It was one thing to wallow chin-deep in the dank and toxic swamps of my own poorly examined jealousy, to declare that I would force Zheng and July to stage their sexually charged ritual combat out on the Quiet Plain, where I could play the role of elevated voyeur and exert some kind of control over my rapidly crumbling relationship. But it was another matter entirely to actually organise a group trip Outside.
As Raine would put it, my mouth had written a cheque that my posterior was incapable of backing with hard currency.
Self-indulgence was easy; logistics took the better part of three days.
But in the precise moment I’d spoken those words, a twisted, ugly, grasping part of myself had entertained the madcap notion of just grabbing Zheng and July right there, in that cramped and filthy bedsit room. I wanted to slam the relevant equation through my mind like an unlubricated engine piston, to rip the three of us through the membrane without warning, consequences be damned. A poisonous cocktail of spiteful revenge, sadistic control, and a need to get this over with, to cut my humiliation and guilt short, to take this sordid mess somewhere private where only I could go.
And I almost did it.
A second of stunned silence and sceptical stares followed my corrosive demand; in that second, I felt all my muscles tense with a desire to spring across the room, before a more sensible soul could argue me down or present a less dangerous option. My six tentacles bunched and curled, two of them swinging around to brace against the floorboards behind me like a pair of springs, the others coiling with the constrictive promise of jellyfish stingers, ready to entangle July and slap into Zheng, uncaring of who else got caught in the crossfire. Instinctively, I knew I was probably about to bruise myself by bouncing off the wall like the bag of bones I was, but the drive was too strong to ignore. I had no idea about July’s strength, but there was no way I could keep myself wrapped around Zheng for more than a few seconds. Tentacles or no, Zheng was fully capable of peeling me off herself like an overeager octopus. She could dump me on the floor, squealing and lashing, helpless.
But Zheng loved me. She was very reluctant to hurt me. In that moment, driven by the twisted-up knot of abyssal territorialism and confused guilt, I was ready to exploit that love. All I needed was her split-second of hesitation in which to work the familiar old brain-math, and send us all spiralling Outside.
I was being an idiot, but a very specific kind of idiot.
“Outside?” somebody hissed, incredulous. I think that was Evelyn.
I must have been vibrating with anticipation, visibly about to spring like a coiled squid, because two things happened at the same time — an iron vice closed around my upper arm, and a voice cut through my jealous haze.
“Heather,” Evelyn was suddenly snapping in my face. “Heather!”
“ … y-yes?” I croaked, more animal than person.
I took a moment to blink, to draw a deep breath down my constricted throat, to remember where and who and what I was — I was not a squid about to pounce on hard-shelled prey and crack it open with my beak. I had to swallow quite hard, forcing my throat back into the right shape, fighting down the urge to hiss. My tentacles relaxed, though rather grudgingly, their support-structure muscles tense and tight inside my torso. I winced with referred pain running up and down my flanks.
“Is she alright?” somebody asked, their voice still hazy and distant. I think that was Jan. “What’s wrong with her?”
“Evee?” I tried again, then realised who was holding my arm. “Um … hi … Praem?”
“Hello,” said Praem, still holding my upper left arm in one hand, as if I was about to run away. She must have crossed the small room in two or three strides to grab me. Her blank, milk-white eyes bored into mine.
Evelyn was frowning up a thunderstorm, equal parts concern, alarm, and disapproval. The rest of the room wasn’t much better: Jan’s eyes had gone terribly wide at my tentacles; Raine was watching Zheng with her hands on her hips; Zheng herself was peering at me in curious quasi-arousal, lips parted, eyes alert, as if she liked what she’d just seen — me about to tackle her. At least Twil was oblivious to the whole thing, looking like she’d stepped into a soap opera episode halfway through the plot, without her lines memorised.
“Evee? I’m … I’m fine,” I said.
“Your idea makes sense,” Evelyn said to me, slow and careful with each syllable, watching me as if the wrong word might make me explode into tentacles and gibbering. “It makes sense. Yes? Outside is the best place for them to fight, if we have to go along with this nonsense at all. But I insist we do this properly. Heather?”
“Properly … ” I echoed. Had to swallow again. My whole body felt like a knot of muscle. “Yes. Right. Properly.”
“I insist, do you understand?”
“Yes, yes, of course, I’m … yes.”
My face was burning with mortified embarrassment. I could barely look Evelyn in the eye, let alone round on Zheng or check on Raine. Part of me still toyed with the equation to send myself Out, just to escape this moment.
“Any trip Outside requires we take contingencies and precautions,” Evelyn went on, staring at me like I’d just sleepwalked onto a motorway, voice sharp as a barbed whip. I wanted to cringe and shrink. “And this is my responsibility, I’m not letting you swan off again without a gateway prepared and ready to use, even if it is just over to Lozzie’s tin-man storage. And even if you have Zheng there to look after you.” She huffed like a steam engine and fussed at Praem’s hand on my arm. “Go on, let go of her, she’s fine. Here, let me.”
Praem allowed herself to be disengaged from my arm like a well-oiled wheel clamp. Evelyn took her place, very awkwardly patting my hand and then taking it in hers, still frowning at me like she’d eaten an entire lemon, skin and all.
“Yes … yes,” I forced myself to say out loud. “Yes, safety first. Safety first. A gateway, you did say that, didn’t you? I suppose I can hardly go alone … ”
“Alone?” Zheng purred, then chuckled, a dark rumble from a dark place. “Shaman, you want a private show, these gladiators all your own?”
The Saye Fox, still in her arms, joined in the chuckle with a yiiiiirp sound.
“Not exactly,” I whispered, my throat too thick for more words. I couldn’t look up, couldn’t meet Zheng’s eyes. Evelyn squeezed my hand so hard it ground my finger bones together. “Ah,” I winced, but she didn’t let up until I looked at her. She frowned at me, hard and searching, not liking what she found. “Evee?” I whispered to her alone, but she didn’t respond.
“I am content with any audience,” July said. Zheng nodded to her and I hated that.
“Excuse me,” Jan piped up from next to July. Her head of fluffy black hair peered around July’s hip as if she’d been hiding behind the demon host. “I need a tiny, tiny bit of clarification here, just a teensy-weensy word of unpacking the issue. You’re talking about taking this duel … ‘Outside’?” She pronounced the word like it was from an unfamiliar language, raising her thumb and forefinger pinched together, squinting in an effort to control her reaction. “That’s your word for the spheres beyond, isn’t it? The beyond, the spirit realms, the cradle of gods?”
Evelyn sighed. “Outside is an infinitely less chuunibyou term.”
Twil pulled a baffled squint. “A less what term?”
“Nothing,” Evelyn grunted. “Even you aren’t internet poisoned enough for that one. An edgy term, let’s put it that way.”
“That’s hardly the issue here,” Jan said, in the tone of somebody who had just discovered their car had been compacted into a neat metal cube. “The spheres beyond—”
“Outside is the shaman’s preference,” Zheng rumbled, “so Outside it is.”
Jan sighed, wet her lips, and cleared her throat with the effort of somebody being conned out of a lot of money. “Outside then. That’s somewhere that you people can just … go? Just like that? To have a fight? Like wandering down to an empty park or something?”
“The shaman knows the way,” Zheng said.
“Bloody right she does,” Twil sighed. “S’not easy though.”
Jan slowly went pale. “You’re joking. This is a sick joke. This isn’t funny.”
“It is deadly serious,” Evelyn said, frowning a pinched frown right back at Jan. “We have ways and means of getting there. They will not be revealed to you. Do not try to steal them.”
“Oh, oh, oh.” Jan put her hands up. “Excuse me, I thought I was dealing with rational people here, not lunatics who assume that I’m interested in stealing the secrets of how to step into the fucking Chernobyl exclusion zone in nothing but my underwear! No, I’m mostly interested in not having my soul plucked out through my arse hole by some god-thing that happens to pass by! We are not going beyond so our demon hosts can get all hot and heavy in private! We can hire a fucking tennis court for the day or something!”
“It won’t be in private,” July said, back to staring at Zheng.
“Ha!” Zheng barked right back at her. “The glory for all to see.”
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” I said, finding my conversational feet once again. At least this was a topic I understood well. “We have access to a couple of different Outside dimensions which we know are safe. One of them has a lot of open space. That’s the place I was talking about.”
“How can you possibly know it’s safe!?” Jan spread her arms at me in a very frustrated little shrug.
“We’ve partly colonised it,” I said. “I mean, one of us has. She’s not here right now. And it’s not really colonising, she’s built a metaphorical round table there. You know, King Arthur’s round table, I mean. But out of thoughts. Kind of. There’s knights.”
Jan looked at me like I was completely off my rocker.
“Sorry,” I said.
“I’ve been there,” Evelyn grumbled. “Heather is doing a particularly terrible job of communicating right now, please do forgive her. It’s perfectly safe. Trust me, I didn’t want to go either. If we’re going to do this nonsense, we might as well do it right, where there’s no chance of us being seen. This is already an utter waste of time and energy, the last thing I want is for it to spiral off into an unrelated crisis. Understand?”
“Plus there’s plenty of security,” I said, trying to convince myself. “The knights.”
Jan looked at each of our faces, eyes wide with horrified awe. Raine gave her a thumbs up. Zheng rumbled with satisfaction. Twil muttered something about “hoping there’s a horizon this time.”
“There is,” I reassured her. “It’s kind of normal. Except the sky.”
“Oh, except the sky!” Jan burst out. “That’s alright then, perfectly fine. We are not doing this.”
“Yes we are,” July said without missing a beat.
Jan threw her hands up, stomped over to the open sports bag on the floor, and awkwardly went down on her knees to rummage around in the clothes. “Right, then I want danger pay. And not from you lot.” She looked up at myself and the others, to make her point clear, then pointed at July. “From you! This is your fault. If we get eaten by a mountain of flesh, or turned into seedbeds for some extra-dimensional worms, or zombified by brain-eating plants, you are to blame!”
“I am always to blame for your pains,” said July.
“And your half of these Sharrowford jobs is going towards the new dresses,” Jan added with a huff.
“I will starve for your fashion.”
Jan finally found what she was looking for in the bag, struggling to pull out a huge white coat that looked about three sizes too large for her, complete with massive hood, fur-trimmed rim, and lots of very thick padding. It unravelled other clothes as it came, apparently heavier than it looked. She straightened up and shook it out with some effort.
“And I am bloody well going armoured,” she said, then turned to Evelyn. “Let’s get this over with. This is madness!”
“Yes,” I whispered, mostly to myself. “It is.”
“Actually,” Evelyn said, clearing her throat and frowning at the coat, “this is going to take a day or two to prepare. We have to build the gate from scratch, I’m not having us do this the quick and dirty way. That’s unsafe.”
“Oh!” Jan’s expression brightened with saccharine sweet fake relief. “Oh, I see, that would be unsafe. Yes, silly me. The unsafe way to expose oneself to the fucking vacuum of space.”
Evelyn sighed. “You can put your suit of armour away for now.”
“A day or two?” Zheng rumbled. “Wizard?”
“I’m not exaggerating.” Evelyn shot Zheng a very unimpressed look. “Why, is that too long for you? Going to elope with your new friend when you have to wait a bit? Deal with it.”
Zheng rumbled deep in her throat.
“You will … ” I forced myself to say. “You will come home with us, right, Zheng?”
“For you, shaman,” she replied.
Raine laughed, a good natured belly chuckle, trying to throw the tension off like a heavy blanket. “I think it’s time we exchanged numbers, instead of threats, hey?”
Jan made a noise of pure, wordless frustration, stamping her foot and throwing the coat down. Something inside it audibly clanked against the floorboards.
“Just what I need,” she tutted. “Delays!”
“So, hey,” Raine said. “What was that all about, Heather? Fancy talking?”
She had her hands propped behind her head as she leaned on the backboard of our bed, bare legs stretched out in front of her over the rumpled sheets, crossed at the ankles, caressed by the milky-grey light filtering in through the window. A cartoonish exaggeration of her own unstudied relaxation.
I stared at the open book on my crossed legs, not really seeing the words. Could barely make out the print anyway, not in the dying light of a rainy evening. That would require me to get up, cross the room, switch on the lamp, then cross back to the bed and sit down again, all of which seemed like far too much to bother with. I opened my mouth, about to say something utterly inane, something like What was what all about, Raine? I haven’t the faintest clue what you’re talking about. I’m just hunky-dory with the third point of our barely stable triangle deciding to have a de-facto romantic fling with somebody she’s only just met.
But I didn’t say that, because it was the opposite of true. I frowned at the book.
“I may as well ask you the same thing,” I said, sounding out every inch of my grumpy pout. “What was that all about?”
“You really have to ask?” Raine chuckled.
I sighed and surrendered. “This book is upside down.” I tutted and turned the book right way up. “What even is this?” I flapped the cover over. “Oh, this is yours. Who is Ocalan? What am I even reading here?”
“Philosophy,” Raine said.
I tutted again, closed the book, and reached over to deposit it on Raine’s thighs, which managed to capture my eyes for longer than I would have wanted under the circumstances, even in this grey haze. I still looked though, my eyes travelling up to the dark stain of the bullet scar on her upper left thigh, sunk deep in the shadows of her body. Raine ostentatiously stretched her legs and cracked her toes. I blushed and rolled my eyes.
“You can’t ask me a serious emotional question when you’re not wearing anything,” I said.
“I’m wearing a t-shirt, and underwear. And hey, socks!” Raine wiggled her toes. I turned away, though I didn’t actually want to. “And hey, right back at you.”
“I’m fully clothed!”
“You can’t return from a serious emotional crucible and instantly pick up a book and start reading it,” Raine shot back, though with a smile in her voice. “Literally, you can’t. Not only was it one of my philosophy books, it was upside down. You have been defeated. Soundly!”
“It wasn’t instant,” I said, my voice a touch too high. I crossed my arms and frowned at the bedroom door, which was currently closed to keep the rest of the house firmly out for a while. “I checked on Sevens. We made sure Evee had her stuff. We saw Twil off.”
Silence descended, to match the rainy dusk.
It was almost evening, on the same day as our rash yet ultimately superfluous attempt at gunboat diplomacy with Jan and July. Sunset was cloistered behind thick, dark rain clouds. The day dribbled away beneath a leaden sky as drizzle blanketed Sharrowford with cold and damp. Spring was no respite from this kind of weather, especially in the North. Light like static turned every surface and angle into an indistinct mockery. Number 12 Barnslow Drive felt as subdued as we were after the stress and tension of the day, quiet and recovering, though I could hear the muffled sounds of Praem in the kitchen and the occasional deep rumble of Zheng’s voice somewhere far below — talking to Evelyn, I supposed.
We’d been home for just over an hour, and now Raine and I were alone in our bedroom together; not an uncommon situation, but one I was uniquely unprepared for right then. I hadn’t unpacked any of my knotted-up feelings.
It felt strange to simply return home after all that impending violence, but what else was there to do? Sometimes a thing happens and then you just go home afterwards. That’s life.
Jan and Evelyn had swapped mobile phone numbers and promised to begin coordinating the ‘play date’ as soon as practicable, though Evelyn had heavily implied that any attempted magical trickery over the phone would earn Jan a sharp rebuke. We’d bid our new and reluctant acquaintances an awkward goodbye, and then headed home. Zheng had donned her hat and pulled up her scarf and vanished into an alleyway, with the fox still in her arms; she would stand out rather badly if she took the bus with the rest of us.
By the time we got home, she was already there, and she’d lost the fox.
“The eaters of the dead have their own paths, shaman,” she’d explained. “A fox will not be caged and remain a fox. She wanted to go. She went.”
Evelyn had sighed heavily at that. “Blasted thing. Can’t even communicate properly.”
The following hour had been awkward in the extreme. We’d all needed to peel off the sigil paper stuck to our bellies and backs, the glue residue itching like nettle-stings until properly washed off. Twil had opted to head home herself, giving us all funny looks before she’d slipped out of the front door. But I couldn’t think straight, I could barely look Zheng in the eye, I walked around like I was a zombie myself, pulled on automatic strings to change my clothes and wash the glue off and check if Evelyn needed any help setting up the gateway to the Quiet Plain.
She’d stared at me in the magical workshop, still frowning with a shade of how she had back in Jan’s bedsit, sucking on her teeth.
“I’m serious,” I’d said. “Evee? I want to help, if there’s anything I can do.”
“You want to help,” she echoed in a grumble, then sighed. “Yes and no.”
She’d stomped over to the table in the workshop and picked up a tiny plastic food bag, which had been lying near my squid-skull mask. I stared at the mask with instinctive longing to wedge it on over my head, to hide from the world, from Zheng especially. My beautiful giant demon was lurking in the utility room, like she’d been banished there.
“I had Lozzie bring me these, a couple of days ago,” Evelyn was saying, waving the plastic bag between thumb and forefinger. I pulled my attention away from my guarded retreat. The bag contained a few blades of rubbery yellow grass. “I did suspect we might end up needing to do this at some point. Though not for such a stupid and wasteful reason.”
“Is that grass from the Quiet Plain?”
“Quite,” Evelyn said with a sigh. “The dimension needs a better name than that. You’re not much for creative names.”
“Sorry … ”
Evelyn blinked, then frowned harder. “That was a gentle joke. You don’t need to apologise for it. Not to me.”
I shrugged. “Sorry, Evee, I’m just a bit … frazzled. By the day.”
“Evidently,” she said, tight and low.
“So, how does the grass work? What’s it for?”
“It’s a focus,” Evelyn went on, though her easy words did not match the way she looked at me, her brow knitted with dark concern. That frown made me feel like I should apologise again, shrink away, curl up and never return, but I stood my ground. “The same way we were eventually able to rebuild the gateway equations to connect with Carcosa, using that book you brought back from the library. Same principle, different Outside plane. It’s probably a good idea regardless, to set up a permanent gateway there. A staging ground, perhaps, for going deeper. I’ll probably still need Lozzie’s help though, like before.” She huffed and slapped the bag back down on the table, shaking her head. “Listen to me, permanent gateways to Outside, a good idea! I would have dunked my own head in the sink for suggesting such a thing a few months ago. Look what you’ve done to me, Heather, hm? Look what you’ve done to me.”
Her stare cut right through my flesh. I managed a weak smile. One of my tentacles tried to reach for her, but then stopped halfway.
“We’ll be safe,” I said, though part of me knew that wasn’t what we were really discussing. “I know we will.”
“Mm,” Evelyn grunted, and turned away.
I found no refuge in the advice of my resident expert on lesbian relationship drama; we’d left Sevens at home during the expedition to confront Jan, partly because she wasn’t so much gunboat as potential atomic bomb, and partly because forcing her to use that bomb would risk the stability of her new and tender self-hood. So she’d stayed with Lozzie and Tenny. I found them all in Lozzie’s room, taking a nap together, tucked under the covers and lined up like matryoshka dolls — Tenny spooning Lozzie who was in turn spooning Sevens, limbs everywhere, sheets tangled, lots of snoring going on.
And Zheng wouldn’t come upstairs, wouldn’t come to our bedroom. She was lurking in the utility room and kitchen, watching Praem cook alongside Whistle. She had more fellow-feeling with the Corgi than with me right then.
So now it was just me, Raine with her trousers off, and the rainstorm drumming on the roof.
Silence dragged on for long enough to become suspicious. I felt an itch between my shoulder blades, a premonition that Raine had silently gone up on her knees and crawled toward me on the bed. Perhaps she was about to apply a very physical solution to my emotional constipation. I wouldn’t have said no, only I knew I was incapable of enjoying sex right then.
“Raine, please don’t.”
I looked back over my shoulder, but Raine was still leaning against the headboard. She hadn’t moved an inch. The silence had not heralded an attempt to solve my problems with aggressive, overwhelming, toe-curling sex, but had instead concealed an increasingly wide and shit-eating grin on Raine’s face.
“Don’t what?” she asked.
“Oh, fine!” I exploded at last, uncrossing my arms and flinging them wide. My one currently manifested tentacle did the same, flying out and coiling like a fist in wordless frustration. “I’m jealous, okay?”
Saying the word felt like dislodging a bolus of rotten meat from inside my throat, foul juices running down my gullet even as the pressure finally released. I hiccuped, loud and angry, like the warning cry of some marine bottom-feeder.
“I admit it,” I went on, at the edge of shouting. “I’m really, really jealous of all this, of Zheng, of what she’s doing with this … July … person!”
To my everlasting relief, Raine did not laugh; she didn’t even keep grinning. The grin folded up and vanished before I’d even gotten the first word out, replaced with a subtle and reassuring smile. She nodded along until I finished.
“You can say ‘bitch’, you know?” she said. “I’m not gonna ding you for that.”
“That wasn’t what I meant,” I huffed, turning sulky as my anger flared out. “Besides, it’s hardly fair. It’s not July’s fault. It’s Zheng’s.”
“Hey, Heather,” Raine cooed softly, radiating all the warmth I’d ever needed. “It’s okay to admit you feel jealous, yeah? Better than letting it eat you up inside. You should go tell Zheng about it too, clear the air. She’ll understand. Well, she probably will, in her own way. Probably say something about wolves and trees. Right?”
I shrugged, shaking my head, feeling like I had a lump of burning coal in the centre of my chest. Then I looked up at Raine with a raised eyebrow. She laughed and shrugged too, but far more casual and relaxed.
“Hey,” she said, “you don’t even have to say it. I know, I know, that’s kinda rich coming from me, preaching to you about jealousy.”
“I-I was not thinking that!” I blurted out.
“Yeah you were. Even if it was only subconscious. But hey, it’s cool.” Raine spread her hands. “You told me, yourself, you said it — it’s okay to be jealous.”
“But that was you, this is me, this is—”
“Heather.” Raine’s voice held just a touch of a whipcrack, enough to make me sit up and pay attention, to stop me wallowing in useless guilt. “You showed me that jealousy is just something you have to work through sometimes. I believed in you then, and I believe in you now. Stop beating yourself up. You don’t get to do that, not on my watch.”
I forced myself to hold Raine’s gaze for a few more seconds, then sniffed loudly and scrubbed at my eyes. She scooted over on the bed and her hand found my side, stroking and patting until I could look up again. I stared out of the window for a moment, into the haze of clouds, then back down at Raine’s soft brown eyes, so much the opposite to her body, muscles like bunched cable beneath her skin.
“I love you, Raine,” I said. “But I don’t deserve your faith in this. I feel like I shouldn’t be jealous of Zheng. Like it’s not justified, somehow.”
“Why not?” Raine asked — a genuine question, like always, no pre-judgement in her words. Her casual tone unlocked my heart.
“Because it’s a fight!” I sighed. “It’s not as if she slept with July or something. They spent several days doing their level best to murder each other. And I get the feeling this … this ‘play fight’ is going to be extremely bloody. It’s hardly something I should feel jealous of. I certainly wouldn’t want to participate in it.”
Wouldn’t I? A tiny whisper of abyssal instinct crawled up my spine. My single tentacle bunched and coiled.
Raine waited a beat. “But?”
“But for Zheng, fighting is like a three-course meal at a fancy restaurant,” I said, turning bitter with sarcasm. “Wining and dining before sweeping her partner home for a night of athletic sex.”
“Because of her vampire, right? The one from the story she told?”
I nodded. “Because of her vampire friend. I can’t be that for her, I can’t … ”
Can’t? a tiny voice whispered. You have six strong tentacles. You can plate yourself in armour. You could bring Zheng down.
I huffed at myself — no, I couldn’t, not in a straight fight, no matter what nonsense my brain was feeding me.
“Hey, there’s stuff you can’t be to me,” Raine said, “that doesn’t mean you gotta be jealous.”
“That’s different.” I frowned. “I think.”
“Are you seriously afraid you’re going to lose Zheng?” Raine asked.
“Oh, no,” I said, suddenly coming up short and feeling very silly indeed. “Not lose her. Not like that. I’m just uncomfortable with all this. With her … doing this with somebody … somebody else. Somebody I don’t know. It’s not fair.”
“Yeah,” Raine said slowly, letting out a deep sigh. “Me too.”
I looked down at Raine on the bed; she’d rolled over almost onto her front, one bare leg waving half-raised in the air, her hand still lingering at my side, her hips cupped between the mattress and the milky light filtering through the window. My Raine, deceptively cuddly when she wanted to be, but she couldn’t hide the buttery-smooth flexibility of her muscles, the alert listening of her face, the way she saw right through me.
“You’re not just mirroring my jealousy, are you?” I asked.
The wrong question — or the right question, if one happens to be a fan of watching one’s very athletic girlfriend curl off the bed like a wolf rising from repose. Which, obviously, I was. Raine stopped waving one leg in the air, paused for a moment as she watched me with sudden curiosity, then rolled the other way, hit the edge of the bed, and sprang to her feet all in one fluid motion. Muscles uncoiled like springs. Her arms fanned through the haze of dim grey light, as if in slow motion, dappled by the haze of drizzling rain outdoors. As she turned, the static gloom picked out the uneven rut of the scar on her upper left thigh.
The bullet wound was mostly healed now, at least to the point that she didn’t need a dressing and gauze anymore. No more weeping plasma and thin blood into a pad of cotton wool. But when backlit by the grey halo of the rainstorm outside, the fresh scar looked like a jagged fingertip of razor blades had been drawn across her flesh, punctuated around the edges by the marks where the stitches had pierced her skin.
A mass of angry red scar tissue puckered around the shallow wound of Stack’s bullet. It took an expert in Raine’s personal musculature to see the way it upset her balance ever so slightly, the way she still favoured the opposite leg. I happen to be such an expert.
Raine reached her arms above her head, rolled her neck from side to side, and started stretching her leg muscles in a practised sequence.
With the grey light behind her, she was like a shade, a shadow in the gloom. From my angle on the bed I could barely make out her expression.
“No,” she said after a moment, a contemplative purr, weak light playing over her goose-pimpled thighs. “No. I’m not mirroring you, Heather. I don’t like the idea of Zheng fighting somebody for pleasure.”
“Me neither,” I said.
“Unless it’s me,” Raine added.
I swallowed a hiccup. “Ah. Oh. Right.”
Raine paused, her hands on her hips, head sideways as if listening for something beyond my range of hearing, a fellow ghost lurking out in the drizzle. The light framed her profile, unsmiling, knife-edge sharp. “Didn’t expect to feel that,” she said. “Hadn’t thought about it before. Hell, Zheng just ain’t my type. But if it was a fight … yeah. Yeah, that’s mine. I want that from her. She owes me that.”
“Oh no,” I breathed, an excited yet terrified tremor in my chest. They were both beyond me. “Raine, no. You can’t!”
Raine turned back to me, plunging her expression into backlit gloom. The light glowed through the individual strands of her hair, turning chestnut to grey.
“You think I was joking, earlier?” she asked.
“No, no, not exactly. Raine, we’ve been over this, you and she promised not to fight. I thought you got this out of your systems with the fighting games. And she’s a demon, Raine. You’ve seen her fight.”
“You don’t think I would win?”
Her question was barely above a whisper, a predatory purr that froze me to the spot. I could not answer. I was not supposed to answer.
Raine took a deep breath, a cleansing breath, filling her lungs and closing her eyes. Then, to my aesthetic delight but emotional dismay, she grabbed the hem of her t-shirt and pulled it off over her head, unwrapping herself like a sword from a sheath, letting the t-shirt fall to the floor. Abdominal muscles flexed, hipbones jutted, shoulders rolled. But there was no moment of gloating grin, no pause in which she savoured the way her nearly nude form overpowered me like a choke hold, no subtle flicker of her tongue across her lips as she watched my reaction. She didn’t even look at me. For once, there was nothing sexual in her sudden disrobing.
Instead of reaching for me, she reached for her knife.
Raine picked up her matte black combat knife from where it lay on her bedside table, safely tucked away in its own sheath. But she drew the blade in the same way she had drawn herself, dropping the sheath like an afterthought. Naked metal soaked up the milky light from the window behind her.
My breath stuck in my throat, a thrill of dangerous excitement pounding through my head. Two more of my tentacles had manifested as well, curling close to my body like armour. I knew that Raine would never hurt me; she would never even joke with the knife, she was always so careful, so responsible, but I’d never seen her like this before. There was something unfamiliar about the way she moved now, something new, something not meant for me.
She stood very still, haloed by the gloom, knife held in one hand, her other hand with fingers splayed by her side, head raised and eyes closed, breathing slightly too hard. Slowly she raised the knife and touched the flat of the blade to her own chest, over her heart.
“I would win,” she murmured. “I could do it. I can see how to do it.”
“Raine,” I said, and found my voice quivering. “You’re talking about killing somebody I love.”
Her lips curled into a familiar smile. That was more like my Raine. But she still didn’t open her eyes. The knife lowered, slicing through rain-dappled air. She spun the blade in her hand, a flourish that I couldn’t quite follow, ending with the knife held reversed, ready for a strike from an unexpected angle.
“Not killing. Beating. In a duel. First blood, first pin to the mat, something like that. Not to the death.”
“You don’t have to fight her because I’m hurt,” I said, barely able to squeeze the words out.
“I love you, Heather,” Raine said, still low and soft. “But it’s not for you.”
I drew in a shuddering breath. “This is all very … very edgy, Raine. Could you at least put the knife away? Please?”
Raine chuckled and the spell broke. She opened her eyes, retrieved the sheath from the floor, and slid the knife safely away. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“Don’t sound so worried, hey?” she said, tossing the knife back onto the bedside table. “I think this is just how Zheng and I work. So yeah, I’m jealous too. I’ve half a mind to go slap her one right now.”
“Don’t! Oh, Raine, don’t, please, that isn’t going to make anything better!”
“Might provoke a fight,” Raine said. “Then I get to claim it.”
“Don’t. Oh, I don’t think I can deal with that on top of everything else. What if … what if it was Twil, or Praem fighting her? Would you feel the same then? Do you have to follow this line of thought?”
Raine cocked her head at me. “Right back at you.”
She cracked a grin. She was still beautiful, framed from behind by the storm-light through the window, half-naked and curved like a dream, a fallen angel risen from the damp concrete and abandoned corners of Sharrowford, to bless me with a vision I still did not deserve. My beautiful, wounded, guardian angel, who had taken a bullet for me, unfolded herself, and kept unfolding at the merest touch.
Now who’s being edgy? I scolded myself.
“I’m not comfortable with what Zheng is doing either, but I get it,” Raine said. “I get my own reactions to all this, and you know why? Because you’ve made me own up to them before. You made me take them head on, like watching a film of an oncoming train without flinching. But you, Heather? Damn, girl, you are lost.” She shook her head and sat down, her darkly angelic halo melting away into the air, just Raine again as she planted her backside on the bed and shot me a smirk. “Here, let’s do a thought experiment. I love thought experiments.”
“Okay?” I said, bewildered but smiling, taken along by Raine’s confidence and bluster — and her semi-nudity, of course. I struggled not to stare at her body instead of her face. “Maybe … maybe put your t-shirt back on though? I’m going to have trouble concentrating otherwise. Sorry.”
Raine paused, blinked at me, then broke into a grin. “Feeling a little hot under the collar?”
“Yes!” I scolded. “Of course! You’re practically naked! What do you think?”
“It’s not like you don’t see this every day.”
“That doesn’t make any difference!”
Raine cracked a grin, so different to just a few moments earlier, radiating cheeky confidence. She flexed one arm. “I think you’re sweating at the sight of these lethal weapons.”
“Raine!” I batted at her. She laughed, sprang up from the bed, and scooped her t-shirt off the floor. I watched her wriggle back into it, a tiny bit sad to see her covered up again, though painfully aware we had more important matters to discuss.
Though I did wonder, in the back of my mind, if that little show had been intentional, to help guide me through the sucking swamps and stinging thorns of my own jealousy.
“Right, thought experiment,” Raine repeated. She held up a finger. “Imagine me.” She tapped her chest. “Imagine me, making out with another girl.”
I blinked. My smile tugged wider. “ … okay?”
“No, I’m serious. Really try to picture it, as realistically as you can. Me, all hot and bothered, with my tongue down some other girl’s throat, really into it.”
I cleared my own throat, starting to blush. “Um … I … I can’t? I can’t really imagine that. Who? Who are you kissing in this imaginary scenario?”
“Anybody!” She threw her hands up, grinning. “Pick the prettiest girl from one of your uni classes and imagine I’ve got my hand down her knickers.”
I frowned with effort, but felt nothing in particular. “This is silly.”
“Why?” Raine asked, as if this was the point.
“Because you wouldn’t do it. You just wouldn’t. Or if you did, I’d be watching. I think.”
Outside nightmare dimensions and alien god-kings and unspeakable geometries were all well and good, but I couldn’t imagine Raine cheating on me. That was far more unthinkable.
“Okay, how about … ” Raine cast around, then scooped up one of the video game boxes from by the telly. She flopped back down on the bed and turned the box to me. “How about her?”
It was the game she’d been playing on and off for the last couple of months, the one with the anime girls doing alchemy, with lots of timers and silly battles against cartoonish slime monsters and goblins and such. The front cover of the box was graced with art of the game’s protagonist, an overly bubbly and implausibly endowed young woman wearing a white waistcoat, a jacket falling off her bare shoulders, and a pair of miniature shorts which barely contained her hips.
“Her?” I echoed, frowning and laughing at the same time. “The one you’ve been making … jiggle every time she jumps?”
“Yeah!” Raine nodded. “Imagine I’m making out with her. Because, hey, I would! Look at her.” She tapped the box art. “Wouldn’t say no to getting suffocated by either end of her, if you know what I mean.”
“Raine,” I tutted. “This is just silly, she’s not real.”
Raine put the box down and narrowed her eyes. “Okay, time for live ammo.”
I blinked. “Pardon?”
“What if I said I wanted to make out with Kimberly?”
My eyes went wide. “Do you?”
“Thought experiment, remember?”
“ … I … um … I mean, but you don’t.”
“I dunno.” Raine shrugged, pulling a thoughtful face. “She’s mousy and kinda skittish, I can get down with that. Hasn’t got your spine, but she’s real cute all the same. I could see myself pinning her against a wall and making her squirm. Do you think she squeaks when she—”
“Raine,” I snapped, no longer amused. “Raine, this is Kimberly you’re talking about. Have a little respect.”
Raine laughed. “Thought experiment!”
“Thought experiment,” Raine repeated like a mantra, trying to sound sober and serious, though I could tell she was having far too much fun with this. “Imagine, right now, that I get up, go into Kimberly’s room, and offer her a hundred quid to spend an hour in bed with me.”
“Raine!” I squeaked, outraged. “That is completely—”
“—unacceptable. Kim doesn’t have a lot of money, she was practically in poverty before moving—”
“Heather, I’m trying to make a—”
“—in with us, it’s not even funny as a joke, I don’t want to hear—”
“Heather,” Raine spoke my name with a touch of command. I flinched and stopped, but kept frowning at her. “Hey, Heather, you’re running away from the point I’m trying to make. You’re doing real good at it, too, sprinting away from me here.”
I blushed and crossed my arms. “Well, it’s just absurd. I know you wouldn’t do something like that, so it’s hard to picture.”
“From live ammo to hollow-point,” Raine murmured.
“I’d really love to fuck Jan,” she said, straight-faced.
My jaw dropped. I stared at her, trying to figure out how much of this was more hypothetical act than reality. “You’re teasing me. Aren’t you?”
“Nuh uh.” Raine shook her head, wiggling her eyebrows and allowing herself a dirty smirk. “Come on, did you see her? Absolutely my type.”
“You … I mean … what?”
“Real short, kinda like you, very easy to pick her up and princess carry her. Sweet and fluffy and cute as a button,” Raine explained, her grin growing. “Didn’t you notice? She’s about your height, though even through that cardigan I could tell she’s got quite a bit more titty—”
“Raine!” I practically shrieked.
“But what’s really important is that hidden layer of thorns. A con artist with a mousy streak! Oh, come on, Heather, can’t you see it? Can you imagine how she would react if I came onto her, strong? Like I do with you? She’d be quivering and blushing, but she’d be trying to put on a brave face too.” Raine bit her lip. “Mmm. And did you see how she hid behind July at one point? Oh my goodness.” Raine laughed, patting her ribs over her own heart. “I could eat her up.”
I stared, speechless, taking a moment to process and recover. “You’re … you’re saying all this to get me to react.”
Raine laughed. “Yeah, but it’s also a little bit true.”
“But you wouldn’t.”
“Course I wouldn’t! It would be a bloody nightmare. For all I know, she’s got a thing with July, and I ain’t butting in on that. And even if she was into it, she might require a bit more emotional commitment than I’d be willing to give. But, I do kinda want to. And that’s the point. How does it make you feel, Heather? Jealous?”
“Oh,” I breathed, catching up at last as the shock receded. Thought experiment, indeed. “Well … well, no, actually. You’re telling me about it right now. It’s a bit … a bit much. But how can I be jealous if you’re telling me about it?”
“Exactly,” Raine said. I boggled at her, so she went on. “Think about it for a sec, Heather.”
I chewed on my bottom lip, looking at Raine, then staring out of the window at the drizzle against the glass. I truly did not feel jealous at this idea she found Jan attractive. I tried to imagine her sweeping the diminutive mage off her feet and making out with her, but the mental image just made me grimace with how silly it all seemed. She wouldn’t — not without permission.
“I don’t feel jealous,” I said. “Because I know that you aren’t going anywhere. And you’re asking first. Even if it is hypothetical.”
“And Zheng is going somewhere?” Raine prompted.
“No. But … ” I sighed. “She’s not mine. I don’t have a right to exert control.”
Abyssal instinct screamed the lie in every cell of my body.
I may not have had sex with Zheng, but I had claimed her body and soul in a very real sense, back when I had healed her wounds after our fight with the greasy, fleshy giant, Ooran Juh. I had sliced the necrotic flesh from around her bite wounds with my own pneuma-somatic teeth, and drooled antiseptic mucus into her bloodstream, gifting her flesh with the extra-normal white blood cells manufactured in my trilobe reactor organ, my biological approximations of abyssal principles, wrought from impossible energies in our reality. I had entered her, saturated her; part of me was in her.
Zheng was mine, instinct said.
Sex did not give one any claim on another person. Even I knew that, with my extremely limited, all-Raine experience.
A dull ache was throbbing inside the tip of one of my tentacles, the beginning of the alchemical process of pneuma-somatic transformation, separating and multiplying the stem-cell analogues that would become a bio-steel needle and turgid fluid sacs. I winced and squinted, concentrating for a moment to halt and reverse the process. A horrible, sick guilt grew like a toxic bubble in my gut as I realised what was happening.
My body wanted to inject Zheng with the same regenerative ichor that I had used to heal the Forest Knight.
My body wanted to claim her, again.
“Heather?” Raine asked, suddenly sharp, following my gaze to the tentacle, where she couldn’t see anything. Evelyn still had the modified 3D-glasses downstairs. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I blurted out, feeling like I was trying to dunk myself under a cold shower. I reeled the tentacle in, forced it down, and had half a mind to fold them all away until the feeling passed, wracked with shame. “Uh … I felt guilty for being jealous. For not wanting Zheng to do this. I feel like I’m trying to claim her.”
Raine nodded. “Then you need to talk to her about it.”
“I’m not sure I can!” I said, despairing at what I might do if Zheng figured out what I really wanted, what I needed. She would probably say yes. “I wish she’d just … ”
“You wish she’d called you in the first place?”
“When she’d run into July, yes! If she liked her so much, she should have just let me know!”
“Yeah,” Raine sighed. “Exactly. When it comes to this poly thing, begging for forgiveness is definitely not easier than asking permission. You think you’d feel different if she’d come home and checked first?”
“Maybe.” I shook my head, even deeper in guilt than when we’d started this conversation. I wanted to violate Zheng. I was a horrible little toxic thing, I needed to be flung back into the ocean abyss with the rest of the predators. “It’s too late for that now.”
“Hey, hey, Heather,” Raine purred. She leaned in close and pulled me into a hug. She must have recognised how distraught and torn up I felt. But for a moment I couldn’t hug her in return, consumed by guilt. Would I treat her like this, if she strayed? But she wouldn’t. But what if she did? The aching tip of my tentacle twitched. I felt like squeezing it until it went numb.
Then I gripped Raine back so hard it must have hurt.
She held on until I finally relaxed, until the sound of the rain and the hazy grey light lulled me down, drowsy and heavy-lidded.
“Hey,” Raine murmured as we parted, my hands lingering on her body. “Maybe we can make things better by watching her fight. Maybe you can be part of it that way. She wanted to show off, after all. Maybe she wants to show off to you. Maybe it’s for you. You should ask her about that.”
I shrugged. “Maybe.”
“And hey, even if it’s not for you, she wants to share. She wants you to see her having fun, at least. That matters. She does love you, don’t forget that.”
“And I’ve chosen to love her in return,” I murmured. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t understand where Zheng and I stand.”
“But she’s broken your trust?”
“It’s only a fight, not sex.” I sighed, running my hands over each other. “I … I should try to … enjoy watching it, I suppose.” I huffed. “Oh, what am I saying? Enjoy watching a bloody fight between a pair of demons? Raine, it’s going to be a nightmare.”
Raine laughed. “Actually I’m kind of looking forward to it. And to seeing this ‘quiet plain’ and all the other knights. The Round Table dimension. Camelot! Can we call it that?”
“We are not calling it Camelot.”
“Is there like a Lancelot and a Percival and so on?” Raine asked, grinning with the absurd nature of the question. “Who’s Arthur, is that Lozzie?”
“I think there’s a Gawain,” I said. “Maybe. You met him.”
Raine blinked. “No shit?”
I shrugged, not quite certain about that. “I don’t think Lozzie knows Arthurian legend very well. I doubt it’s exact.” I frowned at Raine, distracting myself from my own guilt. “I’m not sure anybody else should be there in the first place though.”
“What, at Camelot, to watch the fight? I’m not missing this, Heather!”
“Last time I took you Outside … ” I trailed off, my eyes moving down her body to the scar on her upper left thigh.
Raine laughed. “Unless Stack is there with a gun and new grudge, I don’t think we have to worry about that. Evee’s gonna have a gate up, and there’s over a hundred knights out there, right? We’re gonna be totally safe. This is Lozzie’s special secret base, right? You said yourself, it’s safe.”
“ … mm. I suppose.”
“Hey, look on the bright side, it might not even go ahead,” Raine said, leaning back on the bed again.
“I’d put fifty quid on Jan skipping town. Tonight. When’s Evee supposed to call her?”
“Soon, maybe. I think she might already have done so?” I looked around for my phone, to check the time, but the deepening storm and the gathering dusk had slowly plunged the room into heavier shadows. I hadn’t even noticed the cocoon of darkness gathering around us. It invited me to close my eyes and curl up, go to sleep, forget about all this. The house itself was trying to soothe me. “What an absolutely stupid day this has been,” I sighed. “I don’t think you’re right, though. I don’t think Jan can overrule July. The fight will go ahead.”
Raine pulled a smirk. “Ahhhhh, but that was in front of us. Maybe in private, Jan’s the one in charge, no questions, no nonsense. Maybe she cracks the whip behind closed doors.”
I tutted softly, but my heart wasn’t in it. I could not summon any hope.
“You should really talk to Zheng, you know?” Raine went on, soft and serious again. “She’ll understand.”
“Maybe,” I muttered. But I couldn’t.
Jealousy was a horrible thing, the way it twisted me inside and out. I was disgusted with myself and gripped by the fear that Zheng would see my true need on my face. I wanted to claim her, own her, make her mine. She, who had spent most of her life enslaved. I couldn’t do that.
Plain as day, right on my face.
Right on my face.
“Raine,” I said hesitantly, speaking into the static. “Did … did Evee seem okay to you?”
“What do you mean? She seemed like Evee, that much is sure.”
“Well … ” I pictured Evelyn’s face against the shadows, the way she’d been frowning at me since I’d almost gone full abyssal hellion to drag Zheng Outside. My mouth went dry. “She’s got a lot of work ahead of her, to make this gate. And she didn’t seem very impressed with all this. I think.”
“Yeah, our Evee is gonna be a touch grumpy, alright.”
“A touch grumpy,” I echoed. My blood was going cold with realisation.
I wasn’t the only one feeling jealous, was I?
“We should probably do something for her,” Raine was saying while my mind was racing ahead, about to slam into a mountainside guardrail and go off a cliff. “She was really looking forward to watching cartoons with you, you know? She didn’t say anything to me, but I could tell. She gets real intense and a little defensive when she’s excited about something. It’s kinda sweet, really, you get used to it and how to recognise—”
“Do you think Twil has gotten home yet?” I asked, trying to keep the quiver from my voice. Raine stopped and raised her eyebrows at me. “It’s just that I should maybe have a word with her. Perhaps. I’m not sure.”
Raine laughed. “Got enough qualifiers there?”
“Tch,” I tutted. “I’m serious. I need to have a word with her.”
“Yes.” I nodded, holding fast to a fragile reed of courage. “Before we let this fight go ahead. About Evee.”
Whoops! Heather tried to jump the gun! Evelyn has been very clear, since Heather returned from her unplanned adventure in Carcosa, that any more trips Outside must be properly planned, with a gateway for backup, and proper precautions. But that means Heather is left with too much time on her hands, to think and fret and have terrifyingly sexual moments in gloomy rooms with Raine being half naked and intense … uh oh.
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Next week, what exactly does Heather want to say about to Twil, about Evee? Perhaps it’s about what happened between Evee and Twil, or perhaps Heather is going digging in places best left untouched. But she’s going to run out of time; as soon as that gateway is ready, Zheng is going to be spoiling for her duel.