Lozzie took a heartbeat to absorb my foolish request. Perhaps she couldn’t believe her ears; I could hardly blame her, not when I’d been so adamant in my rejection only minutes earlier, so horrified, so afraid.
It’s not every day somebody offers to dive head first into their own trauma.
Eventually I looked away from the knight inside the open suit of armour, away from the fleshy, tea-stain coloured, living core of intent that had set itself the task of protecting us. We broke our tentacle handshake by silent mutual agreement and the knight slowly retracted its feelers too. Lozzie was staring at me, blinking sleepy eyes, mouth open but stalled. One of her hands was bunched in the pastel fabric of her poncho. Her goat-skull mask hung from the other by one horn.
“The trip elsewhere,” I repeated. “Let’s do it. Together.” My voice quivered but rang unbroken, gentle echoes lost across this endless quiet plain of yellow grass, beneath the soft purple light of a whorled and spiralled sky.
“You really mean it?” Lozzie asked, her voice barely louder than her breath.
I nodded, then wiped the threat of tears on my sleeve and held out a hand toward her. “Yes.” A hiccup got in the way and made me roll my eyes. “Don’t make me repeat it again, please. I’ll lose all my courage.”
“Heathy … ” She accepted my outstretched hand. Lozzie’s elfin little smile bounced back onto her face as she rocked on the balls of her feet, but the smile was extinguished again when she bit her bottom lip. “I don’t want to force you! You said, you said you’re not like me and you’re right we’re really not, not really, not in the way it really matters out—”
“We might not be exactly the same thing, yes,” I said, trying to keep my voice free of quiver and shiver. “But since when does that matter? A-and if I … oh, for pity’s sake, if I don’t do this now then I’ll never do it. I might never have the courage again. I might never find the guts to ask you a second time. And Lozzie, I need every edge I can find. You’ve given me one — given us one — a hundred and fifty ones.” I gestured at the knights of Lozzie’s imaginary round table, spread out across the yellow hillsides, and at our specific friend still standing there and holding its armour apart like a shelled mollusk. “But if I can find another by facing— f-facing—” My voice began to shake. “I’m not a scared little girl anymore. You’ve been out there and you’ve come back fine.”
Lozzie pulled an awkward toothy smile and did a little bird-like bob of her head. “Fine is relative?”
“You are fine,” I almost snapped. “No matter what anybody says about you.”
Lozzie scrunched her eyes up like a cat. “Mmmmmm!” she went.
“I need every edge I can acquire if I’m going to take Maisie back from the Eye. I need to find my limits. I thought this was one.” I glanced at the knights again. “But it’s not. Take me elsewhere, Lozzie, please. To interesting places. Show me. Because I might learn something, maybe about myself.”
“Oh, Heathy!” Lozzie her arms around my neck in a sudden hug. I hugged her back, as much to still my racing heart as to acknowledge her joy, and briefly felt her heart beating inside her own chest against mine. I could not have asked for a better source of comfort. She pulled away as quickly as she had embraced me, squeezing my arms and then my hands, nodding enthusiastically. “Yes! We can do it! And it doesn’t have to be long because you want to get back for dinner but it’ll be real and I promise it’s safe and yes!” She laughed and bounced back on her heels, but held on tight to one of my hands.
I smiled back as I let out a long, slow, shaking breath, marred only slightly by a loud hiccup at the end. Truth was, I was still terrified and I didn’t try to hide it. What was the point? I knew what I was doing, and why I was doing it. I’d made my choice. It was time.
Lozzie dipped her head in a wave of wispy blonde hair and slipped the goat-skull mask back over her features, then straightened up, once more tucked away behind shadow and bone, topped with horns, fey and alien.
“You’ll have to get me one of those,” I said, purely to distract from the fluttering in my stomach.
“We could! I think! I don’t know! Maybe!”
I forced out a tiny laugh and pulled my hoodie tighter around myself, drawing my six tentacles inward toward my body; I wrapped two of them around my torso in a self-hug and allowed another to creep down my own arm to grasp Lozzie’s wrist. I would not lose my grip on her, no matter where we went.
“It’s okay, I won’t let go, I promise,” she chirped. I managed a nod. “Come come!” she called out, and the two knights she’d called over previously now got into position again, flanking her shoulders. The one which had opened its armour set about retracting the metal back into place, pulling muscles tight like a clam to seal itself away inside the shell of perfect chrome once more. A tendril flicked out through the final closing gap between cuirass and pauldron, angled up and pointing at me, then slipped inside before the armour closed completely. Once again, a knight in shining armour stood there, with no hint as to what roiling flesh lay hidden inside.
I burst out laughing in a release of tension. The absurdity was too much.
“Heathy?” Lozzie twitched her head side-to-side like a curious puppy, another gesture she shared with Tenny. The re-armoured knight stepped into position and placed a metal gauntlet on Lozzie’s shoulder to mirror the one on her other side.
“It gave me a thumbs up,” I said through the laughter. “Very sweet.”
Lozzie beamed up at the knight, but it did not react, sealed as it was in metal once more. Perhaps it did respond, inside the dark privacy of that armour. Perhaps that’s why they seemed so impassive, all talking mind-to-mind without the need for external expression. I hoped they were happy.
“Ready?” Lozzie asked with a teasing lilt. My heart hammered against the cage of my ribs and my mouth was suddenly very dry. I almost said no.
“Keep … keep it moderate, please,” I said instead. “Nowhere too extreme. Places we’ve been before, perhaps.”
“Mmhmm, mmhmm!” Lozzie nodded along, the goat-skull mask bouncing up and down.
“And whatever you do,” I blurted out and felt stupid, “don’t actually take me to Wonderland.”
“Heatherrrrrrr,” Lozzie purred.
“I know! I know, I didn’t need to say it, I’m sorry, it just scares me, it’s always in the back of my head. I know you wouldn’t.”
“I don’t want to go back there either,” Lozzie said. I could hear the wrinkled nose in her tone even through the weight of the bone mask. Quite right.
“Then I’m ready,” I said with butterflies in my stomach. My tentacle squeezed tighter on Lozzie’s wrist. I had to resist the urge to armour-plate myself.
Lozzie swung our joined hands up into the air with my tentacle along for the ride. Her goat-skull mask turned to meet my gaze. In the second before we departed I felt a brief flicker of dissociation, a sense of looking in the mirror and not seeing oneself — but in reverse; I felt as if I was looking at Lozzie’s real face, or the closest thing possible.
“I love you!” she said, then, “Wheee!”
Reality folded up.
Mile-long god-worms digested endless lava flows of molten metal and defecated it out as living, green biomass that exploded into verdant plant-life, while Lozzie and I watched from an outcrop that had already ossified into bone; a sky filled with plate-creatures each the size of a continent, all of them with unique ecosystems riding on their backs, singing songs in the upper atmosphere loud enough to shatter rock, and we tiny little apes protected inside a bubble of air which Lozzie conjured from her knight’s shields as she sang in response; the castle where she’d taken me before, wrapped in a thick blanket of snow and tucked away in a mountain valley, beauty sublime enough to break to my heart, but quieter than before, as if the snow had never stopped falling and the inhabitants had grown fewer, under the watchful eye of the giant bird which perched on a distant peak and watched the fortress, as if laying siege with the power of thought; a giggle and a huddle and a game of noughts and crosses in the dancing sand of a place far too hot for unprotected human flesh, but where Lozzie kicked her shoes off and trod without a care, and I coaxed my bioreactor to power a pair of heat-sink sails and pad my outer dermis with coolant.
I did not come away from that last one unscathed, back bruised in new places and skin tender, all aching and raw from growing fresh pneuma-somatic body parts. Lozzie massaged my muscles as we lay in a cradle of vines, high up in the canopy of a rotting jungle beneath a sun the colour of dead peach.
“We can go back if you want,” she chirped from beneath the bone-mask. She did not take it off in these depths. “It’s been hours and hours and hours.”
“Not yet,” I croaked, and forced my hand back into hers, past my better judgement.
She sang to beetle-backed crustaceans with heads of writhing fingers, that talked to each other in a language of colour and pheromone. She convinced them we were only there to watch the distant mushroom towers unfold like giant sunflowers, though the towers pointed not at a sun, but at a mass of sub-orbital glowing bone like a giant tumour of the sky. There was another castle, one I liked less, built for things shaped so much larger than we little monkeys, with no windows and no doors, only endless dark pressing in on the tiny bubble of light cast from the tips of the knights’ lances. We left there quickly when things began to move in the shadows, shapes that made me want to scream and bristle and cover myself with warning spines and toxic compounds, despite Lozzie’s protests that this was a friendly place. We stood on a frozen shore opposite moving mountains of black mold, Lozzie singing to them in alien language as they split and recombined, eating and disgorging each other in an endless chain as they flowed downriver — though that river was not water, and the sea which served as their ultimate destination was beyond my imagination.
And yet, no matter how beautiful or how awful, every one of these visitations was a kind of subtle, self-inflicted torture.
Lozzie could giggle and dance and sing out here — and she did, with relish and relief, even in places I could not comprehend, the ones where I had to close my eyes and press my palms over my ears and wrap myself in my own tentacles, or the ones where I simply had to swallow a scream. Though, to Lozzie’s credit, as soon as I did those things she whisked us away to the next whistle-stop location, and her knights guarded me like the loyal hounds they were.
But even the beautiful places — the ones that floated in the heart of glowing nebulae, or where the air itself was braided like woven silk, or where all was shimmering dust and bone-white leftovers — even those, I could not fully endure.
Every Outside dimension we visited felt wrong — was wrong. The light was an impossible hue, or the colours shifted along the spectrum just enough to make my vision swim. Or the gravity was incorrect, my own footsteps warped, the processes of my organs confused. My skin tingled, the air a foreign sensation in my lungs. Any surface I touched felt wrong, even through my shoes, and forced nausea down my throat as my body tried to reject the sensation; all Outside was formed by the alien rules and logic that ran riot beyond the ordered walls of the castle of Earth. My thoughts twisted this way and that under ineffable conditions, held fast only by the inviolable core of abyssal being I had become.
We had not evolved for these places. Apes were not meant to be here, Outside. Here was soul-death amid sublime beauty.
No. Lozzie was meant to be out here. I wasn’t. Even with what I had become, these places were not meant for me. Enduring them was an act of sheer willpower and self-discipline that I could not keep up for long. Even an abyssal thing is only adjusted for one set of conditions, not all possible climates at once. Lozzie and I huddled inside pink hoodie and pastel poncho amid the black seas of infinity, but she loved it out there.
I peered through my fingers at iron-blue intensities and void-dark infinities; I groped for Lozzie’s hand in the middle of whirl-storm winds that pulled not at flesh and bone but at thought and memory; I tucked my tentacles in close to avoid the attention of snuffling intelligences and blind immensities. And by the end of it I felt sick, sick, sick.
“Do you want to go home?”
“No,” I lied.
I was an alloy of ape and abyss, testing the limits of my endurance. And I found myself wanting.
But it was not merely a matter of physical confrontation. Here was the other half of my childhood and teenage trauma, and I was attacking myself with it, over and over, until I quivered, bleeding, on the edge of my own sanity. It was self-harm, but I did not admit that at the time.
“Heathy Heathy, Heathyyyy, come, come, time to come home, come—”
“We’re not done.”
“Yes we areeeee.”
Lozzie squeezed my hand one last time, skipping back to me in a place where even she did not look remotely human, an inside-out place of coal-black meat and fluttering tissues.
“No, I have to keep going, have to keep—”
Lozzie did not take no for an answer. She pulled me home by one hand.
We touched back down on the quiet plain of yellow grass, like an antechamber between our reality and the true depths of Outside, the continental shelf before the deep dark of open ocean. The first thing I did was sit down very suddenly on the ground, my hand slipping from Lozzie’s as my knees gave out; the second thing I did was flinch about a foot in the air at the skull staring up at me from my own lap. I choked out a yelp and flung the twisted thing away in surprise.
“Oop!” Lozzie squeaked as she lunged for it. She caught the skull in both arms before it could hit the ground, tottering on both feet to regain her balance. “Heathy! It’s not unbreakable, you might crack it!” She giggled and shook her head, her voice and face still hidden inside the shadow of her own skull-mask.
“What— what— I-I don’t—” I panted for breath, blinking in utter confusion.
Lozzie cradled the twisted skull in her arms like a skittish cat. She hopped forward on tiptoes, tilting her upper body to peer down at me, her hair spilling out from her mask in a waterfall of blonde. “Heathy?”
“I … give me a moment,” I managed, trying to gather myself. “ … confused. I don’t … ”
The last hour — or twenty minutes, or three hours, or three days — formed a blur of pressurised memory. It was akin to the feeling of coming up for air after being glued to a book. Nothing seemed real, even myself. I grasped my own hands and squeezed to check that I could still feel pain.
“Tch, ow,” I tutted. That was a yes.
Lozzie squatted down so she was level with me, then pulled her goat-skull mask off and placed it on the ground. Freed from shadow and bone, her face was creased with care and she was biting her lip, big blue eyes like twin sapphires of happy exhaustion after our journey. Her two knights, the two we’d brought with us on the dizzying trip Outside, stepped back from their flanking positions, as if to rejoin the round table spread out across the yellow hillsides. But they did not fully retreat just yet, waiting to be dismissed.
“Heathy?” Lozzie murmured again.
“I’m … I’m okay,” I lied. I was very far from okay. I was caked in cold sweat from head to toe, wrapped in my tentacles like an infant sucking her own thumb, and shaking all over. My stomach felt like a black hole and I had a headache — not a brain-math headache, for once, but simple dehydration and stress, a constant throb that pounded harder whenever I moved my head. “How … Lozzie … what?”
“We were out there too long for you maybe,” she murmured, biting her lip again. “Heathy?”
“No, no,” I said. “My fault, my request.” I managed to blink up at her, at her elfin little face framed by the deep purple night. “I think I’m having a panic attack. Or coming down from one.”
“I know!” Lozzie squeaked, then reached out her free hand and took mine. She squeezed hard, and I squeezed back, trying to get the weight off my chest. “You didn’t have to. You didn’t have to come if it was going to—”
“I didn’t have to,” I echoed. “I chose to. Bad choice.” I forced out an awkward laugh. “Aversion therapy, my hat.”
“You don’t have a hat,” Lozzie murmured and puffed her cheeks out. I almost managed to laugh.
“Exactly,” I croaked.
We stayed like that, hand-in-hand on the yellow hillside, until the shaking and the panting and the worst of the fear passed. I hugged myself with my tentacles and held on tight, forcing out slow breaths, trying to feel normal again.
You made it, I told myself. You went Outside, for hours — or days? How much time had passed? You went Out by choice, to some of the most inhuman places you could ever imagine, you endured them, and you came back. You did it.
I did not feel proud; I felt damaged.
“You did it,” Lozzie said with a teasing smile through her worry. My little mind-reader.
I nodded at the skull cradled in the crook of her other arm. “Lozzie, what is that?”
“You don’t remember?” She blinked at me, then held out the alien skull. “Here, it’s yours! We said we’d get you one as well, remember?”
“I … I do remember that conversation, yes.”
The skull in Lozzie’s hands, the skull we’d brought back from the nighted depths, her sisterly offering to me, was a strange and twisted thing, a fluted, metallic grey, bell-shape, shaped not unlike how I imagine an octopus skull would look — if cephalopods possessed internal skeletons. Six eye holes stared with blind nothingness behind them, ringed with ridges of protective bone. If the creature had a jaw in life, it did not anymore, only a strange horizontal structure like a slash of mouth, which looked as if it had once been ringed with other appendages or bone supports. The implication made me shudder. I was glad it was dead, and that I was not meeting it face to face in the flesh. The bottom of the skull flared out into a skirt of bone, making it perfect for converting into a mask or helmet.
As Lozzie held it out, the skull caught the purplish light of the skies above the quiet plain. The surface shimmered like oil on water, with ripples and rings. The bone was neither clean white nor dirty yellow, but a strangely smooth metallic grey, like a metal that should not have been a solid at normal pressures and temperatures.
“Where did we … ?” I let my question trail off.
“We took it from the seabed, eight or nine jumps ago, among all the others in the graveyard jumble. You really really don’t remember? It’s suuuuuper super old, from near the bottom where none of the scavengers go because all the flesh has been picked off the bones long ago. And it’s beautiful! You said so yourself! Here!”
She offered it to me again, but I flinched back, two tentacles rising as if to defend me from assault.
“I-I-I can’t, Lozzie, I— did I really say it’s beautiful?”
“You did! I can hold on to it for you if you don’t want to take it right now, after all it’s going to need some padding inside for your head and face and you might need to file down the bits around the eyes because they’re still kind of rough despite being in the sea for so long, which is odd and I think it means it used different kinds of metal to reinforce different parts of itself. Isn’t that cool?” She beamed at me, more in love with the thing in her hands than I could ever be.
But her passion convinced me to try. Gingerly, I reached out with both hands to accept the mortal leavings of a creature I could scarcely imagine.
Lozzie beamed even wider, and placed the skull in my hands with all the delicacy of trying to dress a cat. From the metallic appearance I expected the skull to be heavy, but it weighed barely anything at all. Lozzie giggled at my surprise.
“It’s like carbon fibre,” I murmured. “So light.”
“Probably really strong too!” Lozzie chirped. “Look look, up the top there in the back!” She pointed to the underside of the Outsider skull. I turned it over gently, as if it was made of spun glass which might break apart in my hands. Lozzie hadn’t been exaggerating; on the back of the skull there was a set of faint indentations — tooth marks, sharp and raking, from teeth that had once pierced whatever hide and flesh had clothed this creature. The teeth had been turned away by the diamond-hard surface of the skull.
I brushed hesitant fingers over the bite mark. No crack, no weakness, no flaw radiated out from the wound. “I wonder if this is what killed it?”
“Don’t think so!” Lozzie chirped. “Too hard for that! Probably won and bit back!”
I turned the alien cephalopod skull over again, to stare into the eye holes and run my fingers over the contours — though it wasn’t strictly a cephalopod. I had learnt plenty about that particular biological niche, from months of pining while watching youtube videos of squid and octopuses. Whatever earthly analogue I imagined for this creature, it was not truly of that class. The same as Lozzie’s goat-skull mask, which had likely not come from a true goat at all.
The surface was smooth and cool and somehow soothing, and I felt the sweat finally drying on my skin and sticking my t-shirt to my back. The gentle wind of the quiet plain ruffled my hair. Six empty eye sockets stared up at me, unseeing and long dead. The metal felt so unfamiliar, but did not make me shudder with disgust; when I tilted the skull, the metal caught the light and showed me a ripple of colours for which I did not have names. Memory dribbled back, of Lozzie and I in a bubble of air on some nighted sea floor, picking through bones; that had happened, and I had called our find beautiful, if only because it seemed so real down there in the dark. On an impulse I did not understand, I put a finger into one of the eye sockets.
What manner of creature had you been? I asked it in the silence of my mind. Mortal, certainly. Mortal enough to die, to leave a body behind, for one like me to find. What kind of thoughts had filled this skull in life? Outside thoughts, alien to me? Or could we have communicated? You weren’t like the Eye, or the other giants of Outside, or the things in the abyss. Were you male or female? Or perhaps you did not have biological sex at all, perhaps you propagated by budding, or cloning, or some other, unthinkable process. What was your identity, did you have family? None of these questions would ever be answered. But you had flesh, once. I have flesh now, I thought. And one day I will be like you.
But not yet. And not Outside. I will die old, in bed, I told myself, and I have miles to go before then.
It was an oddly comforting idea. My lingering panic attack finally faded away into mere echo. The skull was a connection, a bridge, proof.
“Heathy?” Lozzie’s voice crept into my rumination.
“Thank you for the present,” I said. “I was right the first time. I think.”
“The first time?”
“It is beautiful.”
“Yay!” Lozzie threw her hands in the air, which was not a sustainable pose while also squatting, at least not with her lack of muscle tone. She wobbled and laughed and had to accept falling back onto her bottom with a little “oof,” legs wiggling in the air.
“We still do need to talk,” I said, feeling oddly emboldened. I had conquered my oldest fear — well, with the exception of the Eye. What was a chat with Lozzie by comparison? Nothing to be afraid of. Lozzie and I loved each other.
“Oh.” Lozzie sat up from her sprawl, blinking at me. “We do? We doooo? I thought we did. We did!”
“We never finished. Not about the part that really matters, to me. The part that hurt me.”
“Oh. Oops.” Lozzie bit her lip.
“Not oops. It’s okay.” I sighed. “I mean, I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m not very good having big serious talks.”
“Pfffffft,” went Lozzie. “You so totally are! Duh.”
“Thank you, I think? In any case, I don’t feel like I am. But I’m not going to manipulate you into anything, or browbeat you, or attack you, I promise. I’m not even going tell you off. Maybe I was going to do that at one point, but it feels silly now. We’re friends, and I’m hoping if I express this then you’ll understand.”
Lozzie nodded with enthusiastic urgency, head going up and down like a cartoon donkey, expression that blinking po-faced seriousness that was impossible not to find sweet, but which meant she really was listening. I found myself winding two of my tentacles around each other, a new nervous behaviour.
“You put me right in front of the Eye, without warning,” I said.
Despite everything, my voice cracked. The memory of burning pressure flared up inside me, of the unstoppable force of the Eye’s gaze.
Lozzie lit up, as much as she could do with her damaged extraocular muscles, and her mouth flew open. But I held a hand out to stop her. I needed her to understand, not just apologise.
“And I prevailed,” I added. “I won, I made it out, I learnt I could make it out. I learnt that the Eye is not impossible to escape even once it has me in its sight. Which is invaluable. Invaluable. But, Lozzie, you put me there without warning. You made me face my … my … ” I sniffed hard and had to wipe my eyes on the back of my hand. “You made me face it. And I need you to understand what that means.”
“Do you understand?” I asked.
“You can speak now,” I said. “I didn’t mean to silence you, you can—”
“I’m sorry,” Lozzie said, and she said it without biting her lip, without upturned eyes, without any cutesy affectation, except her hands gripping the fabric of her poncho.
“Okay. Okay. I forgive you,” I said. “I can do that, I—”
“But it was still the right thing to do,” Lozzie continued.
“ … pardon?”
Now Lozzie bit her lip. She wasn’t shaking with fear, but this sudden reversal took courage. “You needed me there and you needed me to do that because you just said yourself that it worked out in the end, you needed it!”
I started to shake my head. “Lozzie—”
“I made a decision and it was my decision because you don’t have to do everything yourself all the time. You were missing! Missing something important and I had to step in because I’m your friend and I get to protect you too!” Lozzie raced ahead, voicing her runaway train of thought. “What would have happened if I hadn’t? You would have killed Badger or the Eye would have had him and you wouldn’t have learnt anything at all and we wouldn’t be here talking about this because you might have done something you couldn’t take back. And it worked out.” She slowed down all of a sudden. “And now we’re here.”
I gaped at her. “You’re … trying to justify intentionally exposing me to—”
“No!” Lozzie squawked. “No it wasn’t justified! Of course it wasn’t!”
“ … well, we agree on that much.” I sighed, shaking my head. “Lozzie, it worked out, but it might not have done. There were so many possible things that could have gone wrong, things that could have failed. Because of you deciding something on your own, about me, without asking me.”
“But it was the only thing I could do,” she said.
“So you’re saying it wasn’t your fault?” I asked.
Lozzie shook her head, sending faint wisps of blonde hair out from her like a glowing halo. “Of course it was my fault because I did it but if we could rewind time and do it all over again I would still do the same thing but—”
Lozzie did something she so rarely could: she stopped.
She stopped totally dead, then looked up and away from me, at the spirals of purple light in the unnatural night sky. “But I would ask you first? Okay. Okay! Oki-doki-doos. I would have to ask you first. I wish I could time travel, it’s so much easier that way.” She looked back at me with an expression like a goblin caught with her hand in a biscuit tin. “And I won’t do it again. I won’t. I’m sorry.” She held a hand out toward me.
Hesitant at first, I accepted her hand, small and cool and soft in my own. I sighed and tried to share a smile with her too.
“Don’t hate me,” she added in a small voice.
“I don’t,” I sighed. “Apology accepted. Even if we don’t agree, it matters that you understand.”
“I’m smarter than I look!” She chirped, then let go of my hand with a giggle. “You really seriously for real thought I wouldn’t?”
I shrugged, a touch of colour creeping into my cheeks. I cleared my throat, feeling horribly awkward. “My turn to apologise, I suppose. Lozzie, with the way you act back in reality, sometimes it’s difficult to keep in mind you’re not actually a thirteen year old or something.”
Lozzie mock-gaped at me, scandalised and outraged, but she wasn’t a good enough actor to sell the drama. I still rolled my eyes and had to look away, half in embarrassment, half in guilt.
“We’ve talked about plenty of non-childish things!” she chirped. “All sorts! You’d never talk to Tenny about half of what we’ve talked about, and especially in the dreams but ahhhhh no no you don’t remember that all properly, right, yes, okay-okay. Do you remember telling me about how Raine figured she can make you pop twice in a row if she—”
“Lozzie!” I squeaked, my outrage quite real. Lozzie burst into a peal of giggles. I glanced at the knights a few paces away, as if they gave a hoot about overhearing the details of my sex life.
“They don’t think about those sorts of things!” Lozzie announced after following the direction of my flustered gaze.
“Yes, but it’s still a bit weird to have it said out loud.”
“You didn’t care about that in the dreams. Just relax, Heathy! You know you can talk to me about anything at all, I don’t judge, what have I got to judge on anyway? You know all the things about me and I know all the things about you.”
I let out a little sigh, almost sad. “I don’t, actually. Know all the things about you, I mean. Because the dreams are still hazy.”
“Pbbbbbt,” Lozzie made a sad sound and flopped sideways on the pale yellow grass. “That’s true but it doesn’t have to be true. New promise! We’ll do a new promise.”
“There was an old promise?” I asked, somewhat liking this notion.
“Many many manyyyyy,” Lozzie chanted from the ground. “But new promise now. I promise not to make decisions that affect you without asking you first, including—” She stuck out a finger. “—including more dreams.”
“I would love to dream with you again,” I blurted out. “But I’d like to remember them this time.”
“Mmhmm, mmhmm, and in return, you promise to ask me things if you wanna know them.”
“Agreed,” I said, easily and softly. “Do we need to do a ritual to seal the promise?”
Lozzie wrinkled her nose, which looked extra silly with her face sideways. “Promises are promises, the words make them happen and not when you rub your blood together or something. If it’s a true promise then you know because it gets kept and if it was false then it doesn’t.”
I felt unaccountably playful when I asked, “And which is this?”
Lozzie grinned wide, impish and teasing. “A true one.”
“All right. All right.” I felt a mischievous flutter. “Lozzie, do you fancy Twil?”
“Whaaaaaaaaaaa?!” Lozzie burst into laughter, kicking her legs and smacking the ground with both hands before flailing herself back up into a sitting position. I was blushing enough for both of us, mortified at my own question. “Fuzzy? No! No, no, no way. Not mine, not my … type? Typing? Style? I don’t know if I will ever have a type but fuzzy is fuzzy and not like that.”
“A very comprehensive answer,” I hurried to say, trying to manually rub the blush off my own cheeks. “Yes. Thank you. Okay. Ahem.”
I actually said ahem out loud. I could be such a gossip, but I couldn’t take the heat.
Lozzie giggled at my self-inflicted discomfort and then shuffled to cross the gap between us. She settled in beside me and propped her chin on my shoulder, so we could both look down at the metallic skull in my lap. She reached down to stroke the strange Outsider’s skull.
“I think it’s really pretty,” she said.
“It is, in its own way.”
“It’ll make a good mask!”
“And why would I need a mask?” I asked. Lozzie shrugged and puffed her cheeks out.
“Maybe it’s not a mask then,” she said.
I sighed and leaned my head against hers, thought-to-thought.
“I wish you’d told me in the first place,” I said, “about Badger coming to apologise to you. We could have approached everything differently, at least.”
“But then you might not have been able to do it, which is fair because it was a hard thing to do and hard things are hard.”
“Still.” I pulled back so I could look her in the eyes. “I wish you’d just told me that you had a problem with his death. I always assumed … well. I saw you stab a man to death with a scalpel once, you were wild, you were … what’s … oh … ”
As I said those words — as I recalled what Lozzie had done back when I’d murdered her brother, recalled her palming a scalpel and slitting the throat of one of her brother’s cultist minions — Lozzie squeezed her eyes shut and shook her head, jerky and cringing and blocking it out, shrinking down inside herself to hide from the memory.
“Oh,” I repeated, and realised what I’d been missing this entire time. “Oh, Lozzie, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay it’s okay—” she hissed to herself, then opened her eyes again, panting softly and trying to smile. “I’m okay I’m okay just don’t don’t don’t—”
“Okay, okay! I won’t, I won’t bring it up, not now, not now.”
Lozzie clung to me, squeezing my hoodie into tight handfuls in both her fists, shivering and shaking inside her own skin. I held her gently, stroking the back of her head, trying to tease her hair into a semblance of order. After a while she stopped shaking quite so badly, and slowly, ever so slowly, to give us something to focus on, I set about the intimate process of braiding her hair.
None of us — not me, not Evee, not Raine, not Zheng, to my knowledge — had ever addressed the fact that Lozzie had committed murder to escape her abusive brother. I’d blasted Alexander Lilburne into a broken mess of pulped meat and shattered bone, yes, and that had changed me forever. Over time I had discovered, to my twinned horror and fascination, that perhaps I was built for this after all. Not like Raine, but enough not to be destroyed by the act.
Lozzie was not built for murder. Lozzie didn’t even like to hear talk of violence. And she’d stabbed a man in the throat because that was her only option. I’d gotten so used to thinking of her escape as a rescue, but she had participated along with us.
She’d been mentally unwell back then, unwell because of abuse, but that did not make her immune to what she’d had to do.
We sat huddled together on that quiet plain, allowing the minutes to stretch out beneath the soft purple light as I braided Lozzie’s hair and one of my tentacles slipped around her waist in a hug; gentle wind teased stray strands of blonde out of my hands, which I dutifully gathered back in; the fairy tale knights of her round table kept their own council; she did not want to talk about this right now, so I kept my mouth shut, because I’d already done enough damage.
I finished braiding her hair and held up the unsecured end.
“Pretty,” Lozzie chirped. The bounce was back in her voice, even if weak. I thanked whatever gods would listen.
“We don’t have anything to tie it with, though,” I said.
Lozzie rummaged beneath her poncho. I’d always suspected she had secret pockets sewn into the lining, and my suspicions were heightened when she lit up with an, “Aha!” and wriggled and arm out to present me with a little pink hair tie. I bound up the end of her braid, nice and neat.
“Thankeeeeee,” she purred, and we shared a hug.
“Lozzie, if you ever want to—”
“I will!” she chirped before I could finish. “But not … ”
“Not now,” I finished for her, nodding. “Not now. It’s okay.”
A herky-jerky smile twitched back onto Lozzie’s lips. She twisted around, bounced to her feet, and offered me a hand. I accepted, hugging the Outsider cephalopod skull to my chest with the other hand as Lozzie helped me up. She retrieved her goat-skull mask from the ground too.
“Time to go home and have dinner?” I asked.
“I need to decompress,” she said, smile teasing, eyelashes fluttering. “You said not to take you to extreme places Outside but there’s places I haven’t seen in months and months and I want to go see them. I can go by myself!”
My heart dropped into my stomach, but I tried not to let it show on my face. I failed miserably. “ … all right,” I said.
“Oh, Heathy, I’m not going anywhere!” She threw her arms around my neck and squeezed me quickly. “I’ll be back soon enough, I promise!”
“How soon?” I croaked out, my throat closing up.
Lozzie danced back a couple of paces, closed one eye, then the other, then opened both. “I dunno! The morning? Like I’m going out for a night! You don’t do that but it’s a thing that people do a lot and I want to. Ple—”
“You don’t have to ask for my permission,” I blurted out. “I’m not keeping you from … going out and partying? Oh my goodness.” I rolled my eyes and felt absolutely absurd. “I’m like a droll, stick-in-the-mud older sister, aren’t I?” I hiccuped, because otherwise I might cry again. “Keeping you from going out and having fun.”
“Not droll!” Lozzie directed a serious little frown at me. “Indoor fun is fun too.”
“But sometimes you need to see your other friends. Your Outside friends. Right.”
Lozzie nodded up and down, her braid bouncing.
“I … I need you with me, Lozzie,” I said. “For Maisie, and for … ”
“I am with you!” she declared, pointing one finger at me. “And I’ll be back for breakfast! Smoke me a kipper!”
I frowned and spluttered out a laugh. “A what?”
“A kipper! You know. Actually I don’t know what a kipper is. I think it’s a fish but I just heard it somewhere so cereal is fine.”
“I’ll find out what a kipper is and smoke you one,” I laughed, trying to hold back everything else I felt. Lozzie was just going out for the evening. Outside. To all those nightmare vistas and impossible places, because that was her natural environment. “What shall I say to Tenny? Mummy’s out for the evening?”
“Mmhmm! She’ll understand! I’ve told her allllll about Outside, she knows what it means.”
“Do you maybe want to take her along sometime?” What was I even saying? Trying to make this seem normal, make it less terrifying?
Lozzie’s good humour hit a speed bump. She sighed and flapped her poncho. “Tenny’s not a child of Outside.”
“ … oh?”
“She was made on Earth! With all Earth parts and Earth thoughts and stuff. There’s places I really really wanna show her, but she’s not built for it like we are.”
Like you are, I thought, but did not say out loud.
“That’s, well, that’s fair enough,” I said. “She’s going to need room to fly, eventually.”
“And she will get it!” Lozzie spread her arms to indicate the quiet plain, goat-skull mask dangling from one hand.
“Anyway. Heathyyyyy, you can see yourself home, yeah? I’ll be back in the morning, for real, I promise!”
I managed a nod. My throat was dry, my palms clammy, but I did not reach out for Lozzie. I chose to trust her.
She slipped the goat-skull mask back over her head, transforming into a pixie from the underworld once more, then skipped across the few feet which separated us and hugged me once more, squeezed me hard until I choked out a laugh and squeezed her back. Then she let go, our hands touching at the fingertips as she stepped away.
“Laters!” she chirped, so undeniably happy.
And then with a hop and a skip, she ran and leaped into the air.
I stood there for several long minutes of silence and peace on the quiet plain, trying to fight down a lump in my throat, twisting my hoodie in one hand and hugging myself with my tentacles. I did trust Lozzie. She wasn’t Maisie, she wasn’t being kidnapped or taken away, she was my friend and she was going out for the night, to places that she’d been to many, many times before.
“A night on the town,” I said out loud, and laughed a sad laugh at myself, then let out a big sigh. “Heather, you’re so silly. She’ll be fine.”
I bid a goodbye — only for now — to the knights, though none of them responded in any visible fashion. I even patted one of them, the one who had opened its armour to me. I located Evelyn’s blue bucket a few feet away, picked it up, and tucked the Outsider cephalopod skull under my arm. Then I took some deep breaths, closed my eyes, and executed the familiar old equation. Time to go back to where I belonged. Time to cry into Raine’s shoulder and endure a sleepless night waiting for Lozzie to come home.
Space folded up around me.
And boney hands closed around my ankles in a vice-grip of iron and ice, to hold me fast before I could cross back to reality.