TW: plural/trauma discussion, hospitalization, implied suicidality, murder, stalking, delusions, SERIOUS unreality warning
“I’m tired of this.” I try to stride past her and through the other set of doors to the outside, but they won’t budge. “Seriously? How many times do I have to leave this fucking place?”
“You’re not in the Medium, if that’s what you’re asking,” she says. She sounds bored. “You’re just – well, dreaming is close enough.”
“Great. So I’m here in my dreams, I’m here in the Medium, and you’re telling me it’s my own fault.”
“If that’s what you’re hearing, then I really can’t help you.” I’m not imagining it. She really is pissed off. “Would you sit the hell down and listen? I know that’s hard for you.”
I do as she says, gritting my teeth. I suppose it can’t be helped. She’s a younger version of me and I’ve always been a pain in the ass. She doesn’t have anything in her arms this time, just the black raincoat that she’s pulling around herself, and her hair a mess as always.
“…What do you mean, I can’t stop? Or are you going to answer in dream logic?”
She glares at me somewhat balefully. “Oh, please. You said it yourself, didn’t you? We don’t do psych-out fakeout bullshit. No, you’re just stuck in the past like a dumbass who can’t get over herself.”
I blink at her, sitting up against the wall. I’d be offended, but – “Alright, you were not this pissy last time. You’re… what, six?”
“Not a kid.”
“Okay, well, you look six. Which is older than I was, but I’m guessing the whole thematic thing is- whatever. What’s eating you?”
She just sighs, sitting down on the opposite side of the hospital gateway – then it clicks.
“Oh,” I exhale, ever so slightly disappointed in myself. “You keep hoping I won’t be back.”
She won’t look at me, so I imagine I’m on the right track, although it’s probably a little more complicated. In the haze of exiting the Medium, surrounded by gods and monsters, all of this seemed normal. But this dream feels too crisp, too sharp –
No, it’s not even that. It’s that Jaylie isn’t here. So I have to deal with the fact that this is just my head.
“Okay,” I say after a bit. “So I’m stuck in the past. I can accept that.”
“Really?” she snarks back.
“I mean, sure. That’s not a big surprise.”
“Just because you know you’re doing something doesn’t mean you’ve figured out how you’re doing it.”
“You are way too little to sound like a monk.”
“Stop it,” she grumbles, burying her face in her arms. “I’m not a kid, I’m just – stuck here! And it doesn’t feel like I’m stuck until you show up and rub it in that you got to- to grow up!”
I should be more surprised. I’m not, and I’m not sure why. But I get up and cross over to the other side, standing next to her and giving her leg a nudge with my boot.
“…You’re not me, huh?” I say in the quiet of the hospital-that-isn’t-a-hospital. And – funny thing – when the thought had processed inside my head, that had been fine. The moment I say it out loud, or what feels like out loud, something breaks. I’m not sure if it’s her or me. But something breaks.
I think it might be glass – and I think that might be good.
My eyes snapped open, and it took me a minute to remember where I was. Which was silly – I’d been living here for a while now. I’d even made a little nest of pillows in lieu of a bed or couch, with a post-it note on the wall reminding me to go to Walmart and get a damn couch.
I wasn’t expecting to wake up alone. “Will?”
No answer. One of her hair ties (pink, of course) was still around my wrist, so last night hadn’t been a dream. We hadn’t done much. We’d talked, and kissed, and kissed some more. I’d lost my shirt somewhere along the way, and she’d had a small fit of giggles over my sports bra that was practically a tank top.
I checked my phone, just in case.
WILL: Hey so
WILL: I ended up alone w my thoughts last night + realized just how bad I fucked up
WILL: not with you! But, yknow. everything else
WILL: ive been doing really badly for a while and thought I was dealing with it ok bc I always think that lol
WILL: but by the time attempted murder enters the pic then this is. not on you to deal with
WILL: GOD SORRY this is so many messages and I sound like a sadsack I’M FINE im not dead
WILL: but I did get nathan to drive me to the general and im gonna see if theyll admit me for one of those 72 hr holds. thhhhink I need it
WILL: not the first time, wont be the last, n it means you only have one psycho lesbian to deal with it at a time
WILL: anyway I am safe and not fucking things up with crazybrain and last night was very lovely pls accept raincheck on date 2
…How did I even respond to that? My first instinct was to shove my phone under a pillow or in the sink and pretend I hadn’t seen it. But that wasn’t going to help. Second was to yell at her. Also bad. I was starting to think my instincts had it out for me. Then I checked the actual notifications, realized I had about ten more of those than actual messages-
Another one showed up as I was mulling it over.
WILL: okay I INSIST that you install the app I use with cass bc I rewrote and deleted several of these bc they sounded dumb and realized you got notified for them anyway. I am fucking exposed I hate this
Okay. Fine. I wasn’t laughing, but I was smiling.
I checked my other texts, since I was bad about that anyway, and there was that one set of texts I hadn’t checked-
UNKNOWN NUMBER: its Jaylie, I am so sorry, I freaked out
UNKNOWN NUMBER: are you okay??? Is will okay? Nobody got hurt, right?
UNKNOWN NUMBER: I may have stolen this number from somebody’s head and I apologize for that
There was something surprising about Jaylie being actually sincere. Not that I didn’t think she was capable of it – just that she had maintained the snarky mean girl act so well. It was sad, too, though; it meant she was rattled enough that she couldn’t keep up her defenses.
The sadness grew and grew until I had to lean my head back against the wall, between the post-it note and the mark that Lila’s knife had left in the wallpaper, and swallow some of it down. It wasn’t sadness for me, not exactly. It was just that – when I’d first started being dragged into this, or prodding it, however you wanted to position it, I’d seen all of these people with superpowers, magic of their owns, and been jealous. Jealous of their community, jealous of their knowledge. Cassandra had tried so hard to paint it that way, too – an organization, a group, something that I was on the Outside of and being invited into. Perhaps that was true to some extent.
I kept thinking about Gurjas. He’d died protecting a girl from the psych ward, somebody he knew shouldn’t have been there, who he knew needed different help. And he’d kept her safe from Kiera the only way he could think how. There weren’t elemental therapists, were there? Or if there were, I imagined there were only a few, scattered. If there was a special password, or map, or underground hideout, somebody would have mentioned it. Cassandra wouldn’t be living in an abandoned school. Will would have actual medication. Avery would have somebody to call to help them, instead of driving around with an illegal gun, trying to get rid of it.
I dragged my hands down my face. I’d spent so much time asking for information, asking for somebody to explain. None of them knew. Some were better at faking it than others, some had gotten more information from older people or other people or guesswork -but they were all just as lost. Cass’s whole anarcho-communist schtick wasn’t just idealism -it was trying to pull order from chaos. Nobody had known the Salts were dying until it was too late, because nobody was talking to each other. And the argument about what to do with Kiera was because there weren’t other options.
No, that was bullshit. There had to be other options. I’d been called a lost cause enough. And if nobody else knew what to do, that meant my way of muddling through wasn’t as stupid as I thought it was. Keeping myself safe was an option, sure, but I couldn’t sit back and let other people do it, because they didn’t know what to do.
And besides, there was that other little detail.
I got up, stepped casually over to the window like I just wanted some fresh air, opened it – and threw my hand out towards the darkness of the tree. Nothing. I pulled it back in –
Kiera’s face popped over the top edge of the window, upside down and smiling. “Nice try.”
“How’d you know I was there?”
I exhaled, stepping back from the window. “Good guess. You seem to stalk me a lot.”
“What else am I going to do with my time?”
“Kill more people?”
“Psh. People keep obsessing over that detail.” She threw her legs through the window, making herself comfortable on the sill. Her shoulders were bared and white, and I realized with a slight flush that I’d accidentally stolen her coat. “Besides, you have no proof-”
“Right, right, some other chronically-unstable elemental with a sword is chopping people up.”
She closed her mouth in irritation. “…Accidents. I-”
“Bullshit. Nobody chops somebody’s head off accidentally.”
“You’d be surprised what-”
“Or takes bites out of them. That’s what happened to that other woman, wasn’t it? I didn’t think about it until now, but you’ve got those great big chompers. I wouldn’t have taken you for a cannibal, but -”
“I don’t eat people,” she growled – then looked a little dodgy.
“Any more,” she added to the end with a sigh. “Okay, fine, if you have all the answers. What theory are you working on, oh great detective?”
She hadn’t left or attacked me yet, so I decided to take the invitation. I sat back down, leaning my hands on my knees and trying not to smirk. “So, Jaylie. Something about her pisses you the fuck off.”
“Wonderful. Fantastic detective-ing. Amazing conclusion.”
“And so you went after her, and didn’t realize she had protection.”
Kiera rolled her eyes. “Yes, she’s crazy and has extra people in her head. Moving on.”
“Obviously, somebody attacking her out of nowhere set her off. That’d upset anybody. So she destabilized – and tried to find a Salt, or anybody, who could help her. And…” My mouth went a little dry. “And you kept following, and every time you saw somebody help her, every time she got a little more stable, you got even angrier.”
She didn’t respond. I kept going.
“And I thought at first you got more pissed off, but it’s the other way around, isn’t it? You were angry first. That’s why you tore some of them to pieces. Somewhere along the way you got the idea that you could be stabilized, if you just kept trying. So then you only killed them when they couldn’t give you what you needed.”
She was already pretty white, but I thought Kiera had gone just a little paler. Her hands were tense on the windowsill, and I figured that if I was going to die, I might as well finish my train of thought.
“I don’t know why you haven’t killed me. I’m clearly not up to the task. But now you know that the others will kill you. And this is where I get a little stuck, Kiera.”
“What, writer’s block on your fairy tale?” she sneered, trying to look casual.
I stood up, trying not to look too much like I was going on the defense. “Bullets aren’t made of iron. And either you didn’t know that, and you’ve been out of this world a long, long time. Or you knew that, and a bullet will kill you just as stone fucking dead as anything else.”
She crossed the room so fast I barely saw her – just felt her slam a hand into my chest until I was pinned against the wall. “Tread. Carefully.”
“What, did I hit a nerve?”
“No,” she lied. Horrendously. “You’re just fucking guessing at this point.”
“I mean, sort of. But I’m good at noticing patterns. And you haven’t killed a single person after we met.”
Kiera’s hand lingered on my sternum. “…Correct.”
I made the mistake of looking up at her. Our eyes met, and the same feeling I’d told Jo about hit me again. That I recognized her. That maybe she wasn’t so bad, or maybe I was, and that defending her was so, so easy.
“…Why are you actually following me?” I asked, my voice a hoarse whisper catching in my throat.
Kiera didn’t smile, didn’t do anything but keep looking at me for a while. “Because I can think when I do. It was always about finding the right person.” Her hand moved up my chest, towards my throat, brushing against bare skin.
“You think I’m Guthrun. And that’s why.”
“You didn’t think I based it on conjecture and dreams?” she chuckled. “Admit it. You felt something when you saw me for the first time. You recognized me. There’s a reason you saved my life.”
Because I’m a good person, I tried to insist. But she wasn’t wrong – and more than that, the whole idea was… tempting. It was stupid. I was supposed to be proud of who I was, but I didn’t know who I was. I had a letter for a last name and a vague skin color as a stand-in for a culture. I didn’t know who Guthrun had been, but she had been somebody.
“Jamal,” came the urgent whisper. It took me a second to realize Kiera couldn’t hear it. “Jamal, this is a bad idea.”
I didn’t respond, mostly not to give away to Kiera that Jo was there. And she was, just on the edge of my vision.
“You need to get out of here. She’s dangerous. She’s probably used this speech on other girls.”
I hadn’t thought of that. I – christ. Christ, that was possible, wasn’t it? I was so stupid. I was –
Come on. Give her a chance.
“Can I ask what happened with you and Will? I – she’s my friend, but I want to know.”
Kiera looked startled at that, but it did what I’d hoped; it broke the charismatic energy between the two of us, making space for me to breathe. “I suppose you’ve heard her end of the story,” she snorted.
“Sort of. She feels pretty bad about it.”
“She messed with my head – not that it turned out that bad in the end. But I don’t like how she did it. Besides, once she’d fixed me, she kicked me out. Said I had to find another place to stay.” Kiera actually looked sad at that, but I wasn’t foolish enough to take that at face value. So I let her keep talking. “She was talking about how elemental stuff worked. It works differently for humans, you know? And I figured out that my soulmate would get me under control the best. Make all the extra stuff stop. It’s not my fault she got so angry.”
I couldn’t imagine Will getting angry over that. But I could squint and start to see between the lines, Kiera’s obsession with me – the insistence that I could help her, that I was helping her –
–sometimes it causes an echo-
“Soulmates?” I asked nervously.
“Yeah. Everybody deserves love, everybody gets it. You just have to find them.” Kiera was smiling at me again, eyes glittering like shards of glass, not quite here, not quite elsewhere. “Your soulmate. The person who’ll love you no matter what.”
You deserve to be loved.
Oh, god. Oh god, no wonder Will had thought it was harmless. The rest of it must have come from somewhere – it had to – Will just hadn’t known.
I felt sick. But Kiera was still watching, so I managed to wrench my lips into a returning smile.
“Jamal, Jaylie is going to be here in a minute.”
What? I couldn’t risk –
“Not – not Jaylie. It’s Sunvay. And he says he’ll finish this, one way or another. I had to – Jamal, you know this isn’t safe.”
I had a decision to make. I had no time. And all I wanted to do was run away.