TW: Mental health issues, trauma feelings, guns, suicidal ideation
I thought by the time we made it back to my apartment I’d have figured out what to say, how I was feeling, some sort of order to the chaos in my head. But when Nathan unlocked the door and I held Will’s shoulders to guide her up the stairs, I realized I still had no idea. I was still holding Kiera’s coat, and I threw it on the floor, then a moment later, did the same thing with Will’s hoodie. I didn’t want either of them.
There was a gun in my pocket.
“Nathan,” I said quietly as I got to the top of the stairs, giving Will a gentle push towards the other room. I handed him my phone. “Avery’s on the contact list. Call them, tell them what happened.”
“I’m not sure what happened.”
“Okay, then, just tell them I need help.”
Will glared at me, and I leaned on the doorframe, returning the stare. “You don’t have to call Avery.”
“Well, somebody has to be responsible for you, since you apparently can’t be responsible on your own.” I regretted it immediately as she turned her head away from me. “Sorry. I’m just – a gun, Will? You had a gun?”
“She scares me,” she mumbled.
“That looked more like an execution than self-defense.”
“I -” She exhaled. “Sorry.”
Sorry. That didn’t explain shit. I tried not to look disappointed or angry, but I didn’t have any energy left. I wanted to ask her what Kiera had been talking about, but I didn’t have the words, and if I felt this muddled about my own thoughts, there was no way Will could understand them either. So I left, and sat with my back against the stairway banister, legs stretched across the small hallway, Will on one side of me and Nathan to the other, waiting for Avery to show up. An adult, who knew what to do.
I felt pathetic.
Perfect fucking timing. “And where the fuck have you been?” I growled, looking at Jo in the mirror. She’d followed us up the stairs, apparently. Or just reappeared. Either way, she was hovering a couple inches over the stairs themselves.
“I was with Isaiah.”
“Yeah. That’s where you always are. I can’t blame you for being sick of me.”
“That’s not what it’s about!”
I banged my head against the banister. I wasn’t in the mood. I was going to get lectured, or worried over, or preached at, and I was not in the mood. I’d just watched two broken people almost kill each other. I didn’t want any fucking powers. I didn’t want any of this. I wanted –
Well, mostly, I wanted to be dead. But I’d slowly started realizing that that was my default. Wanting to be anywhere but here. Wanting to stop wanting everything so much.
“Avery’s outside,” Jo murmured. “They wanted to know if it was okay to come in.”
“How nice. They asked permission.”
“Jamal.” I could hear it in her voice, the start of another I-told-you-so – but then, instead, she slipped through the banister and sat next to me. “Was it bad?”
“Will tried to shoot Kiera.”
“Wh-” She exhaled, stifling her immediate response. “Oh my god.” She looked so innocent. She hadn’t aged, not really – I thought perhaps some ghosts could, if they wanted to. But Jo was stuck at twelve, and it meant the fear on her face looked all the more real. “Are – are you -”
“Didn’t get shot, no. Nobody did.”
“Will wouldn’t…” Jo frowned. “That doesn’t sound like her.”
“Yeah, well. I don’t know her that well.”
“You want to know her better. Don’t you?”
I shrugged. I did. And I didn’t. I didn’t want people in my life, fakey conversations about the weather, check-ins and lunch dates… I’d tried. I’d tried, so hard, to have real friends. But I’d dropped out of school, and the messages had slowed from a flood, to a trickle, to a foreboding, endless silence. And I hadn’t cared. I was supposed to care, I was supposed to reach out and make an Effort, and I just. Didn’t.
And then Kiera had shown up.
How fucked up was I when the person I wanted to get to know and spend time with wasn’t the one who had saved my life, the one who had given me the vocabulary for a whole world of people – but instead the one that any sane person would want to stay away from? I could draw on vaguely-remembered ideas about the call-of-the-void and bad girl appeal all I wanted. It was fucked up. I was fucked up.
“Are you okay?”
I started, then stared at Jo. “I – I don’t know,” I admitted.
“That’s a step up.”
“That you’re admitting it.”
“Oh, shut up,” I grumbled, but there wasn’t any force behind it. Besides, she looked genuinely happy about it, and I didn’t have the heart to take her pride as anything but sincere. “…Kiera makes me uncomfortable.”
“I think she w-”
“Not like that,” I interrupted. Jo had been about to say that she’d make anybody uncomfortable, but it wasn’t so simple. “Have you ever…” I lost my courage for a moment, the furious, guilty part of my brain reminding me that this was my little sister, it wasn’t her job to give me advice, not on things like this, I was supposed to protect her- But she did give me advice. And I hadn’t protected her well enough. “Have you ever been scared of someone not because they’re… you know, terrible on their own, but because you think you might be a worse person for them? That if they asked you, straight up, you’d do something without thinking about it and have to pick up the pieces later? Or that – that they’re the physical version of that devil on your shoulder?”
Johara stared at me, and I watched in silence as her eyes went from startled back to sad. I’d hoped – almost expected, actually, for this just to be another silly, normal thing that everybody had and that I was overthinking it.
“I don’t think so,” she murmured, “but I know what you mean.”
So much for this being normal.
“You think about Kiera a lot more than I expected. Didn’t she try to shove you off a building?”
“Not exactly,” I snorted. “Besides, I’m apparently surrounded by dangerous idiots. She’s looking less and less weird all the time.”
“You’re deflecting again.”
“When did you get so smart?”
“I’m only smart when it comes to you.”
Damn it. Foiled again. I didn’t mind this time. I didn’t want to talk about this, but I thought maybe I kind of did – I was just terrified of actually saying any of it. “She’s old. Like, really old. And I keep wondering, how do you get to be that old and this horrible? But then she’s not horrible all the time. Sometimes she’s sweet, and sometimes she’s weird, but the cute, annoying kind of weird. And maybe she was nicer when she was young, or maybe she was worse, or maybe she just stayed the same all this time and never got any better and that’s terrifying, Jo, because-” I cut myself off, jaw so tense I could feel my teeth pushing against each other like stone against stone. She was still listening to me.
“Because I keep thinking about what would happen if I lived that long, about me in a hundred or a thousand years, and I don’t think I’d be that different.”
Jo started in surprise. “You can’t possibly think-”
“Think what? That I’m miserable enough and hate people enough to get rid of them when I’m tired of them? Or that I can hate somebody enough to chase them across a whole city? That anybody could be afraid of-”
I was not going to fucking cry. Not even front of Jo. So I wrapped my arms so tightly around my legs that it hurt, like it might stop me from shaking into pieces.
“Jamal, I -”
“I love you, Jo, but I really… I can’t do this right now.”
She left. I could feel her vanishing – back into the Medium, probably. I hoped she wasn’t mad at me. I probably deserved it.
Something, a small voice in my head, questioned that.
Avery had gone in with Will while Jo and I were talking. I’d barely noticed, but I glanced at the door, wondering how it was going. I could hear their voices, not quite raised, but definitely tense, in the room on the other side. Then, as I watched, Avery threw the door open and – didn’t quite storm out. This was still Avery. They closed the door behind them carefully, not slamming it, but I could see in the tension of their arm and shoulder that they were tempted.
I was tempted to make a joke at them – that bad, huh – but even I wasn’t out of it enough to misread the situation that badly. They stuck their hands in their pockets and stood in front of me, looking as lost as I’d ever seen them.
“You’ve still got it, huh?”
“Yeah. In my pocket.”
“I’ll get rid of it.”
I paused half-way through pulling it out of my pocket. “Uh. Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” Avery chuckled. “I mean it. I’m not going to get caught by the cops with a gun in my glovebox, don’t worry. Straight from here to the river, clean it, toss it. Nobody got killed or hurt, they’re not gonna look that hard for it.”
“Thank god for that. Alright.” I handed it to Avery carefully, like I was handling a grenade. I supposed in a way I was. Avery put it in the pocket of their leather jacket, pulling a face.
“I still have no idea where she got it. I’m not sure I want to know.” Then they sighed, looking so young it hurt. They occupied a place in my head right alongside Cass as the wise older mentor, and Cass’s pedestal had already been shaken when I’d watched her and Will go at it. Now I was trying to hold Avery’s pedestal in place, and wondering if I should bother. They were older than me, sure, but when Kiera was nine hundred years old, what did that count for?
Avery scratched their chin, taking a few deep, measured breaths. “I’m sorry.”
“That must have been hard. And – câlif. It was one thing when it was just Isaiah. Isaiah’s a big boy. It sucks having to figure out how to stabilize everybody at once, but he’s old enough and together enough to figure it out. But you didn’t ask for this. And I don’t have a fucking clue why Kiera likes you so much, but it’s put you right in the middle of this.”
“Means she’s not killing me, though,” I tried with a smile. Avery returned the smile faintly.
“Very true. It’s still not fair.”
Then it hit me – “Is that why I’m fucking exhausted? I thought that was just the stress!”
Avery actually chuckled a little at that, and brightened a little. “No, no. You were stabilizing two elementals at once. Two, by the way, very very powerful elementals who have been losing their shit for a while. And you saved both their lives.” They smiled, their eyes dark-rimmed from frustrated tears. “You did good.”
Maybe that shouldn’t have made me so happy. But Avery had said both. It wasn’t just about Will. It was about saving everybody – and that kept me smiling long after Avery left.