tw: mental illness, racism/police brutality referenced/discussed, inferred/imminent violence, hallucinations/unreality
Every day—every fucking day—for the last. How long? How goddamn long? I was putting out fires, and when I wasn’t putting out fires, I was causing them by mistake, or untangling social situations I’d had no part in creating, or making sure my own mind wasn’t unravelling—
Choose, Jamal. Now.
Was it worth letting this happen? I didn’t done enough to protect Jaylie from Kiera before. But…
Jaylie was coming here on purpose. I assumed Jo had told her. Them. It was all of them, if Sunvay sounded that determined. And I wasn’t stupid—Jaylie had been scared, sure. Young, barely any older than me, with the same surly teenage attitude covering up real insecurity. I’d been inside her head.
That didn’t change the fact that she was all the scariest parts of Will’s and Kiera’s powers put together. Maybe not as powerful, but did I want to test that?
Kiera hadn’t answered the question. She’d answered lots of my questions, but not the one I was the most concerned about. Could a bullet hurt her? She didn’t like iron and silver, but could other things kill her? Did she have a real reason to be scared?
Too many questions. Too much anxiety.
“Jamal, what are you hiding?”
Shit. Shit, shit, shit, I wasn’t the only one who could read people. And I couldn’t keep stalling.
“Jaylie’s coming here,” I exhaled. I didn’t even think about it, as a sick feeling roiled in my stomach. “You need to go. Now.”
“I need to leave? What are you on about?”
The world lurched—ever so slightly. Enough to throw me off balance, and enough to tell me the truth. I didn’t fix her nearly as much as she thought I did. She—
What do you see? I can’t see it.
Maybe if I pretended—
“Do you actually know anything about Jaylie?” I said, trying to keep my balance as the room started to spin. It could just be the anxiety, I told myself. That was possible. “She’s never actually stood her ground against you before.”
“Because she’s a coward.”
“She’s eighteen, dumbass. And Black. Fighting back against white people usually gets us shot.” I didn’t usually say us. But whatever, it applied to me too.
The confusion that crossed her face at that was real, or at least it looked real. I could cross that off the list of things to hold against her, at least; wherever she’d spent her life before here, it hadn’t had cops. “It does?”
“…Damn it, you’re even old enough I don’t think I can get mad at you for that.” I was thinking about getting mad anyway, because fuck that, but my head hurt too much. Stay balanced, I told myself. Let her think you’re actually helping. Why? Good question.
So she doesn’t kill you.
And then what? She stuck around forever? My job became keeping her sane? If I wanted to tie my life to a crazy white girl I had safer options.
“She’s not going to beat me in a fight,” Kiera snorted. “She’s just some prissy little bitch—”
“Why do you hate her so much?”
She clammed up again.
“You—” I managed to look away from the walls, which had decided to turn a pulsing, neon green. I preferred the less headache-inducing visions. “You really, really have got to leave.”
“Fine. Come with me.”
“I can’t. This is my house—”
“Come with me.”
Then Kiera looked at me, her expression sinking. Her eyes searched my face, looking for something—what, exactly, I didn’t know. Probably confirmation of what she suspected. “It’s happening again, isn’t it?”
I’d felt for her before—the kind of compassion that came from drawn parallels, mixed with fear. The kind of feeling that came from looking at somebody else and realizing that they were a worst-case scenario, a bad end version of you. But the look on her face at that moment was something else entirely; an exhausted, disappointed heartbreak. I recognized it not just because I felt like I could be her, but because it made sense. For a moment, she’d thought she could interact with someone without making them sick, without trapping them in a nightmare world that she couldn’t even see—and I’d tried. I genuinely had tried—
I wasn’t tired. Well, I was. I wasn’t any more tired than I had been before she’d shown up. But the drain I’d felt before—
I won’t let you. She’d said she wouldn’t let me, back at the McDonald’s. She wouldn’t let me help.
Did she even remember she’d said that?
Something was still wrong. I was still missing something.
She shoved me aside, and I hit the wall so hard it hurt. So much for compassion. That was going to bruise.
I sat up, wincing as I watched the walls of my apartment collapse into what looked like space. It was a wonder Kiera’s trippy LSD shit didn’t screw with me more than it did—I was just thankful it didn’t mess with my sense of touch.
I closed my eyes. That was better. I could feel where I was, the hardwood floor under my fingers—I really needed to sweep from the way the crud on the ground felt, yikes. Focus. Floor. Wall.
They were going to end up killing each other. Nobody else in the way. Nathan was off with Will, and I could tell he wasn’t back yet. I could even text him to keep his distance until they were done. Will had gotten herself out of the way, and… I could just leave them to it. If I wanted. It was an option, this time, wasn’t it?
I wasn’t sure if she’d ever really vanished, but Jo’s voice returned, continuing the work of grounding me. “If you need to get out of here, I’ll help how I can. I’m not happy about Sunvay risking himself—themselves? But I’m tired of everybody leaving this up to you.”
Why did I keep ending up back here? Not here with my back against the wall, although that was…also accurate. But back here, getting ready to stick my head between one person and another, whether it was a sword and some lost kid, or an ex with a gun and the person who probably deserved it. Isaiah had tried to give me an out; I’d ended up throwing myself back into it. And Gurjas had kept trying to give me an out and I’d practically bullied him into telling me the truth.
How was that for a realization? The little me had told me you can’t stop and I’d thought it was a pattern of addiction and helplessness. I wouldn’t stop.
I opened my eyes, squinting against the bright white of the void that the pulsing illusions had turned into. Jo was sitting in the middle, hovering gently above what should have been the ground and casting a dark drop-shadow that she had no substance to go with. “…Are you actually here or is this more mindfuckery?”
“Actually here, yeah,” she said quietly. “I can help you get out—she can’t really affect me as much, so I’m okay.”
I focused on her, slowly managing to orient myself. The visions were different this time, and I wasn’t sure why. Less… consistent, I supposed? Usually it was a worsening descent into madness and chaos, with some sort of theme underlying it. This time, it felt like being dropped into a broken TV. “It’s—not like this with most unstable Mercuries, is it?”
“Isaiah says it isn’t. Or not—I don’t know. He says there’s not a lot of Mercuries around anyway, or that they stay pretty quiet—but this is pretty unusual.” She hesitated. “It, um—it means she’s been like this for a long time.”
I nodded quietly. “Like if I’d been stuck in the Medium when I was unstable. Just—left there.”
“I guess? I don’t really—” She glanced at the window. “We should go.”
“I’m not sure I should.”
“Jamal, you’ve done enough. Jaylie knows wh—well, they know what they’re doing. Collectively. I’m not actually sure how many of them there are.” She uncrossed her legs, standing in front of me with the same worried, frustrated expression I was so used to. “What on earth do you even want to do? She doesn’t love you, you know that.”
“That’s not—” I laughed despite myself. “Jesus christ, Jo, I thought you knew me better than that.”
She went a little pink.
“Of course she doesn’t love me. But she’s sick. That’s what the whole unstable thing is about—that’s what Will told me from the start. She’s sick, and she needs help.”
“So let somebody else do it. It doesn’t have to be you. I don’t care about what people say, Ottawa isn’t the whole world, there’s other Salts, and she isn’t even human, she’s a faerie—” Jo buried her face in her hands in frustration, quiet scream muffled in her hands. “When I wanted you to help people this isn’t what I meant!”
I could have responded to that—maybe I should have. Whether or not she was human didn’t matter, even if I knew what Jo meant. And sure, I could let somebody else do it. There was probably somebody else. Will was trying, Jaylie was trying—
I just didn’t want to.
I got to my feet, reminding myself that even if it didn’t look like I was standing on a solid floor, I could feel it. Then I gave Jo a smile, wishing for all the world I could squeeze her hand, or hug her. Anything. “Love you.”
“Jamal, don’t you DARE—”
I went down the stairs after Kiera, and threw open the door. She was standing there in wait—but not for me.
Somebody was coming down the glistening, rain-soaked street, the still-small snowbanks on either side of the narrow way framing them and the late-afternoon sun stretching their shadow long and thin in front of them. They were walking directly down the center, with—I swallowed. They were holding a baseball bat in their hand, loosely but clearly displayed.
“Took you long enough,” Kiera sneered. She didn’t even have her sword out, her hands tucked into her pockets.
Sunvay raised his head, the chalk-white patterns across the bridge of his dark nose and brows all the more striking in the dusklight. Then he lifted the baseball bat, resting it over his shoulders and his six fingers drumming a pattern on the handle. “You want a fight that badly, banshee? I’ll give you a fucking fight.”