Thank you to Theia for sensitivity reading this chapter!
tw: stalking, gun violence, severe PTSD flashbacks/triggers, attempted/threatened murder, implied toxic relationship, shooting in a public place, hallucinations/unreality/intrusive thoughts, white aggression towards a Black girl
I wasn’t sure what to say. I would have been scared for Nathan if it weren’t for the stupid fucking look on his face. So I went for the obvious—“What are you doing here?”
Kiera seemed ready to answer, then with an amused glance, realized I was talking to Nathan. I’d deal with her later.
“I—well—uh, I mean—”
“Our apartment is an hour from here. This better be good.”
“Would you believe I actually just really wanted to go to the Chapters?”
“I—” I stopped for a second and glared at him. He did kind of give off the helpless dork vibes enough for a bookstore field-trip. And I’d seen his bookshelf. “Actually, yes. But what is she doing here?” I glared at Kiera, who just nonchalantly stuffed another pair of fries into her mouth.
“These are good,” she said idly. “What are they?”
“Oh. Are they made of French people?”
I blinked, and a little voice inside of me begged, please do not laugh. “No, they’re made of potat—what are you doing hanging out with my roommate?”
She pulled a sheepish face at that, which probably meant whatever she said next was going to be horrible and ethically fucked up on multiple levels. I’d started to expect it. “How was your trip into the Medium?”
“You know where I—Of course you do. Fucking faerie bullshit.”
“If it helps, other faeries don’t like me either.”
Kiera chewed on another fry thoughtfully, and just when I thought she’d forgotten the question, gave me a weird, puzzled look. “I went to your house. Just—to see if you were alright.”
“Cool, cool, cool, that’s a totally normal thing to do—”
“And hung around for a bit?”
“What?” I stared at Nathan. “You couldn’t have called m—” Then it tracked why Nathan hadn’t seemingly noticed I’d been gone for so long. “You didn’t. You fucking didn’t.”
“That’s an incomplete sentence, techni—” She reached for another fry, and I slapped her hand down onto the table. Whatever the hell was rotten with her brain, that amount of salt wasn’t going to help. “You don’t have to be rude.”
“Says the woman who apparently impersonated me for two weeks!”
Nathan cleared his throat. “Actually, I caught her about five hours in. She was cooking. You don’t cook.”
“See? I did nothing wrong—”
“Shut up before I make you.” Well, at least I could pick a target now. I turned on Nathan and approached him, watching him stumble backwards until his back was pressed against the plaster wall. “Any reason you didn’t tell me about the superpowered stalker in my apartment?”
“Uh. You seemed busy.”
“Nathan!” Then I frowned. “You are nowhere near freaked out enough about this.”
He shrugged. “She didn’t really hit me hard enough last time. I did all the freaking where you couldn’t see.”
I could almost appreciate that. Except—“Good, that means we can focus on the stalker!”
Nathan stuck his hands in his pockets and looked both embarrassed and proud of himself. It took me a second, and then… Oh my god. Oh my god, I hated straight men. I hated straight men with a passion.
“You…” I stuttered. “Did you—”
“YOU FUCKED MY STALKER?”
“She’s a stalker!”
“It’s not like I knew!”
“She showed up at an apartment she doesn’t live in and pretended to be me. Badly.”
Nathan sagged. “Yeah, I was hearing myself as that came out of my mouth and it wasn’t good. Sorry. If it helps, it wasn’t while she was, you know…”
“Please stop talking.”
“I mean, you’re attractive! But that would have been way dodgy.”
I stopped paying attention to Nathan. Things had been weird since I’d walked into the McStab’s. I hadn’t really registered it at the time—I was tired, it’d been a while, and who cared if there was a misspelling in the menu? But now the menu was offering things like eyeballs and frozen heads. The girl pouring Pepsi into her cup was getting a cup full of blood, and not noticing.
I’d taken my eyes off Kiera. Mistake. Big mistake.
I turned away from Nathan and saw what I’d been missing behind me. Jaylie—no, somebody else, probably Reynare if the red hair was any clue—retreating quietly towards the entrance, step by step. And Kiera, eyes glittering with something vicious, staring at her.
Nobody else was even noticing. “Of course,” I mumbled. “This is McStab’s. They’re all drunk, high or crazy.” Probably a little unfair, but where else in the city would this go completely unnoticed?
“Stay away from us,” Reynare warned, but as the poison kept spilling into the air, I thought I could see a fox-face imposed over already-sharp features. “You’ve done enough damage.”
“I just want to talk.”
“Bullshit. You killed them, in front of us.”
“Because they weren’t helping. Nobody helps. And I don’t—” Kiera frowned slightly, conflict in her eyes. “I didn’t kill all of them. Don’t think so, anyway.” She looked confused.
Reynare laughed, a cold and bitter thing. But she couldn’t disguise how scared she was. And how could she? Kiera was white. Kiera was older, and stronger. Kiera was obsessed. And Kiera had a sword.
I felt a litany of curses roiling up in my head. Stupid, stupid, stupid—I couldn’t reconcile the funny, bantery, inappropriate Kiera with an actual murderer. I couldn’t do it. But—well—I was going to have to, wasn’t I?
I reached for her, grabbing the sleeve of her trenchcoat, and she swiveled towards me, knife-sharp teeth bristling too long in her mouth, like needles clustering for space. I staggered backwards, but her fingers dug into my shoulder—
—Then suddenly, she seemed to realize I was there. The teeth retracted, became nearly normal again, but the eyes didn’t lose the glassiness. “Stay here, Guthrun,” she murmured, but I grabbed at her again, this time by her lapels.
Dimly in the background I could see Reynare backing away, disappearing behind the consoles – was she leaving –
Kiera still looked… wrong. Like she hadn’t quite put herself together right. “I’m just asking a question,” she murmured.
“I’m supposed to help! Right? Just by being here.”
She laughed, lightly, and something of the Kiera I recognized from other conversations reappeared, just for the one line—“You would if I let you.” Then she vanished, just for long enough to leave me holding the empty coat, and reappeared—taller, skinnier, more monstrous, a footstep away. Her arms were bare and white under the fake white glow of the restaurant lights, and I couldn’t —I had to think of something—
The compulsion was so strong and so unexpected that I couldn’t even try to fight it. I stumbled backwards until I was standing by the wall. Nathan sank down into one of the chairs, mouth moving as he held a silent conversation with someone I couldn’t see. A woman in a dark-green dress and snow boots started dancing in the hallway leading to the bathroom, careful steps in tune to some hidden music. Others stared into nothing, lost in worlds of their own that played over their irises. The walls cracked, spidery hands reaching across the plaster and down across the linoleum –
Then, all at once, everyone stopped on cue. As one entity, everyone in the restaurant, every worker, every customer, everyone except me turned their heads to stare at Kiera with eyes that were starting to come back into focus. I felt the thought, too—the command—like a raw, agonized scream in my head, like a migraine about to happen, words faded and barely distinguishable in the storm. And I hadn’t resisted it, exactly. I was looking at Kiera, too—but I knew, unlike the others, that the thought wasn’t my own. That the reality around me wasn’t true. I wasn’t immune, but I was safer than they were. And I knew whose scream it was in my head.
She came through the entrance slowly, chewing on the inside of her cheek with a menace I’d never seen from her before. She was silly, always ready to laugh or to make some dumb joke, and the little sharpness I’d seen had been—the normal stuff, the type of thing you expect from queer people with wounds in their past and chips on their shoulder. But now, even if I hadn’t been able to feel the raw fury pouring from her, unstable Sulfuric energy rocking everybody in the tiny store with emotions they couldn’t process…
“I knew I’d run into you myself at some point,” she said.
…Scared. Not scared. I wasn’t sure what it was. Nervous? Who knew with Kiera? Trying to think through the smog was exhausting. Trying to look past the other world crawling and creeping up the walls and under my feet (now you’re standing on grass, now you’re standing on cinders, don’t worry, you can’t feel it but your eyes like to trick you) was exhausting.
“Willow. Been a while.”
“Yeah. How many of us did you kill when I wasn’t looking?” Will’s voice was ice and gravel, raw from the cigarettes she’d been smoking, and grief for her friends showing itself through the cracks.
Kiera chuckled, but it was one of those hollow, nervous sounds, like hitting a rotten log. “I, uh—didn’t keep track, really.”
“Course you didn’t. We’re just bodies to you, huh?”
Kiera’s forced smile dropped. “Get out of my way.” For whatever reason, the comment had hit.
“Yeah, absolutely no fucking way.”
“Please. You don’t even know her—”
“This isn’t about Jaylie,” Will interrupted, voice getting louder. “You’re right! I don’t know her! But I know you and I know I should have stopped you a long time ago.”
People started to get up from the tables, and I realized Will was controlling them—maybe not directly, but if the suggestions were strong enough, on top of a mind racked by hallucinations—
“Will, don’t, she’ll kill them!”
She showed no sign of hearing me, but the people didn’t move from their standing positions. Their eyes stayed locked on Kiera, tall and corpse-like in the middle of the restaurant. I heard a clatter. The door. Jaylie and the rest were long gone. I supposed I couldn’t blame them, but I was stuck here, at the back. Trapped.
I have to call Avery, or Isaiah, or Jo, somebody, somebody who can handle this, I can’t—and on top of it, the realization dawning that they knew each other. Will had known so much about Kiera, more than Cass, more than she’d let on—
“Don’t throw any humans at me, and I won’t slit them open,” Kiera said conversationally. “I think that’s fair, don’t you—?”
“Says the bitch looking for other people to fix her.”
Kiera sighed. “Like you don’t. Like you weren’t looking for somebody to fix. What would you like me to do, apologize for not being a waify enough ingenue?”
“You’re a murderer. And you don’t even feel the slightest bit guilty.”
“Guilt is such a complex topic. Besides, I’m in good company—”
Before I had time to process what a bad thing that was to say, from barely-remembered fragments of a newspaper story, Will had reached into the back pocket of her jeans—
My mind went blank.
Will had a gun. Will had a gun in her hands, something I’d only ever seen in the hands of cops and guards and in movies, and she was pointing it at Kiera. How had I not seen it? I hadn’t been looking. It’d been under her shirt—
(how scared do you have to be to risk being stopped with a gun)
(how scared do you have to be to own one)
Americans had guns. Cops had guns. Hunters had guns. Queer kids in urban sprawl didn’t have guns.
Kiera seemed ready to pounce, but something stopped her, and a smile started to form on Will’s face. A bad smile. One that didn’t touch her eyes.
I don’t know why my brain was putting things together at that moment. Maybe because everything seemed to be moving very slowly. But growing up around people who can hurt you, who will hurt you—you know when something’s wrong. You don’t say it, because it’s not safe. You just tread more lightly. Speak less. And ‘wrong’ never clarifies itself to you, until they say or do something.
Kiera I’d already known something was wrong. But Will—Will had been cracking for a while. Hadn’t she been awfully cruel to Cass? And Cass had been worried about her for a reason. The cracks had been showing. The floor had been creaking, telling me something, something.
Now I was seeing them together. They were the missing pieces of each other, the blow, the impact, the thing that had cracked the glass. And I wouldn’t have put it together if under all that hatred and bitterness spilling out, the thoughts invading mine, there hadn’t been twin threads of betrayal and love.
“Get on your knees,” Will ordered, and I knew she’d been doing it with her thoughts, too.
“Execution-style, huh? You know there’s every chance that won’t even hurt me—”
“Save it. Bullets are made of iron.”
Kiera quietly got to her knees, raising her hands in surrender. “I submit, or whatever. Drag me away in chains—”
“Yeah, right.” Will’s voice sounded so far away, so empty. “I learn from my mistakes.”
Shit, shit, shit, shit—all I could hear was Jo’s cut-off scream, and I knew what memory that was, the one I didn’t have, but it was playing the soundtrack for me anyway—I didn’t have any reason to care about Kiera and I didn’t have any reason to stop Will but, but, but—
–but I don’t need a reason-
(Cops have guns and hunters have guns)
This was bad and any idiot could see it was bad, and I had to stop it. I couldn’t stabilize two people at once, I was pretty sure I couldn’t, and even if I could, neither of them was gonna stabilize with the other around.
The floor. It looked like muddy grass. It didn’t feel like it. I banged my foot against it to be sure, but yep—linoleum tile underneath. Which meant—
I took a few steps back into the bathroom hallway, kept my head down, took a few steps, and then threw myself across the floor. I hit Kiera’s back arms first, and we crashed into one of the tables. A shot rang out—a startled response from Will and exactly why I’d kept my head down—and Kiera stared up at me in confusion.
“Go,” I hissed. “Now!”
She nodded, and a second later, I was holding smoke and empty air. Something flitted away, a butterfly or a bird, something small. And two seconds later, the screaming started. The hallucinations were gone.
I got to my feet as fast as I could, hurtling to the back and grabbing Nathan. “Call an Uber home. Now!”
“I’ll explain later, now!”
Then I just had to get Will. People were stampeding out of the McDonald’s, and nobody had stopped to notice who had been holding the gun. They’d all been on the magical equivalent of LSD. They’d all give five hundred different reports.
I found her crouched in the corner next to the garbage bins, the gun stuffed underneath one of them. She stammered, tried to say something, but I just hauled her upwards. “We gotta go. Bring that thing with you so we can get rid of it properly.”
“I don’t—I—I don’t want to touch it—”
“Then I will, jesus.” I stuck it in the hoodie pocket. Nathan was outside. I couldn’t see Jaylie anywhere, and I wondered if she’d fled back to the Medium. So much for keeping her safe. “How long?”
“That’ll have to do.” I grabbed Will by the shoulders, giving her a small shake. “Will. Willow. You are going to clamp it down until we are home. Got it?”
“I can’t—my head is—”
“I don’t give a shit. Five minutes. Think about, I don’t know, teddy bears. Five minutes and then you can fall apart. Okay?” I hated having to be so cruel to her, but it was that or leave her here, and the second was not an option.
She raised her eyes to me, looking so small that it hurt. “You promise?” she whispered.
I softened, despite myself. I was terrified. But so was she. “I promise.”
A moment later, I found myself thinking about teddy bears. I smiled—just a little—as we climbed into the cab. She was keeping her word.
I thought about Jaylie again—fled in fear, back into the night, on her own again. I just wished I’d been able to keep mine.