“But this isn’t about me!” I said.
Or rather, I attempted to say that. Vibrating like a caged butterfly, my heart pounding so hard I could feel it deep down in my belly, my head about to catch fire from my overheating brain, my hands quivering in front of me, and all I managed to do was squeak out an approximation of those words in a breathless rush.
Raine laughed, light and soft and oh so easy to fall in love with, and absolutely not what I needed right then.
“Heather, this is all about you,” she said. “Take it easy, yeah? We’re not gonna eat you.”
I gave her such a look, a grade-A frown through my incandescent blush. “Don’t.”
“I said we’re not!” She raised her hands in laughing surrender.
Zheng purred in agreement, long and low and loud, and that didn’t help either. Her purring was a siren’s lure, answered by a sympathetic response deep in my belly, a squirmy feeling that called me to step closer, stop worrying, curl up in her lap and purr back at her.
For a long moment I was stuck mute. Couldn’t finish my thought out loud, because my thoughts had been pounded into mush. Part of me wanted to kick off the slippers and shrug out of my pink-scaled hoodie and crawl back onto the bed and make unrepeatable noises. Abyssal instincts responded in kind, not with the aggression of flared tentacles and an urge to hiss, but with a soft-bodied, belly-showing vulnerability, a desire to puff my chest out and wiggle appendages I didn’t have. Perhaps luckily for the rest of me, that part didn’t possess veto powers in non-emergency situations.
Was this all it took to render my plans down into nothing? A little direct attention and light flirting?
I felt so seen in that moment, so exposed, with Raine and Zheng both looking at me, paying me attention, thinking about me. The beautiful new clothes made it worse – or better, depending on how much I listened to my body’s screaming instincts – because here I was, on display, presenting myself. No baggy hoodie to act as a shell, no blanket to curl up inside like a shy mollusk, no Tenny or Lozzie or Praem to hide behind.
My plumage was fluffed, my colouration bright; it was mating season, and I was in bloom.
I managed to heave down a shuddering breath – shuddering so hard I saw Raine’s expression twitch with actual concern – and pressed a hand to my chest, as if to hold myself back.
No, I snapped at myself. This is not about sex. You told both of them this is not about sex. To go back on my word would be indescribably fun; an awful part of me that was forever fourteen years old and flush with hormones knew that with one word I could have both of them with me on the bed, and I would be a gibbering mess within half a minute, and I had the power to do that, and nothing would stop me.
But it would be a betrayal of all three of us. It would solve nothing except my libido.
“I think we’ve broken her,” Raine stage-whispered to Zheng.
“The shaman is unbreakable,” Zheng said. “Have faith.”
“No, no,” I forced out. “You’ve come pretty close to … well. Yes. The less said the better. Better.”
“Heather,” Raine said my name with a sudden and unmistakable whip-crack of command. I flinched and stared at her, snared by the serious expression on her face.
“R-Raine?” I stammered.
“I can tell you’re turned on by this.”
A huge sigh escaped my lips. “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I-”
“Hey, nothing to be sorry for,” Raine went on, still hard and commanding, and I shut up instantly. “What you said earlier, in bed this morning, right there,” she pointed at our bed. “I took it seriously.”
This has to be about more than sex, my own words echoed in memory.
“I know, I know.” I cringed with guilt. Stupid horny Heather, I scolded myself for being an animal. “I’m sorry, I-”
“No, Heather, listen,” she almost snapped. “Don’t mistake flirting for going back on my word. Even if you give up, I won’t. I’ll refuse.”
I blinked at her.
“I’m saying no,” Raine finished.
“Mmmm,” Zheng rumbled in agreement. “Shaman, you threatened to leave rather than satisfy your own carnality. I too say no.”
Like an alley cat after the proverbial bucket of cold water, I came up blinking and sober from the depths of my own arousal. A chorus of non-consent from Raine and Zheng shut everything down. Fourteen-year-old-Heather gave up. Abyssal instinct receded into background noise. I looked away, terribly embarrassed and feeling very silly, trying not to hide behind my hands.
“She seriously said that to you?” Raine was asking Zheng.
“Mmmhmm. The shaman threatened to spend her day with the mooncalf, doing handstands in the park.”
“Well damn.” Raine said. “Don’t threaten yourself with a good time, Heather. Maybe you should do that anyway, have a day out with Lozzie sometime?”
“Yes, yes,” I sighed at myself, still shaking in the comedown from my own biological high, but much more in control now. “Look, this is meant to be about you two. You two becoming … well, if not friends, then at least … understanding? Talking. Trying to … ” I waved a hand as I searched for the right word.
“And we have. Loads’a talking.” Raine cracked a grin. “I think I get Zheng now. A bit. You get me, Zheng? Same for you?”
“The wolf had already won my respect,” Zheng purred. “Now she has my understanding.”
“That’s me?” Raine pointed at herself. “I’m ‘the wolf’? Come on, that’s gonna get confusing, with Twil and all. You are allowed to use my name, you know?”
“I don’t think Zheng goes much for names,” I said. “Listen, please, it’s not time to talk about me yet, it can’t be, you’re not … ready.”
“Heather,” Raine said my name with such indulgent affection. “What is the one thing Zheng and I have in common, more than anything else?” She pointed a finger-gun at me, then lowered her thumb in slow-motion, and mouthed ‘pow’, and I rolled my eyes and turned tomato-red again. “If we don’t talk about you, we ain’t ever gonna get anywhere.”
Robbed of the shield of my own sexuality, the embarrassment was worse. No escape into arousal, no fleeing out into the upstairs hallway either, though I was painfully aware of how many paces lay between me and the doorway. A couple of my phantom limbs even reached toward the door handle. My breath came in shallow little jerks as I fought down the most intense self-consciousness of my life.
“ … I … I don’t like being the centre of attention,” I said. My voice came out so very small, so pitiful and pathetic, that it broke the wave of my own embarrassment on a wall of pure exasperation. I huffed and screwed up my eyes and my fists. “Oh, for crying out loud, why am I like this?”
“Hey, Heather, you look amazing,” Raine said, confident and easy. “And it’ll be a hell of a lot harder to talk about you if you deprive of us the best eye candy in the city.”
“Eye candy?” I wrinkled my nose at Raine, about to snap a retort.
But then I slammed to a stop at the victory grin on her face. She’d known exactly the effect those words would have on me, exactly how to snap me out of the embarrassment.
Raine reached forward and patted the edge of the bed between her and Zheng. “Come on, you know you wanna. Everybody likes hearing people say nice things about them.”
“Oh, alright,” I said. “Fine! We can talk about me, and I’ll stay to listen. Don’t say I didn’t warn you if I have to plug my ears.”
“Good enough, shaman,” Zheng purred.
The six or seven paces back to the bed felt like a mile, but I drew strength from my new clothes and what I was. I passed Raine and sat down on the edge of the bed, roughly equidistant from her and Zheng. As I sat, I smoothed my skirt over my backside, then slipped my feet out of the fuzzy slippers and drew them up on the bed.
“So then,” Raine began. “Heather, you don’t mind-”
“Wait, please,” I managed to say, injecting my tone with just a touch of Evelyn-like superiority.
I took my time getting comfortable, settling the pink-scaled hoodie about my shoulders, and even reached over to where I’d been sitting before, to grab the pretty coloured dice I’d been playing with. I rolled them in my hands and lined them up on the bed, one by one, then raised my chin high.
“Very well,” I said, sounding much more confident and in control than I truly felt. “I’m ready as I’ll ever be.”
Eyes left, Raine. Eyes right, Zheng.
“ … could you perhaps not watch me like a pair of foxes with a chicken?”
Zheng broke into a rumbling laugh. Raine turned her eyes away and suppressed a smile by biting the tip of her tongue.
“It’s not helping!” I huffed. “Oh, for pity’s sake, if I ever actually manage to have a threesome with you two, I’ll probably black out before we even begin. This is completely impossible, I’m clearly incapable of dealing with it.”
“Alright, alright!” Raine raised her hands in mock surrender. “I’m not even trying to tease you right now. You’re teasing yourself. Let’s make it easy on you, get to the point, yeah? What you say, Zheng?”
But Zheng was watching me with predatory interest. Her jaw hung open, teeth exposed, tongue roving over them. She clacked them shut and purred an agreement, turning her attention back to Raine. “We are here for the shaman. Yes.”
“That we are. That we are,” said Raine. “Want me to go first? Put my cards on the table?”
Zheng gestured expansively with one lazy hand, blinking as slow as a dozing tiger.
Raine nodded just as slowly, as if they were locked in a strange unspoken ritual dance. Body language, predator posturing, the natural communication of a pair of killers or monsters, those who had chosen their own path with no regard as to sensibility or survivability. As I sat there with the hem of my skirt pinched between thumb and forefinger just to have something to hold onto, I was struck with an incredible sense of gratitude; I was allowed to witness this, these two incredible people in such an intimate moment. I was a soft mollusk curled in my shell, and these two sharp creatures were here to show me what they could do.
Raine extended one hand, to point at me.
“I love this woman,” she said to Zheng. No humour. No joke. Heart naked. “And I’ve made a conscious decision, both eyes open, to follow her into hell.”
“W-what? Raine?” I blurted out.
“Before Heather and I got official with each other,” Raine went on. “Evee did a piece of magic to trace Heather’s nightmares. And that piece of string led all the way back to Wonderland. We saw the Eye. Laoyeh. Gazer. The big beholder. Eyeball fuck nugget. Whatever you call it. And it saw us back.”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted.
I stared at Raine, wide-eyed with realisation as she explained.
“Only for a few seconds, ‘course. Heather saved us.” Raine shrugged. “But it was in my head, Evee’s head too. Dunno if it touched Twil, maybe the dog smell drove it off.” She cracked a smile at her own weakly attempted joke. “But from that moment, I knew what Heather was up against. Giant alien eyeball that can rewrite reality and peel our world open like a circular saw on a tin can. Can you guess what I decided?”
It was not a rhetorical question. Raine waited for an answer.
“Devotion,” Zheng purred.
Raine nodded, and finally grinned again. “Yeah,” she said, barely above a whisper. “I decided, right then as it was rummaging in my head, right in that moment when it could see my thoughts. Might have been a defense mechanism maybe, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Twil’s a werewolf, she’s got special protection, and Evee’s got experience. But me? I’m just a regular ol’ ape. And when it was in here,” she put a fingertip to her forehead. “Rooting around, I thought at it, ‘you ever try to finish the job, you ever take Heather like you took her twin? Then I’m coming after your stupid giant eyeball with a broken bottle the size of the world, and there’s not a hospital big enough to stitch that for you.’”
Zheng broke into a savage grin. “Your courage is greater than your muscles, little wolf, but muscle is half courage at first.”
“Raine,” I whined, channeling deep embarrassment into mild exasperation. “Don’t be absurd, you can’t glass the Eye. You’re not going to get into a bar fight with it.”
“Oh yeah?” She finally looked away from Zheng and turned to me. “Watch me.”
And she was so angry.
Not with me, of course. Raine’s anger was cold and focused, the iron-hard certainty of conviction. If it had been anybody other than her, I would have flinched.
“ … why?” I asked.
Raine blew out a breath, expelling her anger and smiling for me. “Last I checked? ‘Cos I’m madly head over heels in love with you, duh.”
At any other time I might have blushed and rolled my eyes and muttered some brush-off comment. But after Raine’s speech, after her anger at my transcendent tormentor, such a joke would be in poor taste.
I held her gaze. “Thank you,” I whispered.
“Because I like making you feel good. I like making you warm, and happy, and I love those moments when you’re completely unselfconscious and you smile at something without thinking first. I love the way you get dressed. I love the way you roll your eyes, just like now, yeah, that too. I love the way you blush, I love teasing you. I love the way you look curled up with a book, and you can’t see yourself then, glued to the words. I love the way you-”
“R-Raine.” I wanted to curl up and hide behind my hands. “S-sto-”
To my surprise, Raine stopped. She cracked a grin that made my heart do back flips. She’d made her point.
“I want the shaman to thrive.” Zheng spoke up without preamble, her voice a low comfortable purr. “To be strong. To live as long as possible. To be what she is, unconstrained.”
“Yeah, me too.” Raine shrugged. “But that doesn’t tell me shit I don’t already know. How do you feel about her, zombie girl? Come on. Truth.”
Slowly, Zheng looked at me, and I felt like a mouse before an adder. It took every ounce of willpower not to squirm or squeak as her face split into the fierce joy of her shark-toothed grin.
“She is fire hidden in the heart of a stone. She is born to lead, but she sees it not. Those who invite devotion are never worthy of it, but those who know it not are worth every step.”
“That’s … very, very kind of you, Zheng,” I said, blushing. “I-”
“Hey, no,” Raine spoke over me. “Drop the prophet-and-messiah talk for a sec. Look at me, and tell me how you feel about Heather.”
I blushed like a steam engine, but managed to hold my tongue; I didn’t understand what exactly Raine was getting at, but it seemed important to her.
Zheng just raised a curious eyebrow. “I have told you how I feel about the shaman. I am no poet.”
Raine tilted her head to the side in suffering scepticism. Not good enough, her expression said.
“Speak plain, wolf,” Zheng rumbled.
“Do you love her?” Raine asked.
Zheng blinked, once, very slowly. “Why is that a question?”
“Because it’s the basic prerequisite.” Raine cracked a grin, and for a second she seemed almost as toothy as Zheng, almost as sharp. “If you just wanna fuck Heather, if this is just carnal, then respect and admiration and dedication is all well and good, but I need something more than that. I need to know-”
“Idiot monkey,” Zheng growled. “Yes. Yes, I love the shaman. How is this not plain?”
Raine’s grin shifted tone. “Good! That’s all I needed.”
Zheng growled in her throat like a goaded animal.
“So, come on,” Raine went on. “You and her, pair ‘o women, what you wanna do?”
“R-Raine!” I squeaked, mortified. “You said no-”
“No sex, yeah,” Raine agreed with gusto. “But we gotta talk about it, Heather. We gotta boil it down. If you can’t do this, I will. If you’re uncomfortable talking about it, say so, and I’ll drop it here, but we gotta come back to it eventually.”
“There is nothing wrong in the comfort of flesh,” Zheng purred, vaguely amused. “You monkeys rut. Sometimes it is funny, but it is good for you.”
“Well, um, I-” I stammered and blushed. “I mean, yes, in theory, b-but-”
“I would offer the shaman every comfort, every intimacy,” Zheng purred, soft as a distant waterfall heard through miles of jungle. She sighed a slow and heavy sigh, and looked at her own hands and arms. “And I would enjoy bringing her happiness.”
I couldn’t say anything to that, and it was a minor miracle I didn’t either run for the door or pass out from overheating.
“Straightforward,” Raine said. “I like it. ‘What is good in life?’, eh? Real Conan the Barbarian here.”
“Don’t call her that!” I squeaked.
“Hey, it’s a compliment,” Raine told me. “Conan was a rebel slave. Slaver-killer. Big respect.”
“I like this compliment,” Zheng rumbled.
“Only in that one terrible film,” I sighed.
“I know, I know, the books are different.” Raine shot me an indulgent grin. “The books are always different.”
“Still can’t believe you got me to watch that,” I muttered.
Raine clapped her hands together. “Right then. Peace treaty signed. Borders drawn. Common ground established.”
“This is no war,” Zheng rumbled.
“Exactly! It’s peace!” Raine grinned. I tutted and rolled my eyes again. Raine gestured toward me. “How’d you feel about sharing her?”
I had to bite my lips and make fists with both hands to stop myself from screaming.
“She is not mine to share,” Zheng growled. “Nor yours. She is her own.”
“Yes, thank you!” I blurted out, red in the face and whirling like a firework, feeling like a squid expelling itself from its hiding place and filling the water with shimming rainbow ink of convulsive panic. Even my phantom limbs joined in, waving like overexcited hands. “This isn’t my bloody harem! You’re not sharing me, we’re … trying to … oh, I don’t even know any more!”
Raine laughed. “Evee’s been showing you too much anime.”
I boggled at her. “What does that have to do with anything!?”
“I care not if she takes a hundred lovers,” Zheng continued. “I am not like you monkeys. I do not grasp.”
“Okay,” I sighed. “I think a hundred is a little out, but I do appreciate the principle, thank you. I think?”
Raine shot me a raised eyebrow. “Maybe you should talk about what you want here, Heather, how you feel about this situation?”
“I … I don’t … I can’t think-” Running on instinct, I glanced over my shoulder at the door to the upstairs hallway. Escape, escape! part of my brain screamed.
In one smooth motion, Raine turned in her chair and kicked her legs up onto the bed next to me, a harbour chain to block my scuttling retreat. I hadn’t even been about to move, but I squeaked in surprise all the same, flinching backward as a small hiss escaped from between my lips – but then Raine winced, making no effort to hide her mistake as she drew in a sharp breath between her teeth. One of her hands flew to grasp her left thigh.
“Ahhh, it’s okay, it’s okay.” She grinned through the pain, eyes watering. “Just pulled on the stitches. Easy to forget, you know? It’s okay, nothing’s popped, just-” She winced again. “ … burns.”
“Burns?” I echoed. “Oh no, Raine, you can’t just assume that. You have to check the wound.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine.” She wheezed and tried to return to normal, but I wasn’t having it. “And we’re in the middle of-”
“Raine,” I snapped. “Now.”
I huffed and swivelled toward her on the bed, all my embarrassment forgotten. “Then let me check. Roll up your trouser leg.”
Raine gave an awkward grin and eyed the end of her trousers. She was wearing a pair of comfortable old jeans, loose and baggy. “Uhh, these don’t exactly roll up that far.”
“Then take them off!” I lost my temper.
Raine blinked involuntary tears out of her eyes and shrugged at Zheng. “Wants me to take off my clothes in front of you. What can I do, hey?”
“Oh, don’t be so perfectly ridiculous,” I huffed at her. “Zheng can leave the room if you’re uncomfortable. I’m sorry, Zheng, I guess this is over, but health comes first.”
Zheng shrugged in easy acceptance.
“Nah, I’m cool with it,” Raine said, lowering her feet from the bed with extreme care and standing up slowly, putting her weight on her good leg. “I just joke through the pain. You know that, Heather.”
And so, Raine got half-naked in front of Zheng for the first time, for one of the most unsexy reasons I could possibly imagine. I wasn’t even thinking about that though. Images of popped stitches and torn scar tissue chased all thoughts of rogue sexuality from my mind. Concern for Raine’s health came first.
With a little difficulty and a little help from me, she wiggled her jeans down off her hips and let them pool around her ankles, then stood still as I gently peeled back the dressing around her left thigh. I’d done this enough times by now, changed her dressings when she was exhausted or deep in painkiller haze, or simply when I wanted to express my care and affection.
I breathed a sigh of relief when all the stitches were still exactly where they were meant to be, holding closed the sides of her ragged wound, the angry red in the middle still oozing a tiny trickle of clear blood plasma.
“See, s’all good,” she said. “Back to the hospital again on Wednesday, right?”
“Yes, indeed. Are you having trouble standing?” I asked, looking up at her face.
“Nah. Not for you.”
I took the opportunity to change the dressing, swapping in fresh gauze and bandage from the medicine box which now lived on Raine’s bedside table. My by-now practised hands made quick work with scissors and antibiotic ointment. In the back of my mind I knew I was doing this to introduce Zheng to the part of our relationship which mattered infinitely more than any amount of sex.
Raine took my ministrations without complaint, one hand on my shoulder for support, and as I worked I felt more and more like some kind of remora or deep-sea mollusk tending to a shark. Abyssal instinct blossomed into an understanding I could not have put into words, an understanding that surprised me, so different to the cold logic of survival; as I tended Raine in front of Zheng, abyssal instinct acknowledged the mutualistic behaviour.
By the time I was almost done, abyssal instinct was prodding at me to secrete antiseptic mucus from glands I didn’t have, and rub it into Raine’s wound.
“She is sweet, isn’t she?” Raine said.
“Oh hush,” I whispered.
“The shaman is love,” Zheng agreed.
For once, I didn’t blush. Abyssal instinct did not blush. It wanted to mate – but that didn’t mean the same thing as having sex.
I stuck down the last edge of Raine’s dressing and looked up at her, into those rich brown eyes.
“If I talk about what I want,” I said. “Are you going to interpret those wants and bend yourself around them again? You’ve already been working harder at this than I have.”
“I won’t. Promise,” she said.
“Then what do you want?” I asked.
Raine opened her mouth, but then paused. She took a moment to study her dressing, then slowly tugged her jeans back up and sat down very carefully.
“I want you to be happy,” she said. “Don’t want you to get hurt. Want you to-”
“Wolf,” Zheng purred. “The shaman asked what you want. Not what you want for her.”
Raine blinked at her, then burst out laughing. “Fair point, fair point! What do I want? There’s barely enough of me to want, you understand that, yeah? But if I had to say something, I’d say I want to be Heather’s special person. I don’t want her to ever drift away from me. But she’s promised me that she won’t. So I already have what I want. I have true wealth.”
“And you’re not jealous anymore?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I was jealous because you needed me to be. You don’t anymore, so I’m not.” Raine spread her hands. “Honestly, I’m cool with this. Under these circumstances, anyway. With you specifically,” she nodded to Zheng. “My greatest fear is Heather getting hurt or taken away, and I got no fear of that with you.”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted.
“If she was going out clubbing, getting picked up by randoms, ehhhh.” Raine squinted one eye to the side. “I wouldn’t be so happy.”
“Raine?” I blushed faintly, mortified by the notion. “That’s not … not me. That’s not something I’d do. I wouldn’t have the courage, let alone the interest.”
“Exactly.” She cracked a grin. “But Zheng? Yeah! Or if say, you decided to get with Evee one night, and it wasn’t just a one-night thing? You know what, I’d be fine with that.”
I stared at her. “I-I- c-can we not complicate things, please? I’m not going to sleep with Evee.”
“Yeah but in principle!” Raine laughed. “And don’t rule it out. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is I’m cool with this because it’s serious. Wouldn’t be the same if it was casual sex. That’s my red line, Heather, the real one, from my heart. Zheng might be fine with you taking a hundred lovers, but I ain’t. Anyone who gets with you has to love you.”
“I … ” I struggled to control my blush. “Thank you, for being honest. Okay. I think I can deal with that.”
“Well, that’s my position staked out,” Raine said. “And we have Zheng’s too. What about you?”
I glanced between the two of them, and my heart climbed into my throat.
“Speak, shaman,” Zheng rumbled. “We listen.”
“Yeah,” Raine agreed. “What do you want from this situation?”
I opened my mouth, closed it again, swallowed much too hard, looked down into my lap and squeezed my eyes shut in an effort to get a hold of myself.
“Besides Zheng and I sandwiched either side of you?” Raine asked, coming to the rescue.
I exploded in a huge huff and rolled my eyes, but Raine’s innuendo gave me my voice back. “What I want is for both of you to be part of my life. To get along, to be with me, to … ” I turned to Zheng, swung round on the bed to face her fully, to stare into those slow, quiet eyes, razor-sharp and deceptively relaxed beneath her dark mop of hair. “Zheng, you’ve promised to stay by my side, until I die. You’ve found me and I-I-”
I had to wave down Raine’s concerned hand, as I dabbed sudden tears from my eyes with the loose sleeve of my scaled hoodie, but I kept talking.
“I seem to be your reason for going on,” I said, sniffing through the tears. “I can’t do justice to that oath. I acknowledge it. I value it. And I want to give something back to you. To respect your love. I’m not even a hundred percent sure I want a sexual relationship with you, it doesn’t have to be that way, I just don’t want you to have to sleep on the sofa. I want to be able to hug you in front of Raine without feeling guilty. I want to … k-kiss you?” I shot a glance at Raine, burning with embarrassment and guilt, but she just nodded along. “M-maybe. I don’t know. I want to be close to you, and have it not feel wrong.”
Zheng let out a long, slow purr. Simple acknowledgement and affection, wordless and perfect.
I stared down into my lap, burning with shame; why couldn’t I be normal, even if just in this?
“That is one of the most admirable things I’ve ever heard you say,” Raine said softly.
“ … doesn’t feel that way,” I sniffed, clearing my throat and wiping my eyes.
“Gonna apologise in advance for this one,” Raine said. “But I gotta ask a real difficult question. Heather, how much of this is Seven-Shades’ idea?”
“Oh, very little of it,” I said, sighing and puffing out a tiny laugh with strange release. “She wanted me to jump straight into a threesome, I think. This is all me.”
Zheng’s chin rose, her eyes narrowed, and she shifted in her chair as if sighting a rival.
“I wish to meet this godling that follows you,” she rumbled.
“Trust me, you don’t,” Raine said. “Kind of a bitch. Hope she heard that one, too.” Raine eyed the ceiling and the window, as if Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight was about to crash through one or the other.
“ … Sevens?” I raised my voice to the room in general. “Would you like to comment from the peanut gallery?”
“Dirty little voyeur, eh?” Raine said.
“Quite, I hope she’s not watching this,” I sighed. “Look, at the very least I want you both to get along with each other. At the very least. If we can have that, maybe we can find some … configuration.”
“I have told you before, shaman,” Zheng purred. “There are more loves than eros.”
“Yeah, but eros is cool.” Raine smirked.
I rolled my eyes. “ … could we maybe start with a … a cuddly relationship? It doesn’t have to be sex. Maybe not ever. That’s not important. What’s important is … ” I sighed. “Is there even a word for this? I don’t know what I’m trying to build here, us as a … a-”
A whisper of sun-baked bronze and finespun gold brushed past my ear.
Family, she whispered.
I flinched and turned, but the bed was empty. Nobody was in the room except us.
“Shaman?” Zheng rumbled. She was half out of her seat.
“Heather, what is it?” Raine asked, gone tense all over.
“ … just a thought,” I murmured, trying to process the notion. “Nothing, I’m sorry. Sit down, please. I’m fine. It’s nothing.”
Raine and Zheng shared a look – which was a good sign, in a way – and a silent agreement passed between them.
“You know,” Raine said at length while I was still gathering myself. “Any great project needs a pioneer.”
“I’m sorry?” I blinked at her.
“A practical experiment. Blueprints and ideas are all fine and good, but you gotta make a prototype. Prove the thing works. We’re not just dealing with emotions here, we’re dealing with a practical problem.”
“Mmmm,” Zheng purred. “You first, wolf.”
“As if I’m giving you a choice.” Raine shot a grin – a teasing one, which made my heart flip – at Zheng. “I call dibs.”
“Dibs on what?” I blinked at her in mounting confusion. “Raine, what are you talking about?”
Raine answered, but not with words. She stood up and I saw her answer in the uncoiling of her muscles, in the hand she ran through her hair, in the way she looked at me with a loving smirk.
“O-oh,” I squeaked as she took a step toward me, instinctively backing up as she drew closer, as she mounted the bed, straddling my thighs with a little grunt of effort. “B-but your leg, your-”
“Forget the leg for a sec,” she purred, leaning in close, cupping my cheek with one hand.
“You promised no sex,” I hissed, quivering at her touch, wide-eyed and barely holding myself up.
Raine grinned. “Kissing isn’t always about sex. This is not about sex. It’s about expression. And demonstration.”
My eyes flicked to Zheng, and found her watching with slow, sleepy-eyed interest, and I swear I felt steam coming out of my ears. “B-but, in front-”
“Heather, if you can’t endure a kiss in front of Zheng, I think that’s a sign to back down. Which is it?”
Wide-eyed, overheated, my heart about to clang and crash and judder to a stop, I managed a tiny nod up at her, and put my arms around Raine’s shoulders. She leaned in and kissed me.
She also kept her word. Long and lavish and loving, the sort of kiss that left me panting afterward, my eyelids heavy, my heart racing, but Raine kept her hands on my shoulders rather than roving anywhere else. She kissed me deep and hard and then pulled away with gentle slowness. She climbed off me and stood up, one hand taking mine to lead me off the bed. I followed, her and instinct both, numb and shaking and breathless, as she led me over to Zheng in the armchair.
Zheng was dark and warm, and the tiny part of my mind which was still able to catalogue experience noted that she seemed as breathless as I, in her own way. Almost bearing her teeth, the wet tentacle of her tongue playing about her lips, her breath rising and falling inside her heavy chest.
Raine raised my hand high and led me over as if presenting me. It felt almost like a ritual, a rite. Real magic, blood and bodies transforming via contact, alchemy in the joining of heat and touch.
And for a moment, in my wonderful new clothes, I felt almost beautiful.
Without a word, Raine allowed her fingertips to part from mine as I clambered into Zheng’s lap. Instinct took over and I felt like a kitten, purring in her grasp as her huge hands closed about me, cupping the back of my skull and the base of my belly. My phantom limbs joined in, squirming and writhing and trying to link with every part of her. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d stuck out one of my actual, fleshy hands, waving it and making frustrated noises in my throat.
“She wants you too,” Zheng purred. Raine laughed, and held my hand. I squeezed. She squeezed back.
We stayed like that for a surprisingly long time. Maybe two or three minutes. Raine held my hand. Zheng stroked my hair. She was so warm, like cuddling up to a radiator through several blankets. I closed my eyes for more than a few seconds, and Zheng started to scratch my scalp.
“Mind flexing for me?” Raine murmured.
“Mm,” Zheng grunted.
A few moments of silence passed, broken only by the sound of cloth moving, then, “Nice,” Raine said, admiringly. “We should work out together sometime. Doubt you need it though?”
“Didn’t notice when I shook your hand back in the woods,” Raine went on softly, voice soft as if I was sleeping and not to be woken. “But you run hot, don’t you?”
“Mmmmmm,” Zheng purred.
“Love you both,” I murmured into the pillow of Zheng’s chest.
“You kissed Heather before, right?” Raine asked. “I could smell you on her. Plus, well, she told me all about it.”
“Don’t have to kiss right now,” I mumbled
“This is what the shaman wants,” Zheng said. I felt her words vibrate inside her chest. “Thank you.”
“Hey, you’re welcome,” Raine replied. “But we ain’t out of the woods yet.”
A spike in Raine’s tone forced me to sit up and disentangle myself from Zheng’s embrace, blinking and flushed. “Raine?”
They were staring at each other now, over the top of my head. Zheng must have picked up on the tone as well, because I felt her shift beneath me, muscles bunching and tensing.
“Might wanna stand aside for this bit, Heather,” said Raine.
“Mm,” Zheng grunted – and lifted me up like cat, under the armpits, placing me down next to the chair and holding on for a moment until I got my surprised feet back under myself.
“H-hey!” I protested.
“One little problem,” Raine was saying to Zheng. “I just ain’t attracted to you, Zheng. Sorry, Heather,” she glanced at me. “But I’m just not. I like my partners cuddly, smaller than me, sweet and clever and easy to tease. You just don’t do anything for me, Zheng. Don’t get me wrong, you’re cool, I respect you. But we ain’t a triangle right now, we’re two lines connected to a point in the middle.” She thumbed toward me. “I’m not down for some top-for-top thing with you.”
“Does it matter, little wolf?” Zheng purred, unsmiling and focused. “I feel no desire for you either.”
“It does!” I squeaked before either of them could answer. “I said before, this is not my harem!”
Raine smiled and shrugged. “There you have it.”
“Mm,” Zheng grunted, but turned to me. “Shaman, you can demand comradeship, but not desire.”
“I … I’m not comfortable with the idea of being a … a-”
“You know, the triangle is one of the strongest shapes, for building. Roofs, houses, stuff,” Raine said. “But two points of the triangle can just be resting on the ground, they don’t have to be connected to each other, just the point at the top.”
I looked between them. “I … I’m being unfair, aren’t I? Oh, dear, oh no, I’m sorry, I-”
“There is one way,” Raine said, and flashed a sudden dangerous smile at Zheng. “We never had a proper fight, did we?”
Zheng growled low in her throat. “We made an oath, wolf. No fighting.”
“Then I’m gonna remain unattracted to you,” Raine said.
“Please do not fight!” I raised my voice. “Please, no, it’s not worth it. I accept it, I can’t have everything I want, it’s unfair, it’s-”
“I’d win though,” Raine said. She winked. “Easy.”
“Ha!” Zheng barked, and broke into the all-tooth grin of a hungry shark. “You are good, wolf, and I respect you too. But no.”
“Yeah, maybe not while my leg’s like this,” Raine tapped her left thigh. “But once I’m fit again, hoooo, you won’t know what’s hit you. I went a round with you before, remember? Got a few blows in back then. Might surprise you.”
“Wolves break as easily as monkeys.”
“Not this one,” Raine breathed, her face lighting up inside. “I can go toe to toe with you, Zheng. Maybe we’ll feel differently about each other then.”
“Raine!” I whined. “I asked you not to do this, I don’t want you two to fight.”
Raine shot me an unapologetic grin. “Heather, this isn’t about you.”
I blinked at her, surprised and taken aback.
“The wolf has a point, shaman. This is her and I now.”
“If Zheng and me are going to be anything to each other,” Raine went on, “anything except two points on your compass, we have to do it our own way.”
“You have a healing bullet wound!” I boggled at her. “No!”
Raine cleared her throat, finally brought down a notch.
Zheng chuckled in agreement. “I dare not hurt you, wolf. I will not hurt the shaman’s lover. It would be an unfair match, I would be shackled.”
“Oh, what’s that?” Raine cupped her ear, grinning. “Who said anything about hurting each other in a fight?”
“Combat presumes pain,” Zheng purred.
“Yes, exactly!” I huffed and folded my arms.
“Zhengy, Zhengy, Zhengy.” Raine sighed and shook her head with theatrical absurdity. “Can I call you that? We cool with that? Girl, we ain’t swinging maces and swords at each other, or even knives and bats. Even fists. It’s the twenty first century. We’ve got better ways to fight.”