References to transphobia
Discussion of suicidal ideation
I should have seen this coming a mile away. We all should have done.
We should have been prepared for Heart to crash through the window like a perfumed love letter tied to a brick, or to fall through the ceiling in a puff of lace and land on the bed with a squeal, like one of those magical girlfriend characters in the anime shows Evee told me were not worth watching — or perhaps for her to knock on the hotel room door dressed up as the delivery person with our Jamaican food, spouting some awful lines to Jan about how she could pay the tip with a kiss. I was actually surprised that Heart had simply revealed herself like this, stepping out of the bathroom in the same mask she’d been wearing earlier; no showy introduction with a dramatic entrance, no great narrative intrigue, no striding into the room like a darkly glowing femme fatale here to ruin Jan’s life with a whirlwind of passion.
Heart’s lack of preparation was a very bad sign; she was so taken by Jan that she hadn’t bothered to craft a beginning — always one of the most important parts of any narrative. Instead — in media res, outfit unadjusted, no outline, no plan, just straight to the bit where she confesses her adoration.
Was this love at first sight?
No, we decided. Lust, at best.
Jan was the perfect target for Heart: a reluctant mage, dodging an unspoken, ancient, secret fate, which would doom her and her loved ones if she dared whisper the true name of her metaphysical pursuer. Mature beyond her appearance, accompanied by a loyal vassal, with hidden skills and a wardrobe to match. She even came with a mcguffin: her sword.
I’d been worried about Badger, or Lozzie — or in the back of our collective heads, Raine, or even Evee. Those were the people we thought of as heroes. I’d assumed Badger was the one most at risk. Heart hadn’t come out and said it in plain language, but she’d implied that she was straight, or at least that she preferred men. But what was human sexuality to the sensibilities of Carcosa?
For all I knew, ‘doom’ was her sexuality, not just a narrative preference or a genre direction.
Was Jan a hero? Perhaps, depending on what she’d done in the past. Doomed? I had no idea. But Heart liked what she saw.
Pity she was about to get skewered with a magical sword.
Heart’s trembling, breathless question — ‘Where have you been all my life, you absolute snack?’ — was so confusing, so utterly without sensible context, that Jan and July both paused for a heartbeat.
We all stood in frozen tableau for a single moment, a very strange collection of people crammed into the mess-strewn hotel room.
Jan just stared, her storm-tossed eyes boggling at this bizarre intrusion, at Heart dressed up like a military fantasy crossed with anime pornography. July had grabbed the guitar case — the case which contained Jan’s mysterious sword — but she waited for a second, as if mistaken somehow.
I sighed, raising a clutch of tentacles, lest this collapse into further nonsense. “Jan, July, it’s fine, this is—”
Heart spoke over me in a husky, honey-drenched tone, purring for Jan: “That wasn’t a rhetorical question, you … you … paradox, you.” She swallowed, heaving for breath, as if overwhelmed by something in Jan’s appearance. She looked the petite doll-mage up and down. Her eyelids drooped. Her chest swelled against the white fabric and starched blazer of her military uniform. She blushed, bright and glowing. “Where have you been hiding?”
Jan looked like she was staring at the grim reaper. She’d gone white with fear.
She muttered under her breath, too quiet for anybody else to hear: “Fairy bitch.”
July whirled back into action; she lifted the guitar case in both hands and grabbed the latches. “Jan. Draw?”
Jan blinked hard, as if snapping out of a trance — then held a hand out to July. “Fuck it, draw!”
July spun the sword-case open like de-shelling a mollusc. The blade came free in July’s hand, upright and shining under the artificial lights of the hotel room, catching the illumination in an oil-slick rainbow-shimmer passing down the metal. The rest clattered to the floor in a terrible mess of case, wrappings, tarpaulin, and plastic bags.
July turned the sword so she was holding it by the cross-guard, and then slapped the grip down into Jan’s waiting hand.
“Jan!” I yelped. “No no no!”
Seven-Shades-of-Sisterly-Shame leapt into the middle of the room, springing like a grasshopper, scrawny limbs going everywhere. She landed directly between Jan and Heart, then turned on her heel with a flash and motion, and slapped her sister across the cheek.
The sound was more like a metal bat hitting a frozen corpse, not a slender hand slapping a dainty cheek; I suspected the sisters’ masks had collectively slipped, for just one nanosecond.
Heart reeled and yelped, blinking in shock, mouth hanging open. She cradled her struck cheek.
Seven-Shades-of-Swift-Obstruction did not wait for Heart’s response. She turned to Jan and screeched: “It’s my sister! My sister! Like me! Nothing to do with you! Nothing at all-urrrk!”
Jan froze, hand on her sword, poised as if to rip it from a scabbard. “Your … sister?”
Sevens gurgled again. “Nothing to do with you!”
Heart straightened up. Her mouth was a wide o-shape of offense. Her cheeks were burning red with humiliation. “You slapped me! Sevens, you slapped me!”
Jan blinked at Sevens, blinked at Heart, blinked at me — then looked down at her own hand, wrapped around the hilt of her sword.
She let go, yanking her hand away like the sword was a snake, on fire, dusted with neurotoxins, in the middle of a nuclear meltdown. July was left holding the weapon by the cross-guard and blade. The demon-host did not move.
“Jan,” I started to say, “Jan, it’s fi—”
“Fuck!” Jan spat, totally focused on July and the sword. “Fuck!”
July straightened up. She withdrew the sword. She swept her long, loose black hair out of her face. “Less than ten seconds. Probably nothing happens.”
“Fuck,” Jan hissed. If anything, her panic was worse than before, when she’d thought Heart was some intruder from her own doomed fate. “What now? What do we do?! July, we haven’t got any of the— I don’t— we need a fucking, a— a— bull, or a lot of chickens, or a—”
“Wait,” said July.
I cleared my throat gently. “Jan, what’s—”
Jan chopped the air with one ball-jointed hand. She didn’t bother to look at me, her eyes were too busy roving over the walls, the twin beds, the mess of clothes and the detritus scattered all over the floor, the front door and the bathroom door.
She hissed: “Shhh, Heather. Sorry. Just wait. Be ready to … run, I guess.”
We drew our tentacles in tight; Jan’s fearful caution was not for show, not a drill. This was real. July held the sword ready, as if to slap it back down into Jan’s hand when something burst through the walls to eat all of us.
Heart was still cradling her cheek, mouth open in offended dignity, eyebrows drawn down in a pinched frown. “Sevens! Sister! You slapped me! I can’t believe you, first you—”
Jan whirled on Heart and jabbed a finger at her face. “Shut up! Whatever the fuck you are, I do not want to know, just shut your mouth hole and let me listen!”
Heart shut her mouth. Heart bit her lower lip. Heart blushed like a schoolgirl who’d just been personally addressed by her pop-star idol. Heart twisted her legs together beneath her long pleated white skirt. Heart giggled.
“Okaaaaay,” she purred.
Jan ignored the flirting. She watched the walls. I kept my tentacles close, unsure if we were about to be assaulted by invisible gorillas, or flying alien insects, or ‘fairy bitches’, as Jan had hissed in her moment of panic.
Ten seconds passed in silence. Then fifteen seconds. Thirty. A whole minute — approximately, anyway, I couldn’t count perfectly.
The air conditioning whirred away to itself. My stomach rumbled and glugged. From one of the adjacent hotel rooms, I could hear the faintest sound of the opening bars of the Countdown theme — somebody watching reruns, we assumed.
Jan swallowed. “Okay. Okay, I don’t think anything is coming. I think we’re in the clear. Jule?”
July nodded once. “Clear.”
Jan let out a huge sigh and rubbed her face with one hand. “Get that sword away, Jule. Please. Before I slip and fall on the nuclear button again.”
July knelt down and righted the guitar case, then set about re-packing the sword back into the makeshift cradle of old t-shirts and plastic bags. Jan watched July seal the weapon away with a look of carefully controlled fear and vague disgust. She tore her eyes from the blade and looked at her right hand for a moment, flexing the joints. Perhaps it was just the stress, or a product of my own adrenaline racing through my veins, but the individual doll-like joints of her knuckles seemed much more clear and overt than earlier.
She muttered: “Good draw, though, Jule. Thanks. Still got it.”
“I practice,” said July.
“Don’t fucking remind me,” Jan hissed.
“Um,” we said. “Um, Jan, I’m not going to ask, but—”
“I’m so sorry,” Jan said, turning to me. She looked like hell — wired to the gills with enough stress hormones to fell an elephant. Her skin was pale and waxen, her eyes had gone from storm-tossed lightning beauty to dead flat with exhaustion. She looked like she needed about a month off. “I’m really sorry, Heather. I should—”
“No, no!” I said; several of us — several tentacles — bobbed in apology. “Jan, no, I should be the one apologising here. We should have said that Heart might be following us, I just had no idea that she might take an interest in you. She’s Sevens’ younger sister. We had to go to her for some help. We should have said something, I’m sorry.”
Sevens rasped: “Sssssorry.”
Jan stared at me in dull reluctance; she comprehended my words all too well, but wished that she didn’t.
“Sister?” she echoed. “Um. Right.”
Her eyes slid back to Heart, as if drawn by magnetic force; the Jaundiced Lady in Tainted White lit up with an incandescent blush once again, bit her lower lip, and gave Jan a hesitant little wave over Sevens’ shoulder. Heart suddenly seemed more like a shy schoolgirl than a romantically and sexually experienced predator.
I explained: “Heart is into doomed heroes. It’s kind of her thing, I gather, though I only met her a few hours ago.”
Jan snorted. “Doomed hero. Right. Great. Yeah, if I’d been holding that bloody sword much longer, we’d all be up shit creek without a paddle.”
Heart let out a breathy whine; Jan recoiled, frowning at her.
“Jan,” I tried to form words that made sense. “Jan, listen, um. Heart and Sevens and others like them, they’re not traditional biological creatures, or even Outsiders, really. She’s a … uh … narrative thing, a storyteller, a, uh—”
Seven-Shades-of-Sufficient-Enforcement rasped: “Don’t have to worry about her.”
Heart’s aroused, blushing-maiden look went out like a burst light bulb. She transferred her attention to her currently-much-shorter-but-elder sister, face suddenly sharp as a collection of knives.
“Sevens, my dear sister,” she said.
Sevens turned around and looked up; Heart drew one hand back and slapped Sevens across the cheek — but this was just a regular slap, a hand-on-flesh sound, just enough to make Sevens go guurlurk! and flinch a bit.
“Heart!” we snapped.
Both of the Yellow Princesses ignored me.
Sevens straightened up while Heart ranted at her: “I can’t believe you today, sister! First you shoot me through the chest and risk ruining the most delightful outfit that father has ever given me, then you slap me in front of the … the most … ” Heart raised her eyes to Jan again, all her anger draining away. “Oh, gosh.”
Sevens croaked up at her: “We’re doing important things here. Grrrurk. Go away, Heart.”
“Love isn’t important?!” Heart shrieked down at Sevens. “You’ve changed your tune, dear sister!”
Jan spluttered: “Love? Oh, fuck off.”
Heart looked up again, then smoothly stepped around Sevens’ flank and sashayed toward Jan, each step tentative, tip-toes first, tightrope walking down the line of her own attraction.
July straightened up from packing away the sword; the demon-host loomed in Heart’s path. I eased closer as well, sticking out all my tentacles and strobing them bright red and warning yellow.
Heart ignored both of us.
She purred to Jan: “Have you never heard of love at first sight?” She smiled, nervous, hesitant — then, to my incredible surprise, she hiccuped. “You are the most thoroughly doomed individual I have ever, ever had the pleasure to lay eyes upon.” She looked Jan up and down, her lips trembling. “You’re not even my usual type, not even a man, but … so dashing. Sevens should be delighted. I’ve been converted to rug-munching.” She giggled, too high-pitched, then hiccuped again.
Was she copying me? Us? Why?
Jan frowned. Her voice went hard. “Is that a joke?”
Heart blinked, mortified for some reason that went over my head. “What? I-I’m sorry? What did I—”
“‘Not even a man’?” Jan almost spat. “You’re like her — like Sevens, you can tell my past or some shit? Are you insulting me?”
Heart went white in the face. “No! No, no! I don’t give a damn what you started life as. It makes no difference. I-I don’t want to offend, no! You’re so— so— I can’t—”
“You’re a chaser,” Jan said. “Right?”
Heart’s eyes filled with tears of horror, instant waterworks. She raised trembling hands, as if she’d broken something fragile, which could never be fixed. “No! No! I— I— didn’t mean—”
Jan barked a single laugh. “I’m winding you up, you fucking moron, whatever you are. You scared the living piss out of me. You almost got everyone in this room — or everyone in this hotel — fucked up by—” Jan sighed sharply. “By something I’m not going to say out loud again. Bloody hell. You wanted to make a good impression? You’ve blown it, bitch.”
Heart’s face flowered with relief. “Oh! Oh! Oh, that’s more like it.” Then she descended back into that lustful purr. “Oh, doomed secrets. Please, do tell me off even more, mommy.”
Jan went deadpan with shock. “What.”
My skin almost climbed off my bones. “Heart. Stop. Oh my gosh. Stop.”
Sevens went glurrrk. July snorted; at least one of us found this amusing.
Heart straightened up and flashed her teeth, her confidence apparently returned in full. She puffed out her considerable chest and cocked her wide hips to one side, swishing that absurd ‘military’ skirt with all the layers and the poofy hem. She raised one hand and placed her fingertips against her own throat.
“For a human you are not young,” she said. “Heroes do tend to be on the younger side, in my experience, but I believe my experience is about to expand. But you … you are a delightful paradox. I may technically be older than you, counting by how the globe turns, but in spirit I am young enough to call you mo—”
“Hearrrrrt-urk!” went Sevens.
Heart just giggled, a tinkling sound like bells in the air. She preened and twisted in front of Jan.
Jan gave her a look of mingled confusion and disgust. “I’m taken. Now kindly fuck off.”
“Mmmm, taken, so you say. Jan. January.” Heart giggled. “Janice? Or—”
“Stop!” Jan snapped. “Don’t—”
“Oh,” Heart purred, sighing with pleasure. “I can see your real name. It glows above you like a neon sign, pink and juicy and ripe enough to eat. And no, I don’t mean the boring name you abandoned. I can’t even see that. I mean the real one. And!” Heart leaned forward and pressed a finger to her own plush lips. “My lips are sealed. For your convenience, Janice.”
Jan stared at Heart like she was a live hand grenade. Heart giggled again and straightened up.
Sevens gurgled: “Time to go.”
Heart tutted. “Absolutely not, sister! I’m only getting started!”
“Heart,” we sighed. “We’re doing important things, talking about important things. Sevens wasn’t exaggerating. Business things. Important things. Please.”
Jan cleared her throat. “And I am taken! Fuck off! Don’t make me tell you again.”
Heart giggled and waved away Jan’s words, like it was all just playful teasing. But when Sevens took her hand and dragged her toward the bathroom, Heart put up only a token resistance, allowing her elder sister to lead her away.
Allowing? Perhaps age meant something when it came to the ability to dominate a narrative.
Heart called to Jan as Seven-Shades-of-Sisterly-Struggle dragged her away: “Next time we meet, I promise it will be much more dramatic! There will be fireworks, and a daring rescue! A villain for you to defeat! And I’ll be wrapped up in ribbons for—”
Sevens pulled Heart all the way to the bathroom door, did a little twist to get behind her, and then tried to push her through; Heart braced her hands and feet against the door frame, like a dog trying to avoid being shoved into the bath.
“Janice!” she called. “This isn’t the last you’ve seen of me! Mwah! Mwah!” She pursed her lips and made the most embarrassing kissy noises. “Mwah! You’re more dashing than you know!” Sevens grunted and put her shoulder into the small of Heart’s back, her bare toes scrunched against the floorboards; Heart began to buckle, her glowing white uniform vanishing through the bathroom door inch by inch. “Wait for me! Hahahaha!”
Heart let go; she and Sevens tumbled into the bathroom together, but the only sound was a petite vampire clattering onto the floor tiles, gurgling and rasping and hissing to herself.
Sevens re-emerged again a moment later, alone, grumbling like a broken water pump.
“Sorryyyyyy,” she rasped.
We took a deep breath and rubbed our face with both hands, then a tentacle, wrapping the limb over our eyes briefly; the urge to hide away inside our own soft flesh was overwhelming. This whole situation was far too embarrassing for everyone involved. Jan had been basically harassed and made to feel foolish, Sevens was probably mortified by her sister’s behaviour, and Heart was almost certainly going to try again. Only July seemed unmoved. A crisis we didn’t need; at least it was a small one.
But we pulled our face out of our limbs. We needed to keep going.
“Jan,” I said. “I’m so sorry. We’ll make sure she—”
“Tissst!” Jan hissed between her teeth. She held up both hands for quiet — for shut-the-hell-up-because-I-don't-understand-the-evidence-of-my-own-eyes.
She padded over to the bathroom, right past Sevens, and stuck her head through the door. She looked up, she looked down, she peered in to the tub, she peeked behind the shower curtain, and she even squinted into the sink plughole.
Jan emerged again, squint-frowning, hollow-eyed.
“I don’t want to know that woman,” she said. “Okay? Not my type. Not interested. If she comes after me, I will find a way to hurt her to make her go away.” She jabbed a finger toward Sevens. “I don’t care what you and she are. I’m still a mage and if I have to defend myself — or God forbid, defend Lozzie from some bunny-boiler lunatic — then I will hit the books and make a fucking bomb.”
Perhaps it was just her resolve and her anger, but suddenly, to our eyes and ears, Jan looked and sounded exactly as old as she really was.
“Guurrrlurk,” went Sevens. “Sorrrrry. She’s my little sister. I’ll have a word with her. It’ll be okay. Prrromise.”
Jan said: “A word. And that’ll be enough? Really?”
Seven-Shades-of-Shuffling-Soles looked down at her bare feet, and showed the floor all her needle-sharp teeth. “There’s a thing I can tell her. To make her back off. It’s cool. Not your responsibility. I’ll do it. Do it tonight.”
Jan stared at her a moment longer, then glanced at me. Her frown did not abate. It looked almost out of place, with the white blouse and the pleated skirt, made her look tiny and fearsome.
“Jan,” I said. “If it comes to it, I’ll … do what I do.”
Sevens rasped: “I can talk to our father.”
Jan’s frown softened, ratcheting down into regular incomprehension, rather than a mage preparing for war. She squinted at Sevens. “Your father? You— actually, wait!” She held up a hand. “No. Don’t explain. I don’t want to know. I don’t. Just. Just don’t. Not another word. Thank you.”
I stammered with embarrassment, “W-we’ll deal with this, Jan. I promise. One way or the other.”
Jan took a deep breath and shook her head, but then she threw up her hands in resignation. “I always knew I should have run from you people the moment I got the chance. Fine, but—”
Knock-knock — knock-knock-knock, came a rapping on the hotel door.
“Delivery for room one-six-five!” came a muffled female voice.
“Oh thank the gods,” I sighed. “I thought that was her again.”
Jan rolled her eyes. “Fine, food’s here. Let’s sit down and try to eat, maybe we can get back to what we were trying to do, yeah?”
“Please,” I said.
But Sevens bared her teeth and eyed the door. “Urrrr … ummm … ”
Jan must have missed the cue; she produced her purse from a pocket in her skirt and walked straight over to the front door of the hotel room, so as not to leave the delivery girl waiting. She glanced once at the magic circle she’d taped to the back of the door — like checking a security camera, I supposed, to make sure it wasn’t detecting anything untoward on the other side — then set her face in a fake-polite customer-service smile, and opened the door nice and wide.
“Hi! Yes, that’s us—” was all Jan said.
Then she flinched about a foot in the air.
On the opposite side of the threshold was the most ostentatious delivery girl in all history: gleaming white jeans accented with gold piping, skin-tight against a pair of wide, flaring hips and thickly padded thighs; a pearl-white polo-neck shirt with a golden logo on the — extremely prominent — chest; a waterfall of silver-white hair stopped up and dammed into an elegant ponytail, flowing from beneath a white peaked cap which was tugged down low over a pair of golden-yellow eyes.
Heart’s smile twinkled with toothy mischief. She held out a pair of plastic carrier bags, emblazoned with the yellow and green colour scheme of The Veiny Rooster Jamaican Restaurant.
“Your delivery, Janice!” she crooned.
Sevens and I were already piling into the doorway to keep her from harassing Jan any further.
“Back off! Heart, I’m grateful, but—”
“You’re not even in proper role, you—”
“—this is not the time or place and—
“—don’t understand this isn’t going to work, father would think you’re—”
Jan silenced us both by reaching out and carefully accepting the twin plastic bags full of food. She took them from Heart’s hands — careful not to actually touch Our-Service-Worker-in-Gleaming-Pearl — then turned and placed the bags of food down on the floor.
“Um, Jan?” I said.
“Always secure the food first,” Jan muttered. She turned back to Heart. “Was that actually our food?”
“Yes!” Heart chirped, smiling like a glossy menu photograph. “And I hope you enjoy every bite. You deserve it, January. And how would you like some personal after-service—”
“Where’s the real delivery worker?”
Jan snapped fast, unimpressed, not even blushing or mortified anymore.
Heart blinked three times. “I … I’m … what?”
“The real delivery worker. Where?”
“Oh, um, ahem.” Heart cleared her throat and gestured vaguely down the hall. “She’s probably heading back to the front door of the hotel. I didn’t hurt her or anything. I’m a good girl! A good girl, I promise! You can praise me for my role now!”
“Did you pay her?”
Heart blinked. “Did I what?” She tried to laugh. “Dear January—”
Jan got her elbows out and shoved past Heart, stepping out into the hotel corridor. She marched away toward the lifts, without looking back, without her shoes on, carrying only her purse.
Heart stared after Jan, confused and lost. “Jan … January?”
Sevens gurgled a bitter laugh. I sucked on my teeth and shook my head. Behind us, July went back to her video game, danger averted.
Heart looked floored. “I … I don’t … what did I do wrong?”
“You don’t understand her,” we said. “You just like the way she looks.”
Heart turned her delivery-girl mask back toward us, blinking with confused hurt in her glowing golden eyes. “Because I took the role of some … servant? I don’t—”
“You’re not even in role,” Sevens rasped. “You’re not trying. Dad would tell you to go back to understudy.”
Heart gestured down the length of her body, cocking her hips and puffing out her chest. “It’s the best I could do on such short notice! And look, I’m ready to get pulled apart, like the food I’ve delivered!”
“Excuse me?” I said. “Heart, what?”
Sevens sighed — a noise like a blocked hosepipe. “You play the same part over and over, Heart. ‘Cos you think it’s the only thing people want. Try a real role. Try something new.”
Heart pouted. “And January will respond better?”
“Well, no,” I said. “Jan is taken. Please, Heart.”
Heart yelped: “Taken is relative!”
Sevens said: “Her girlfriend is god-ridden.”
Heart’s eyes went wide. She stared at Sevens for several seconds, then took off her white baseball cap and bit down on the brim.
“Mmhmmurk,” went Sevens.
“Excuse me, Sevens,” we said softly. “You mean Lozzie?”
Heart removed the brim of her hat from between her teeth, and said: “The one wearing the changeling flag, from earlier?”
Changeling flag? I bristled inside. “Heart. That’s very rude.”
Heart blinked at me in genuine confusion, golden eyes all a-flutter.
Sevens rasped: “Urrlk-from one of us that’s a compliment. Sorry, Heather. Heart doesn’t mean it in a bad way.”
“A compliment?” I echoed.
Our tentacles were rising in an unconscious threat-display; it was lucky nobody else was out there in the corridor, or I would have caused a supernatural incident.
Heart squinted at me like I was the moron here. She shrugged with one perfectly sculpted, rolled-back shoulder. “Of course. What did you think I meant? Gosh, you humans can be so bizarre sometimes.”
“Um, fine.” We let it drop for now; the prospect of anybody insulting Lozzie made our tentacles want to sprout little claws.
Heart’s mind was already back on the main subject: “I can … I can deal with a … with a god-ridden. That’s fine.” She didn’t seem very confident. “I am a princess, after all. My father is the King in Yellow. I’ll … I’ll put on a play for her.”
For Lozzie? I bristled again; I did not like the sound of this.
Sevens rasped: “No, you can’t. Don’t be stupid. I can’t deal with her — so you’ve got no chance, sis.”
Heart pouted, genuinely put out, disappointed that her ‘cute’ little ‘prank’ hadn’t been met with more approval. “But … but … ”
“We’ll talk later, sis,” Sevens gurgled. “Go cool your head. ‘K?”
Heart sniffed. She looked like she might burst into tears. Sevens bobbed forward on the balls of her feet and reached up to give Heart a hug. The sisters embraced for a moment, then parted.
“There’ll be others,” Sevens rasped. “You just met this woman, like five minutes ago. Go read a book.”
Heart sniffed again, smiled awkwardly, nodded — to me, a polite acknowledgement — and then stepped just out of sight, around the corner of the door frame. We poked my head out into the corridor; Heart was gone. No lingering silver-white aura, no lock of hair whipping around a corner, no giggling whisper floating through the air.
We shared a look with Sevens. She shrugged. “Didn’t wanna say that part.”
“About … ” I glanced back at July, sitting on the bed and playing her video games. But she was Jan’s closest ally, Jan’s demon sister. There was no threat in her overhearing this. “You mean about Lozzie? God-ridden? I’ve never heard that term before.”
Sevens blinked at me. “You know. With the star. Under the castle.”
“Yes, I just … I guess I don’t think very much about what Lozzie is. She’s just Lozzie.”
Sevens patted my flank, between my tentacles. “Yaaaaah,” she rasped.
“Heart won’t try to interfere with Lozzie, will she?” I hissed. “Because if she does, Sevens, I won’t allow it.”
Sevens rasped a giggly little noise. “Urrrrk. Bad idea — for Heart. Nah. Lozzie can’t be touched by all that. Heart would probably get herself in trouble.”
“Hmm. Okay. Fair enough.”
Jan returned a few minutes later, with her purse several dozen pounds lighter, still barefoot and teetering on the edge of a scowl. As soon as she got the door shut, she said: “Sevens. Your sister had the food, is it safe? She’s not going to have tampered with it?”
“Oh, uh, yah.”
“And she’s not coming back?”
Sevens shook her head.
I cleared my throat. “We put her off. Properly. She might cry a bit.”
Jan snorted. “As if I care. What did you tell her about me?”
“Not about you,” Sevens rasped.
I pulled an awkward smile. “We just told her who you’re dating. Lozzie is apparently very intimidating.”
Jan stared at me as if I’d just presented her with a steaming turd on a silver platter. Hollow-eyed intentional incomprehension. She sighed, and then said: “I don’t want to know. Just. Let’s just eat. Okay? Just eat. Forget this all happened. Don’t let it spoil a good meal. Please.”
“I’d be delighted to,” we said.
We — my-selves, Jan, Sevens, and even July, when she put her controller down for a few minutes — set about serving up the food. The tiny counter-top space in the kitchenette was our staging ground; Jan left the banana bread and the bammy standing there in their takeaway containers, ready for shoving in the microwave again when Lozzie inevitably joined us later.
Jan and I sat at the little table together, her Oxtail and Beans and my Caribbean Lemon Chicken between us. Sevens helped by fetching glasses of water. Jan lined up all four bottles of Red Stripe beer alongside a single glass, then did something fast and esoteric with her hands — pop went the cap on the first bottle; she snatched it out of the air before it had time to fall. She poured the beer at an angle, without looking, as if she’d done this a million times before.
July returned to her position on the bed, container of Run Dun perched on one knee; she ate by taking one hand off her controller, taking a bite with a fork without even looking, and then holding the fork in her mouth. Everything about her pose made us nervous; that was a takeaway container full of stewed fish and seafood, balanced on one knee — it smelled heavenly, but if she spilled it on the carpet it would reek like a sewer by tomorrow.
Demonic grace and physical control, I supposed. Cheating.
Sevens sat on the bed too, carefully distant from July, gnawing on her fried plantain slices like a tiny rodent, little needle teeth going chomp-chomp-chomp-chomp-chomp.
The Caribbean Lemon Chicken made my mouth water and my bioreactor ache; it came with lemon rice and lit me up inside like eating raw gold. Jan’s Oxtail and Beans looked thick as tar and smelled like pure protein. After a few bites we wordlessly shared a spoonful of each other’s dishes — Jan spooning a glob of oxtail onto my plate and me returning the favour. Sevens appeared at our side and gave us a slice of plantain. Jan said that was ‘cute’.
After all the unexpected stress of Heart’s sudden intrusion, Jan finally seemed to relax; we didn’t talk much for the first ten minutes or so, or at least Jan didn’t offer much in the way of conversation. She leaned back in her chair, taking deep draughts from her first glass of beer. She undid the first couple of buttons on her smart white blouse and flapped the fabric, as if still overheated despite the air conditioning. She put one foot up on the spare chair. She raised her beer to me in a silent toast; we replied with my glass of water.
We wanted to check in with Raine, so I used my phone to take a picture of my food and Jan’s food together, in the same shot; I had to try half a dozen times before we got it right, holding the phone at different angles with our tentacles. Then I sent it over to Raine with a little message.
‘Wish we were eating with you too! We have to try this place! Love you love you love you xxx.’
Raine replied back in less than five seconds; she sent me an elaborate piece of ASCII art of a cute little squid eating a burger. That made us giggle. How did she always make those so quickly?
Jan chuckled and shook her head. “Sometimes I forget how much of a zoomer you are.”
“Sorry?” I slipped my phone away and blinked at Jan. “I’m what, pardon?”
Jan frowned, then glanced at Sevens. Sevens just shrugged, mouth full of fried fruit.
Jan said: “I mean … taking a picture of your fast food. Putting it up on instagram or whatever.”
“Oh,” we said, feeling silly. “No, I was just sending it to Raine. I’ve never done that with food before. It’s quite a challenge, I don’t really use my phone’s camera very much.”
Jan laughed in a slightly different way — at my expense? — and leaned back in her chair again. She knocked back the rest of her beer. “Boomer in spirit, then. Born at forty. Whatever.”
We smiled back. “This is nice, Jan. Thank you.”
Jan clacked down her glass and gave me an odd smile — almost a little sad. “That’s alright. You’re welcome. You don’t really get to do much of this, do you?”
Jan gestured at the food, at the room, at us. “Hanging out. With just, like, anybody. Socialising. Getting to know people.”
“Oh,” we said, a little taken aback. “I’ve always been a bit reclusive, I suppose. Even when it was … Maisie and I, together. We were reclusive, together.”
Jan sighed. “That’s not really what I mean, Heather. Lozzie’s told me a little bit about your past. Not to pry or nothing.”
“Oh, no, it’s fine,” I said.
Jan shrugged. “You spend ten years in and out of mental hospitals. You don’t get to have a normal teenage life, no real friends, never in school for long. Then you go to university and you have like, what, a month of almost-normal? And then … ” She gestured at nothing specific, a flicker of her hand. “Magic. Mages. All this bullshit.”
“It’s not so bad,” we said.
“It’s not a lifestyle I’d wish on somebody, Heather.”
“It saved me. Raine saved me. Evee saved me. I-I think I saved them too, but that’s a bit more complex. And I’m going to save my sister.”
Jan stared at me with a closed expression; if she doubted my words, then she was careful not to show it. We appreciated the effort. We didn’t need doubt, not then, not with what we were doing, not with the Eye looming in the sky of Wonderland, beyond the end of all our plans.
Jan cleared her throat and opened her second bottle of beer; she did the same trick as before, a quick motion with both her hands that sent the bottle cap flying into the air. But she fumbled the catch; July’s free hand shot out and snatched up the cap instead.
“Slow,” said July.
“Ehhhhh,” went Jan. “You’re cheating, you don’t have the same motor neuron set-up.”
She poured the second beer into her glass, then gave me a look. “Don’t worry, Heather. I’m not going to get so drunk that I can’t answer your questions. I know you’re here for the interrogation part more than for the company.”
We clacked my fork against the plastic takeaway container and sighed. “Jan, I already said, it’s not an interrogation. You and I are on the same side. I’m not trying to pump you for information.”
“Yeeeeeah,” Jan said, staring off past my shoulder as she tilted her glass against her lips. “You’re doing something much worse.”
Jan swigged her beer. I frowned and tilted my head in confusion. Sevens looked up too, suddenly curious.
“Am I?” we said.
Jan lowered her glass and burped delicately. She absently tapped her sternum with her fingertips. “Sure you are. You’re doing that thing. That thing where you go round everyone before a big fight. I’ve done it before, I know what it looks like.” She gestured at July. “Hey, Jule, what’s that one game with the redhead soldier?”
July paused her game, spooned a helping of stewed fish into her mouth, and turned her head to stare at Jan, owl-eyed and chewing slowly.
Jan huffed. “You know. The one. And she’s voiced by what’s her name. And you can’t romance the purple one and you got really mad about that.”
July stared. Blank.
Jan rolled her eyes. “In space? You know what, never mind. Anyway, Heather, point is, you’re getting ready to go maybe cause the end of the world or whatever with your ridiculous jay-are-pee-gee protagonist stuff—”
“It’s not going to cause the end of the world, Jan.” I tutted.
“So you say! Might cause the end of somebody’s world. Right?”
“Jan,” I said, suddenly hard and cold and unable to stop myself. One of my tentacles — middle-right — actually bobbed in pre-emptive apology; another — bottom-left — coiled in anger. “Nobody is going to die. None of my friends will die doing this. It won’t happen. We won’t let it happen.”
Jan swallowed, cleared her throat, and nodded. “Sure. Sure. Okay. Don’t threat display at me, please?”
“Sorry … ” we muttered, forcing ourselves to relax. “Sorry. It’s a sore point. We apologise.”
Jan sighed. “Look, that’s not my point. I’m saying you’re going around checking on everyone before the big battle. Squaring your t’s, straightening your i’s, all that.”
“I am not!” I protested, a bit more gently. “I’m not. I’m getting important information, from you, and then … home for the night. That’s all.”
“Mmhmm. Sure.” Jan took another long swig of beer.
I squinted at her. “Are you … ”
“Inebriated,” said July.
“Oh, I’m not drunk,” said Jan. She cracked a very relaxed smile. “I can hold as much liquor as I like. This one time, in the Shetlands, I drank an entire pub of fishermen under the table. And that was mostly just whisky. Bleak fucking place, up there. Bleak.”
I tilted my head at Jan again, suddenly feeling rather dog-like. “Excuse me if this is rude, or prying, but … well, seeing as you’re about to make a body for Maisie, I feel like it’s only fair that I ask this.”
“Ask away!” Jan toasted me again.
“How do you get drunk? If, well, if you’re all carbon fibre inside.”
Jan laughed. “Come on! Heather, we’ve been over this before, you and I. You’ve got spirit-flesh tentacles sticking out of you. Carbon fibre was just what this body started as; yeah, technically I’m still mostly made of it, but I’m all spirit-flesh, all settled in. I still metabolise stuff I ingest, you know? I mean, I could choose not to, but that’s no fun. Handy if I ever need to drink but keep my cool. This other time, I was in Leningrad — when it was still called that — and fuck me, long story, but I was with a group of artists, and our hosts had this bottle of vodka between us, and the expectation was that we were gonna drink all of it. The whole thing. That one night. Now, the woman I was there with, she woke up the next morning and had to crawl to the bathroom. Literally, crawl. But me? Went through me like water.” She grinned, showing off her teeth. “No booze, no hangover.”
“Ah. So. You can choose.”
“I could purge all this feeling right now if I wanted,” she said. Then she puffed out a sigh and looked at her two remaining bottles of Red Stripe. “But right now I could do with a bit of lubrication, frankly, after all that bloody nonsense earlier.”
I cleared my throat. Sevens let out a gurgle. July snorted through her nose, barely audible; she seemed to mostly find this amusing.
“I’m really sorry about that, Jan,” we said. “I’m not going to ask more about all the stuff we were saying before — all the stuff about King Arthur, about your sword, about the … f-words,” I whispered. “Is that a dangerous word?”
Jan boggled at me, amused. “Eh? What?”
“ … fairy.” I whispered. “You said it, not me.”
“Oh,” Jan laughed. “Yeah, yeah, sure. That’s not gonna bring the attention of Le Royaume des fées down on us. Don’t worry.”
My turn to stare at Jan like she’d deposited something unwholesome on my pillow. She stared back at me, blinking.
“ … yeah? What’s wrong? You’re doing that thing with your tentacles where you look like you’re trying to ward off a rival.”
“Oh? Oh, sorry.” I looked up and found we had made ourselves big, flaring outward; Jan was wrong though, the gesture was a sort of shared exasperated laugh. “Um. I just mean … well, look, I’ve seen and heard plenty of absurd things in the last year. Evee once told me there’s no such thing as vampires, and, well … ” We gestured back at Sevens; she responded with a gurgle. “So, um. Are … fairies … real? Is this another stupid thing I have to integrate into my rapidly worsening model of the world?”
Jan went quite sober. She put her beer glass down. She rubbed her chin and pinched the end of her nose. “If you ever need an answer to that question, then we’re in unimaginable volumes of shit. It’s not gonna help you.”
“A yes or a no will suffice,” we said.
“Then … no.”
“Okay, good,” I said, nodding. “Thank you. That’s better than I—”
“But there are powerful things that sort of wish that was a yes.”
“Jan, you can stop now. No was enough, thank you.”
Jan snorted and said: “So, when I say I don’t wanna know something, now you understand why, right? Keep things simple. There’s no such thing as fairies — but there’s cosplayers. And they’ve been method acting for a bloody long time.” She gestured at Sevens with her beer glass. “No wonder your sister scared the shit out of me. Warn me next time. Not that there’s gonna be a next time, right?”
“Sorrrrry,” Sevens rasped.
“Ahhh, it’s not your fault. Family, right?” Jan flashed a grudging smile.
I said: “When Sevens and I first met, she caused me all kinds of confusion too.” We smiled over at Sevens. She blushed faintly and focused on eating more fried plantain.
Jan gave me a sceptical look. “Yeah, but the difference there is that I’m not interested in this ‘Heart’ bitch. She can fuck right off.”
We smiled and nodded, still feeling rather embarrassed about the whole episode.
Jan ate several more bites of food, polished off her second beer, and then sat a little straighter in her chair. “Right, Heather. Let’s get this over with before I change my mind and lock myself in the toilet. Or before Lozzie turns up. You wanted to ask about a bunch of different things, didn’t you?”
We sat up straighter, too. Sevens pretended she wasn’t paying close attention, but I saw her pause her chewing. July just carried on with her video game, but I had no doubt she was all ears.
“Yes,” we said. “Um, several things.” We raised three tentacles, counting off the subjects. “The remains of the Sharrowford Cult — Badger’s friends, the ones who survived the business at the house, back when they tried to communicate with the Eye. Then Maisie’s new body. And then Mister Joking. Shall we start with the easiest first, Jan?”
Jan squint-frowned at me. “Oof, Heather. Bad habit.”
“If your job is to eat a frog, you best eat him first thing in the morning.” Jan cracked a smirk. “If we end on the low note, it’ll feel pretty bad.”
“Oh-kay. Um. Worst first, then?”
“I’m gonna need another beer for this.” True to her word, Jan opened her third beer and poured it into her glass; but then she left it on the tabletop, untouched, and looked me right in the eyes. “First. The ‘cultists’.”
We blinked in surprise. “They’re the hardest subject?”
Jan nodded. Her eyes looked like fire-lit deep sea, but her expression was stone hard. “By far. You still want to talk to them, right? I’ve been putting them off for you, holding them off with promises; they know all about how you healed Nathan, Heather. You better fucking talk to them, because if you don’t then I’m … I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”
I stared in confusion and shock; Jan was talking like I’d done something terrible. Had I? We began to doubt.
“ … I … of course I want to talk to them, Jan. I don’t understand, what is this?”
Jan leaned forward, feet flat on the floor, hands together. “Heather, look. I’ve met some fucked up people in my life. I’ve met people haunted by real weird shit. Or with real weird shit in their heads. But those ten ex-cultists? They are the most fucked up people I’ve ever met. They’ve got your … Eye-thing inside their heads, whatever it is, same as Nathan. I never saw him when he was like that though; I only saw him later, after you’d dug through his brains.”
“Oh. Oh, um.”
“I can’t take responsibility for them, Heather. It’s ten people — I’ve got names, ages, basic personal histories, occupations, whatever you want. But you need to fucking take responsibility at last. And you need to give them some hope.”
“I— I can’t trepann them all, not like I did with Badger, I didn’t realise, I—”
“Heather.” Jan was as cold and fragile as she could be; this was no mask, no con-woman act, this was so raw that I felt acutely embarrassed. “It’s not my place to say this. None of them said this to me out loud. And I didn’t wanna say it in front of Lozzie. But those people are right at the edge, the only thing keeping them going is the promise that maybe you can fix them, get the Eye out of their heads. Not all of them, but some of them … it’s the only thing keeping them from topping themselves.”
We swallowed. Dry throat. We drank a mouthful of water, but that didn’t help.
“You mean … suicide?” we asked.
Jan nodded. “Yeah.”
“Can you set up the meeting?” we said. “Tomorrow. Yes, tomorrow. Afternoon, after meeting Yuleson about Lozzie’s stuff. Right away.”
“I’ll do it,” Jan said. She sat back.
She let me stew for a bit, slowly sipping her beer. Our mind rang with the implications of our own procrastination; the ex-cultists, the ones who’d escaped alongside Badger, they were not truly my responsibility. They’d briefly worked with Edward to try kidnapping Lozzie; they’d been part of the original Sharrowford Cult, and some of them had probably been willingly involved.
But they didn’t deserve the Eye. And we were their only hope.
“I’m … I’m sorry,” I muttered eventually. “Jan, I—”
Jan sighed. “Sometimes we end up having to take responsibility even when things aren’t our fault. Shit, Heather, those people weren’t your fault. But you’ve got power now. That means something, right? You’ve gotta learn to use it, that’s all. I don’t envy you that. Just … do what you can for them, okay?”
We nodded. We took a deep breath. We started to make a plan — a trade, treatment in return for information, though I would render treatment anyway, wouldn’t I?
We glanced back at Sevens. She blinked slowly, so very slowly: don’t procrastinate, Heather. Don’t use this as an excuse to stop moving. Maisie needs you to keep moving.
“Uh,” we said, gathering ourselves. “The next one, then, Jan. Maisie’s body—”
“Naaaaah,” Jan said. She clacked her beer glass back down and rummaged for her phone. “One sec, let’s just simplify this.”
‘Simplify’ turned out to be a bit optimistic; Jan spent several minutes hunting-and-pecking through her mobile phone, several more minutes up on her — slightly wobbly — feet, searching through the hotel room for pen and paper, and then another couple of minutes transcribing a forty-digit number onto a sheet of lined notebook paper.
Then she tore off the sheet and slid it across the table, toward me.
“There,” she said. “That’s Mister Joking’s phone number.”
“ … what?” We blushed a little. “I mean, sorry, um. Pardon? Just like that? And, Jan, that’s not a phone number, they don’t get that long. Do they?”
“These ones do.” She sighed and deflated a little. “Look, all I know is that’s the last number where I ever contacted him. If he’s still maintained it, then it’s your best bet for some kind of non-hostile contact. Be careful about what answers through, he might have a trap set up. Don’t call it when I’m nearby, okay?”
“Oh … okay,” we said, gingerly taking the sheet of paper like it might bite us. “So, how do you know him? I was surprised when you recognised him.”
Jan leaned back, blew out a big sigh, and put her hands behind her head. “Yeah, I know, right? Bastard hasn’t changed a day. Just like me, I guess. When I knew him, he went by ‘Joshua’. Joshua Ing. Joshing. Get it?”
“Oh!” I said. “Oh, that’s quite clever.”
Jan gave me a sceptical look. “Corny, more like. He always had a taste for terrible jokes. I didn’t know him for very long though. We were … both at Caen, both on the same side.”
I tilted my head. “Caen? In France?” Jan nodded. I asked: “Same side of what?”
Jan ran her tongue along her teeth and looked very uncomfortable. “A … conflict. Sort of. A couple of decades back; July was too young to have any memory of it. Look, that’s a seriously long story, and involves a lot of other mages, and things I never want to think about again. Too many mages all trying to do the same thing, in the same place, with conflicting goals? Nuh uh. Never again.” Jan sighed. “But he was there, looking the same as he does right now.”
We cleared my throat. “Okay, I’ll respect the request not to pry. But, Jan, I have to know — is he dangerous?”
Jan snorted and pulled a face at me. “All mages are dangerous. Yeah, of course he is! Is he a brutal murderer who’ll string you up if he gets a chance? Weeeeell, nah, probably not. But people change. Few enough scruples that he was fine working for Edward Lilburne. He’s a mage, Heather. Assume he’s lethal. And he’s researching your Eye, now, right? That’s bad news. Assume he’s double lethal. Don’t mention me, either.”
“Do you have any other tips for dealing with him?”
Jan’s eyes went up and to the right, digging through old memories. “He does this kung-fu thing—”
“We saw that. Yes. He even avoided getting punched by Zheng, but not by Praem.”
Jan raised her eyebrows. “No shit?”
“No,” I cleared my throat. “Excrement.”
“Damn. Well. Uh. Don’t let him get close? I mostly avoided him back in the day. I didn’t want to get close to anybody, even on my own side. Like I said, mages, lethal. You live longer by not knowing any of them.”
We held up the piece of notebook paper with the absurdly long phone number. “Thank you for this, Jan. If you recall anything else which might be useful … ”
Jan did a silly little mock salute. “Sure thing, officer. I’ll be sure to let you know.”
We winced, but we didn’t complain.
Jan and us both ate a little more food; July had completely finished her container of Run Dun. Sevens was still quietly gnawing away on fried fruit. But then Jan stood up, dusted off her hands, and said: “Right, now for the fun part. Lemme fetch my notes.”
Rather than rummaging in the detritus of her room for several minutes, Jan extracted a wide-format sketchbook from the desk, on first try, then carried it back to the table and slapped it down in front of me. She returned to her chair, her face glowing with what I recognised as professional-level smugness.
“Go on,” she said. “Take a look. The job’s for you, anyway, so you’ve got a right to see the design docs.”
Slightly confused, I flipped open the sketchbook.
Inside was page after page after page of anatomical drawings crossed with mechanical sketches: hip joints carved out of carbon fibre, arms connected to articulated shoulder blades, waist a flexible set of interlocking rings. Dozens of sketches of a skull showed the bizarre contents — magic circles and tiny boxes and weird uneven spheres. Chest cavity designs were covered in questions about rib density, and then crossed out in Jan’s neat, precise hand, and replaced with the words: ‘No ribs? Solid sheet. Better than mine.’ The inside of the chest itself was filled with a many-sided shape, like one of those fancy dice, to be suspended between carbon fibre rods, protected inside layers of bulletproof kevlar, steel plating, and a sealed sphere of magic circles.
Jan had covered the sketches in notes about material density, weights, positions, and sizes, but most of it meant nothing to me.
Maisie’s body, in the early stages. A skeleton waiting for pneuma-somatic flesh.
Jan was saying: “I’ve had to basically recreate all my original work from scratch. This one — that is, my body, me, haha — was bespoke, a real one-off job, and I barely understood what I was doing at the time. Things were … rushed. So, for this one, for your twin sister, it’s going to be much, much more refined. I’ve really had time to think about all the early flaws I went through. No arms falling off for her. No non-functional, um, parts. I’ve still gotta pick up most of the materials, but the plans are all ready for the foundations. I’m gonna need some, uh, additional details from you, though. For the fine tuning.”
We looked up at Jan, still in mild shock. “Jan, this is incredible.”
Jan smiled a professional smile, the expert happy to show off the pinnacle of her field. “You’re very sweet, Heather. But now I need to take measurements and pictures of you.” She waggled a finger up and down, indicating my body. “With all your kit off.”
We blinked. “Ah. Oh. You mean naked?”
“Yeah, naked.” She coughed awkwardly. “This body is gonna be based on you, right? Good thing you two were identical twins — sorry, are identical twins. It helps a lot. No guesswork. And don’t worry, Heather. You’re not my type. Think of it as like getting fitted for tailored clothes. Gotta get right in there to get a proper measurement.”
“Of course!” we said. Jan blinked in surprise. “Anything for Maisie. That’s nothing. Do you need that soon? Do you want to do it right now?”
Jan laughed and held up a hand. “Yeah, sure. Bloody hell. Do your girlfriends know you’re so eager?”
“Jan!” we snapped.
“Alright, alright. Fine. Just let me digest for a few minutes first, then we’ll get you up and I’ll get my camera and tape measure ready.”
We nodded eagerly, then glanced back at Sevens. The blood goblin gave us a thumbs up; we beamed even harder. We were doing it, actually doing it; we were going to make a new body for Maisie. We were making the rescue real. The first step in bringing my twin sister home.
But then, as I returned my attention to Jan’s sketchbook full of esoteric techno-skeletons, Jan said:
“So, who’s next on your list?”
“Ah? I’m sorry.”
She pulled a knowing smile. “The list of people to visit before your big battle. I imagine I’m pretty low down on the priority list, right?”
We rolled our eyes and tugged our tentacles in. “I told you, there’s no list. It’s not like that.”
Jan took a swig of her beer. “You must have talked to the werewolf already, at least. Right?”
I blinked. Jan paused. She lowered her glass and stared at me, suddenly stone-cold sober.
“You mean Twil?” I said
Jan turned her head to the side, eyes glued to me, as if trying to see if I was joking, like an animal examining me from multiple angles.
“You haven’t,” she said. It wasn’t a question.
Sevens gurgled: “Ooooooh. Oh. Oh.”
Jan looked almost angry. “You haven’t talked to the werewolf girl? Twil? Like, none of you have? Since the business with Edward’s house?”
“I … uh … I mean, I assume somebody has.”
“Oh, fucking hell, Heather.”
Panic gripped my gut. “What? What? Jan, what is it?”
But Jan seemed more disappointed than alarmed. Her storm-tossed eyes regarded me with a slow inner churn. “I can’t believe I have to spell this out to you. You lot are a fucking nightmare, you know that? Are you friends with Twil? She’s your friend? How about Evee? Or Raine? Are they friends with her?”
“O-of course I’m her friend. Jan, where is this going?”
“Back at the house, Heather.” Jan frowned at me. “That girl was having a fucking combat stress reaction. When she got all messed up and shaky? Combat shock. Whatever you call it these days. Fuck me, I thought one of you might have noticed.”
July paused her game and looked around at us. Uh oh.
I blinked. Our insides went cold. “Oh … when she … ”
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” went Sevens, a mock-scream under her breath. Had she missed this too? Not realised?
“Yeah,” Jan said. “When she smashed a person’s brains out to help save the rest of us, in that stupid gunfight. Heather, there’s a look somebody gets, the first time they kill a person. That was Twil’s first time. And nobody’s been to check on her?”
“ … surely Evee did,” I muttered. “I mean … she wouldn’t—”
Jan stood up. “Text her. Evee. Right now, ask her if she checked on Twil, if anybody’s spoken to her. And then you and me, Heather. We’re gonna check on the werewolf.”
I boggled at Jan. “But, it’s late. It’s really late. Twil might be—”
“Lying in bed after screaming herself awake from the aftermath of combat shock? Yeah, maybe. We’re gonna go check on your friend, Heather. I know this stuff, I can help. Fuck. I feel like the responsible adult here, trying to make sure you kids don’t mess yourselves up too much. Bloody hell.” Jan shook herself, a little bit dog-like for just a second. She chucked the rest of her beer down her throat. “I can deal with a werewolf. Give her a call, come on. Right now.”
Everyone forgot about Twil! Well. Probably. Once again, Heather is not the center of the universe and other people may have been up to things without telling her.
And poor Heart! She needs to learn how to put on a proper play, with a proper role; she'd be quite scary if she was a bit more educated. And poor Jan, now she has a very much unwanted admirer. And poor cultists(?????), ignored by their one chance of salvation. But Heather is going to try, for all these and more. But first, to her werewolf friend.
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Next week, it's time to check up on a certain shellshocked werewolf. I wonder if Twil has anything else on her mind? She really really deserves her very own arc in Book Two, a story of her own. She does occupy a bit of a peripheral position in the cast. On the brink, if you will. The brink of the ... woods? (Yes, I'm sorry, terrible joke. Seeya next chapter!)