in unfelt wind – stepped into a store, and vanished.
I’d stopped to stare down the artificial alleyway, along white plastic walls. Had I seen that, or hallucinated it? A spirit – a sort of slug thing made of raw organs – was inching along the ceiling, but it hadn’t cast that bait, it didn’t care. I leaned forward and tried to see what manner of shop Sevens was trying to make me notice. The name hung over the doorway in absurd faux-calligraphy letters.
“‘Scorching Subject’?” I murmured. “What now, Sevens?”
“Heather, woo?” Raine waved a hand in my peripheral vision. “Ground control to space cadet Morell? You okay?”
“Ah, um. Sorry,” I said, flustering a smile. The others had drawn to a curious halt a few paces onward, but Raine had come back for me. “I-I got distracted by something.”
Raine followed my previous line of sight and lit up in recognition. “Oh hey, I remember that brand. They’re still around? Wow.”
“Can we take a quick look?” I asked, before I lost my nerve.
Raine raised an eyebrow, faintly amused. “Sure.” She glanced back over her shoulder. “Hey, Loz, you might like this one too. C’mon.”
We ventured down the little corridor, past a shop that sold refurbished record players and a hole in the wall that I gathered used to contain a perfume store, until we stood in front of Scorching Subject, and I realised what it was.
“Yeah. Goth jazz.” Raine cracked a huge grin. “Scene kiddies. Teenyboppers. Place must be on its last legs, this stuff went out of style before I hit puberty.”
She wasn’t wrong. Scorching Subject looked like a sun baked corpse picked over by vultures and left for the flies. A sign in the window informed us that ‘Everything Must Go!!! Closing Down Sale, all items %75 off!!!’ but the sign itself looked at least six months old. Inside, a high ceiling lined with tacky spotlights picked out clothing racks and spinny turnstile displays, mostly empty now, populated by only the most repulsively silly belt buckles and a few garments a witch might wear to a secret woodland ritual. A single staff member sat bored and distracted at the register, no older than any of us, staring at his phone. At least he looked the part, with his dyed black hair slicked down over one eye and those huge intimidating hoop piercings in both earlobes.
A wisp of yellow, the glint of sunlight on chalk, slipped around the corner of some clothing shelves.
“Yeah, I know, right?” Raine said, misreading my huff. “Kinda sad. I like this stuff, it’s got a place. Should have a place. Goth girls are cute.”
“Yes,” Praem agreed.
“Ugh,” went Evelyn, wrinkling her nose.
“Wheee!” went Lozzie, going straight past us and into the store, bee-lining for a display full of absurd hats.
“Oh, really?” Evelyn tutted.
“We should go in,” I said.
“You serious?” Raine asked me, genuinely surprised. “You want something here? Right on, Heather, go for it.”
“For Night Praem,” I lied. “Isn’t that right, Praem?”
“Night Praem,” Praem replied.
“Night Praem?” Evelyn enunciated so hard I thought she was going to do herself an injury. “What is this, her goth alter ego? Praem, you haven’t told me anything about this.”
But it was too late for Day Praem. I was already wandering into the store, pulling Raine in after me, following Sevens’ breadcrumbs.
To my complete and total lack of surprise, I did not find a tall and shapely woman in yellow behind the depleted shelving, but instead a rather sad looking series of rolling hanger racks full of gauzy tops, spooky tshirts, and belts as wide as my arm.
“What am I supposed to see?” I murmured under my breath.
“We looking for anything in particular?” Raine asked, flicking through some of the tshirts. “Oh hey, you know who’d love these? Kimberly. Here, this one’s got a dragon on it. And this one has a dragon and a wizard, score.”
“Sort of just browsing … ”
I trailed off, relaxed with a long, slow breath, and let my peripheral vision guide me to a small yellow tag poking out between two long black skirts. Tentatively, half expecting Seven-Shades-of-Shop-Attendant to appear from a blind corner, I approached the skirts and parted them, in search of buried treasure.
And there it was. Knee-length, made from three separate layers of frill and fluff and lace, in dark purple like boiling midnight skies, accented with void-black. How this rare find had survived the carrion eaters, I had no idea.
Tacky. Girly. Flouncy and silly and actually beautiful, everything I was not.
I sighed again as I pulled it off the rack. “Really, Sevens? I thought you were making the outfit up.”
The layers were like the flesh-skirts of a jellyfish, frilled and ruffled and faintly toxic to the eye. The me of six months ago would have hated the thing; but to the me right then it was an object of desire, even though it embarrassed me to admit so. A faint echo of abyssal aesthetics, the same as with the scale-pattern hoodie Evelyn had so generously bought for me, the same in the colourful display of bubblegum pink sweater.
For a heady moment I couldn’t tell what I was doing. Was I distracting myself from thoughts of polyamory by forcing a confrontation with a totally different set of hang ups? Or was I preparing for the plunge?
Secretly, I felt like polyamory was for people with a few relationships under their belt. Extroverts. Party girls. Pretty people.
But anything would be possible, with even a false echo of abyssal aesthetics.
Then I would be beautiful too.
“Heeeeeeey, look at thaaaat,” said Raine, catching up with me and breaking into a grin. “Where’d you find that? You brainmath your way into a sixth sense for diamonds in the rough?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
She caught the wistful conflict in my eyes, saw something was off. “You don’t like it?”
“No, it’s not my style,” I said. “It’s terrible, too girly. It’s more Lozzie than me. I will die on the spot the moment you see me in it. I’m going to buy it anyway.”
“Yeeeeah, rock on.” Raine lit up, all for me. “That’s more like it!”
“Thank you, yes. I shall endeavour to ‘rock’ to my best.”
My abyssal-prosthetic skirt was not the only thing we purchased in the goth clothing shop. Raine and I emerged from the skeletal racking and found that Lozzie had gotten stuck into the suitably gothic selection of novelty hats. Somehow she had convinced or bullied or simply overpowered Evelyn into trying one on.
“Not a word,” Evelyn deadpanned at us, from beneath the floppy brim of a midnight black witch’s hat.
Raine decided to buy the tshirt she’d found for Kimberly, an extra-long dress-style affair in black, with a graphic on the front of three unicorns galloping across a moonlit moor. And to Evelyn’s curious, sharp interest, Praem had picked up a small box of makeup.
“You want to try on black eyeliner?” she asked Praem, and did a stellar job of controlling her own distaste.
Praem only stared back, so the makeup joined our haul as well.
Between the bubblegum pink sweater hidden in overflow stock and the triple-layered skirt tucked away in a forgotten corner of a store that should have gone out of business, I was beginning to suspect that Sevens wanted me to acquire the entire outfit here, today, right now. But this was my limit. I doubted there was anywhere in Sharrowford one could purchase trainers with LEDs in the soles.
“Light up shoes, absolutely not,” I whispered under my breath as we went up the escalator.
“Heather, sorry?” Raine prompted, and squeezed my hand.
“Oh, um, nothing.”
The last minute detour had put us far past time for lunch, and we’d already agreed to avoid the shopping centre’s food court, up on the top floor. The first and only time I’d been up there was to meet Alexander Lilburne in an out of business coffee shop, and none of us wished to ruin a perfectly nice day with memories of attempted kidnapping. So we made our way back along the route toward the multi-story car park, up to the rear of the shopping centre’s top floor, where fake marble and bright lights gave way to concrete walkway and grubby glass windows suspended three stories up over the roads below.
The enclosed bridge connected Swanbrook Mall directly to a series of shallow sloping pedestrian walkways, which climbed the height of the multi-story car park, separated by automatic doors to keep the heat in. The multi-story itself was open to the fresh spring air, each floor ringed by chest-high concrete bulwark but not much else.
My blush and Raine’s teasing banter died away as we stepped through, among the thin trickle of other lunchtime shoppers.
“Don’t know about you lot,” Evelyn drawled, “but the first thing I’m going to do when we get home is make lunch.”
“I am making lunch,” Praem said in her sing-song voice.
“You will make lunch, you mean,” Evelyn said. “Tense is important, I don’t mean to-” She cut herself off, and frowned at Praem as we descended the wide concrete ramp. “Wait, no, you didn’t just-”
“I will make lunch,” Praem intoned.
Evelyn huffed. Lozzie giggled. I suppressed a smile. Outwitted by her daughter again.
The car park floors themselves were dingy and grubby affairs compared to the false majesty of the shopping centre, all roughly textured concrete in dirty grey, held up by thick support pillars amid a maze of pedestrian pathways, half-filled parking spaces, smelly puddles, and discarded wrappers. The open sides let in some natural light, but the centre of each floor was dim with orange street lighting from little insets in the ceiling. Lozzie made a game of hopping and skipping ahead, over the walkway markers and crossings. I subconsciously pressed myself closer to Raine, as we crossed the tangled space toward her car parked on the far side.
We were less than twenty feet from the car when Lozzie stopped.
She froze mid-step and her head flicked around like a rodent sighting a snake. She quickly scurried back to me and grabbed my arm, pressing herself so close she almost tripped me. A small animal, looking for solidarity.
“Lozzie? It’s okay, I know it’s a bit grim in here but-”
“Heather,” she hissed – tight and afraid.
She was staring off to our left, at nothing. Ragged rows of parked cars. A few spirits lingered here and there: a dark shadow beneath a van with cartoonish red eyes, a stilt-legged insect walking upside down on the ceiling, a weird amalgamation of deer and bird covered in fractally splitting antler shapes as it flomped down a row of vehicles.
“Yo, what is it?” Raine said, alert, switched on, all here all of a sudden at Lozzie’s fearful tone.
“What’s this?” Evelyn prompted, following our collective line of sight.
“I-I don’t know,” I said. “Lozzie, there’s nothing-”
“I know that man,” Lozzie hissed. “He was one of my brother’s friends.”
Oh. A person.
I’d expected a servitor or an assassin or a magic cloud of sleeping gas – or Seven-Shades dressed as a traffic warden, here to give us a comedy ticket – not a regular human being.
The man Lozzie had recognised wasn’t the slightest bit interested in us.
A few rows over, just beyond earshot, he was talking on his mobile phone. With one hand on the top of his car and one foot planted on the rim of the open driver’s side door, he had the distinct air of calling home to make sure he’d not forgotten anything on his shopping trip. Maybe in his early thirties at the oldest, he looked trim and fit, with artfully tousled hair and a few days of stubble, dressed in jeans and a Manchester United football shirt. Utterly unremarkable.
“Right, I see him,” Raine dropped her voice, going very still. “Lozzie, friend or ‘friend’, is he one of-”
“One of my brother’s men.” Lozzie nodded rapidly.
A wave of undeniable instinct crashed through my nervous system. Phantom limbs shot out wide into a hunting pattern, tugging on support muscles by sheer psychosomatic suggestion. I felt my pupils dilate, my extremities tingle, my veins flood with adrenaline. My breath fluttered as muscles vibrated with the need to move, move fast, move now. My heart climbed into my throat and my vision narrowed to a tunnel and my thoughts went white-hot with predatory focus, and I very nearly pulled clear of both Raine and Lozzie to tear this man limb from limb.
The urge was overwhelming and terrifying and made perfect sense – and would have been a very bad idea to follow.
If I’d given in and did as my body demanded, thrown myself at this unsuspecting ex-cultist like a berserker, I was unlikely to actually hurt him much. I was still just me, five foot nothing, with very little muscle. My options for removing threats were brainmath, or tentacles via brainmath, and those required a clear head, equations, and careful thinking.
But instinct screamed.
Parasite carrier. Disease bearer. Agent of the enemy.
Kill it, screamed the cold survivalist logic of the abyss.
“Woah, Heather?” Raine hissed, squeezing my hand. My palms had gone clammy, my back coated in cold sweat, and I was shuddering all over. Lozzie squeezed against my other side, somehow aware she needed to anchor me.
“If he was one of Alexander’s men,” Evelyn murmured, putting voice to the logic inside my body, “that means he’s either Edward’s man now – or he’s an Eye cultist who escaped before their defiant ritual.”
A hiss climbed up my throat. I wished with every fibre of my being that Zheng was here.
“And,” Evelyn carried on, “that man does not look like an outsider-ridden tortured shell from here.”
Ape brain took a moment to catch up with abyssal logic.
“Oh,” I breathed. “Of course. Right. Right.”
I could barely think. The predatory instinct was similar to the hunting urge I’d felt when I’d stood alone with Zheng in the night, the pull to run and leap and bare my claws in the dark, but magnified a thousand times, directed at a visible target. Even backing down now, I was shaking and panting.
“Heather, hey, you okay?” Raine tried to catch my eye. “Heather?”
“She will be!” Lozzie whispered.
“ … w-we should get to the car,” I managed to hiss. “He doesn’t even know we’re here.”
Evelyn frowned at me. “You heard what I said, this cannot be a coincidence.”
“You think Eddy-boy is stupid enough to tell his low-level thugs where to find him?” Raine asked. “What say we commit a mugging?”
“No,” Evelyn snapped.
“Maybe it is a coincidence!” I squeaked. “Not everything has to do with us! Maybe he was just shopping?”
“And maybe it’s a trap,” Evelyn grumbled. “Praem, do not even think about it. Nobody approach this man.”
“We could find out,” Raine said, low and soft and lethal, and slipped her free hand inside her leather jacket.
But the ex-cultist chose that moment to end his phone call. I saw a little smile and an ironic shake of his head as he said goodbye to whoever was on the other end. Without looking up at us, he got into his car and shut the door. The engine purred to life a few seconds later, far too quickly for Raine to catch up with him and knock on the window, even without the handicap of her crutch.
His car backed slowly and sensibly out of the parking space, then turned to leave.
“See?” I hissed, then hiccuped so loudly it echoed off the concrete. Cold sweat broke over me and the hunting instinct finally began to ebb away, leaving me hollow and exhausted. “It was just a coincidence, just a … ”
The car’s route brought it alongside us, creeping along the narrow passageways of concrete and speed bumps and stop signs. My phantom limbs still itched to grab the wheels, stop the car, pull the man out by the scruff of his neck and strangle him on the spot.
And as the car passed us, the man turned to look; slowly, directly, filled with blind purpose.
Ragged dark bags ringed the haunted emptiness in his eyes. Gaunt cheeks, skin sallow with exhaustion, lips cracked and dry. His hands on the wheel showed nails bitten to the quick, cuticles gnawed raw and bleeding and scabbed. The veneer of normality was a thin and cracking shell on his placid expression. From a distance he had looked almost normal, but up close, even through the glass of the driver’s side window, this was quite clearly a human being out on the lost reaches of sanity.
And he had seen me.
Abyssal instinct coiled up like gooseflesh in freezing air. My phantom limbs wrapped around me in a protective barrier. I had the sudden urge to run away.
Eye contact lasted only half a second, and then the car was past us.
“Heather? Heather, what was that? What’s wrong?” Raine was asking, even as she fumbled her phone out, snapping a picture of the number plate.
“Heathy?” Lozzie was squeezing me, her own fear forgotten as I struggled to keep my knees.
“Oh dear,” Evelyn deadpanned. “I was wrong, wasn’t I?”
I nodded, numb all over.
“What?” Raine asked, looking back from her phone screen and squeezing my shoulder. “Look, I half wanna tail him in the car, but I’m not leaving you here like this, Heather, you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“That was an Eye cultist,” I whispered. “One who escaped, before the rest defied it. And he knows who I am.”
We spent the rest of the day descending into curtain-twitching paranoia.
The drive home was bad enough. Our good cheer was gone. Raine drove again, so at least she had to focus on the road, but her tension was plain to see every time her eyes flickered upward to check the rear view mirror, expecting a car on our tail at any moment. Evelyn went quiet and intense, frowning into the middle distance as her mind chewed on possibilities and potentials and preventative measures. Praem sat still and straight-backed, her special day rather spoiled, but she didn’t complain.
Lozzie sat next to me in the back of the car, stroking my hair like I was a spooked hound – which was exactly how I felt.
Our fashion show plans fell apart once we got home, before we even got in the front door, sacrificed on the altar of security. Raine spent a full ten minutes standing in the garden gateway, propped up on her crutch, watching the end of the road. Half of me grew incandescent with worry, with the way she was suppressing pain behind protective intensity, while the other half of me wanted to scurry into her shadow and clutch the back of her jacket.
“He’s not going to fucking drive up and shoot us,” Evelyn hissed at her. “Get indoors, you idiot.”
“He might. Wait.”
Waiting drew Zheng’s curiosity, and eventually she ventured out under the thin spring skies. We told her what we’d seen.
“Laoyeh gropes blind in the dark,” she purred, “but its reach is long and wide.”
“It was a coincidence,” I repeated. Wide eyed. Twitchy. I did not believe my own words.
Zheng put a hand on my head, and I desperately wanted her to pick me up.
“There is no such thing as coincidence for Gods, shaman. But none shall touch you.”
“Well said,” Raine added, staring at the end of the road.
Lunch plans collapsed too. With the front door closed and locked and bolted, we fell apart in our separate frantic directions. Evelyn went to check the Spider-servitors, then clacked about from room to room, doing what she could to reinforce the ancient wards embedded in the walls and foundations of the house. Eventually she ended up in the kitchen, quiet with contemplation, drumming her fingers on the kitchen table and staring into the depths of an untouched cup of tea.
Lozzie went upstairs to find Tenny.
Raine gave me a hug, told me it was going to be okay, and then she could not stay still. She made endless circuits of the windows, staring out into the street, across the back garden, checking the latches and locks, popping painkillers without water.
I loved her for that, but she needed to sit with me.
Abyssal instinct told me to find the deepest, darkest, most secluded part of the house, and curl up in a protective ball until I was certain the vast predators out in the cold water had moved on. The instinct was out of place, of course, no different to the ape imperative to climb trees to escape danger. Instead I spent half an hour haunting Raine’s shadow, embarrassed whenever she noticed me and waved me over for a hug, because it was never enough. Abyssal limbs tried to cling to her, but it was not enough. Nothing was enough.
Edward Lilburne was a frightening adversary, but at least he was only a person. Our last brush with the Eye had nearly killed us all.
Zheng left the house, coat collar up, eyes narrowed to razor-sharp slits.
“I go to hunt, shaman. Laoyeh’s slaves are clumsy.”
As she’d slipped out the back door, I’d tried to speak up, to say “please don’t go, please stay with me.”
But the words had stuck in my throat. Raine had been within earshot. Pathetic Heather, this was the perfect moment to take the plunge, an excuse to ask for both of them to comfort me. Sevens was undoubtedly rolling her eyes in exasperation.
Maybe that’s why I couldn’t. I didn’t want it to be an excuse. It had to be real, and raw, and without reservation.
Team effort rescued us eventually. Praem had retained more than enough emotional stability to stand in the kitchen and make a stack of sandwiches, and the first thing to break through my shell of nervous tension was a bite of peanut butter, forced upon me by Praem’s insistent stare. Lozzie and Tenny appeared too, and Tenny innately recognised my tension and wound her tentacles around my shoulders and forearms. She stood half-guard with me, until Lozzie’s gentle encouragement pulled us all back into the kitchen, our orbits reuniting at last. The lovely new clothes sat forgotten in their bags by the door, until Praem began the laborious process of running the washing machine multiple times.
“They’re still around, then,” I said, sitting at the table, halfway through a single chocolate cookie, the only thing I felt like forcing down.
“We always knew some might have survived,” Evelyn answered, staring into her tea. “In theory.”
“Maybe he was the only one.”
“Sure hope so,” Raine said, leaning against the kitchen counter so she could glance out of the window. She caught the hollow look in my eyes, and shot a wink and a grin my way.
“I wouldn’t wager on that,” Evelyn mused out loud. “A splinter faction. Anybody who rejected the rebellion against the Eye, left the house before they did their ritual. From everything we saw, Sarika and the others, anyone who’s survived this long with the Eye in their head must possess considerable psychological resilience.”
“Which means it might just be this guy alone,” Raine said. “Right.”
Evelyn huffed and rolled her eyes. “Keep up, Raine.”
“He has to have a support network,” I said, filling in Evelyn’s gap. “You don’t survive something like that alone. I should know. He has others, people who understand.”
“Exactly,” Evelyn grumbled. “Did you call Sarika?”
“Yeah,” Raine sighed. “She didn’t recognise the description of the guy. Said she’s not been contacted or anything, but hey, can we trust her?”
“On this, yes,” I said. “She’d scream so loud we’d know from here.”
My phantom limbs tried to curl up tighter. I wanted to vanish in a dark hole.
“Heath, Heath,” Tenny trilled softly against my side.
“I wish Zheng would come home,” I said, and felt Raine’s eyes on me.
Tenny didn’t leave me alone the entire rest of the day. She made herself my security blanket, until she and Lozzie passed me off to Raine at almost eleven o’clock at night, after two hours snuggled up with the pair of them in the warm safe dark in the core of the house. But I couldn’t sleep. Even after Raine had finally relented and ceased her one-woman watch and turned to comforting me, rubbing my back in bed, being the big spoon in the dark, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t let myself. Every slide toward the edge was arrested, my mind scrambling back up toward tattered consciousness.
Abyssal senses stayed stretched, listening for scratches at the utmost rim, for probing at our defenses. Or that’s what I told myself.
Really I was listening for Zheng, waiting for her to come home.
She would not slink back until the small hours of the morning. Maybe she would return with the severed head of the Eye’s slave, or maybe she wouldn’t, but I found it hard to care. I didn’t want that. I wanted her.
Abyssal instinct demanded her be close to me, and that was all that mattered. And I could not sleep until she was by my side, safe, and mine.
Same as Raine.
Bodily need clouds the meaning of time, especially deep in the night and deep in the bed covers, curled up tight and warm alongside another soft ape, so intimate and close that one forgets where one’s own body ends and the other begins. So it was with Raine and I, that strange night of half-sleep and semi-listening, snatches of nightmare blurring into reality, and reality distorting into dreamlike nonsense.
Her hand was down the front of my pajama bottoms when I woke up, but bizarrely there was nothing sexual about it when I realised the hand wasn’t my own. Her hand was my hand. The phantom tentacle wrapped around her waist and backside was not mine, but hers. Our legs were tangled, her ankle between mine, and for a moment I couldn’t tell which feet were which. Our breathing had synchronised in our sleep, and I tasted her on my lips without needing to kiss a dry mouth.
But there was third body, a presence on the edge of my consciousness, like a weight pressing on me through several layers of clothing. Impossible to ignore, but not yet part of me.
“Zheng’s home,” I murmured into the dark.
“Mmmmm?” Raine made a sleepy noise behind me, and I did a tiny, tiny flinch. Hadn’t realised she’d awoken along with me. Synchronicity, unspoken and instinctive. I took heart.
“Can feel it,” I added, slurring. “Her.”
We both slipped back down the steps of lighter slumber. Part of me wanted to leap out of bed and rush downstairs, but I held that feeling in both hands like a glass ball, and tried to examine it for flaws. A dream I dare not grasp too hard lest it shatter and fill my flesh with razor shards.
“Wanna go to her?” Raine murmured.
“ … what time is it?” I asked.
“Mmmm … ” Raine rolled half over to check her phone on the bedside table. Her motion pulled open a small gap in the sheets, a chasm between us into which rushed a knife of cold air. Suddenly I could not abide that gap. That distance should not exist, should not be. “Nearly six,” Raine slurred, heavy with sleep. “Not bad, s’pretty good sleep for- hey, Heather?”
I squirmed around beneath the sheets until I was facing her, and closed the gap, burrowed in against her front, buried my face in her chest, pulled the sheets tight so no chill air could separate us. I allowed my phantom limbs to embrace her too, though she couldn’t feel them. I felt like a very small animal, seeking warmth.
“Mmmm, hey cuddle bug,” she said, voice reaching me from above the covers as she wrapped her arms around me. “What’s up?”
“How’s your leg?” I asked.
“Aching. Sore. Better though.”
“Will you take more painkillers this morning?”
“You don’t sound too happy about that?”
“I’m not. Your body is mine too, you know that?” I murmured, and only sleepiness gave me the courage. “You’re mine and I’m yours and we’re each other and you have to look after yourself for me.”
“You want me to stop taking the painkillers?” she asked.
“Not necessarily. That’s not the point.”
“I’ll dial them back,” she said, dead serious and awake all of a sudden. “Half dose this morning.” A little laugh escaped her lips. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been hooked on painkillers, I know my way around the rodeo, but I’ll prove it to you.”
I wiggled my head up, breached the heat of the covers and gasped in the open air, and met Raine’s face, inches away in the dark. She smelled of sleep sweat, mine and hers both. Shadowed in the gloom, I caught her smile.
“You’ve been hooked on painkillers?” I asked.
“Yeah. Back after I first met Evee, for a bit. Nothing major, just co-codamol for a few months.”
“For a few months? Raine, you never told me that.”
She shrugged beneath the sheets. “I needed it, at the time. I was homeless for a while, had some physical issues, you know?”
“Of course, of course, I’m not judging you, I never would … just … wow.” I went quiet, shaking my head in surprise. Raine kissed my forehead and stroked my hair away from my face.
“Half dose,” she repeated. “I’ll taper down.”
I screwed up my courage, before my mind woke all the way up, before a decade of being a good girl supplanted the blended purity of abyssal instinct and ape need.
“Raine,” I said. “Did you get around to playing the dice game with Zheng?”
“From last weekend? Nah, not yet. She kinda keeps her distance from me. My fault for being a rude bitch, but it’s cool, I respect her for-”
“Have you ever had a threesome?”
Despite the dark, I saw her blink, once.
I thought my heart was going to dance right out of my chest.
Then Raine laughed. “Uhhhhh, believe it or not, actually no, I haven’t. Bit of a playgirl in the past, yeah, I deserve my rep, but I’m sort of a one-target-at-a-time type. There was this incident in the first term here at university, where I almost did, but I have trouble splitting my attention.”
“Can’t imagine you turning it down,” I said, trying as hard as I could to keep my nerves out of my voice. But I couldn’t conceal the sudden adrenaline burst, the shaking in my core.
“Hey, Heather.” Raine squeezed me. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why you’re asking this.”
“It’s not what you’re assuming-”
“If you want to-”
“If you want a threesome, if it’s for you, if it’s what you really want, then I’m down, I’m game,” she told me.
“No!” I snapped.
I pushed myself away from her and half sat up in bed, thrusting myself out into the chill morning air in the dark, my phantom limbs trailing after me as I felt my eyes blaze, my heart lurch then steady with something I had not realised until now. More certain than I’d ever been before, I stared down at Raine as she pushed herself up after me, half naked and glorious and not getting it at all.
“Heather? Hey, if I’m getting this wrong, tell me, I’m listening. If you want a-”
“No,” I said. “No, Raine. We’re not going to have a threesome with Zheng.”
“It’s cool, I’m cool with-”
“Stop. We’re not going to have sex with Zheng. We’re going to play the dice and stories game with her.”
Raine blinked, surprised again. “Okay?”
“This has to be about more than sex. It has to be about what you want too. And Zheng. It has to be.” I huffed, shaking inside, but I’d said it. “Besides, I want to try on my new clothes, and I can hardly do that with both of you trying to get up my skirt.”