August 17, 2015 by Lyn
Even some of the people you’re calling your friends
Are waiting for the second they don’t have to pretend
The brightly-lit dining hall seemed a safe haven, a resting place out of the madness of the halls; when Shahin stepped past the threshold, she could feel the tension lifting from her shoulders. She was still on stage; there were people in the Hall, albeit very few, two small groups in opposite corners, and, of course, Emrys was following her. But there was a difference between this sort of show, every-day, known, almost banal, and the show she’d been putting on out in the corridors.
Their normal table was empty, so she sat down, taking extra time to arrange her skirts, not just because they were complicated, but to give her a minute before she had to meet anyone’s gaze. When she did finally look up, she’d composed her face into a perfectly calm mask, though her hands, folded tightly in her lap, were shaking.
Emrys was smirking at her, laughing incredulously, shaking his head. She glanced over him; he wasn’t important right now. Yngvi and Aelgifu… she tried hard not to gulp, and met Vee’s eye’s.
He was shaking his head, too, that paternal little smile he got sometimes threatening to break into a full-out mouth-splitting smile. “‘Have a nice day?’” he teased her. “What was that?”
“‘Just passing through?’” she answered, smiling back at him, so relieved she almost laughed out loud. “Damn, Vee, I never knew you were that smooth!”
“I didn’t want to get squirted,” he said primly, though he was still smiling. “And it worked, didn’t it?”
“It did, it did, and I appreciate it. He’s a nice boy – Jamian, I mean.” And she didn’t want to see that look in his face that they all got when she touched them.
“That may be, but I’m not so sure about his friends,” Yngvi said, his voice dripping disapproval.
She couldn’t help but smile at that. “Well, you got us through,” she pointed out, “beautifully, I might add.”
“Of course,” he replied, without the faintest hint of self-mockery. Shahin’s tension relaxed another notch. But… she turned, still smiling, to meet Aelgifu’s white face and shell-shocked expression.
“Ayla?” she murmured, feeling the heat dropping out of her all at once. Always ice-cold, and the warmth she’d hoped for in Aelgifu’s golden light…
“How do you guys do it?” Aelgifu asked in a small voice, staring wide-eyed at them. “Just not care what anyone is thinking and walk through as if you own the place?”
A tiny flame of hope began to warm Shahin’s fingers, and she smiled, hoping it was a sufficiently human expression. “Trust me, Ayla, I care.”
“So all that talk about the sable, and no-one looking, it’s – you really want people to think you’re a freak?” She sounded incredulous, almost angry about it, and Shahin flinched. People, yes. You, no. She didn’t want to be having this conversation here, out in public; like a stage magician, most of her mystery was lost if you knew the tricks behind it. She’d never wanted to have this talk with a friend again; she’d hoped with these friends, in this freakish place, she’d never have to.
But Aelgifu had stood with her thus far, and she was more important than maintaining the mask for a bunch of strangers. And Emrys. She couldn’t help a brief glance his way while she tried to formulate an answer.
He’d moved on from laughing to listening, as if he, too, was concerned with her motivations for her machinations. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that, but that was becoming par for the course with him.
She looked back at her friends. “I look at it this way,” she said carefully. “I’m a freak either way.” She felt the words drop on the table between them like rocks, echoing, stripping her of pretense.
“You’re – ”
She cut the objection off before it could be born. “I see death, Ayla. And sometimes, just for variety, I see doom instead. Pain. Despair. Danger- ” She cut herself off with a sharp shake of her head. “After a while, that changes you. I wasn’t ever going to be ‘normal.’” She managed not to sneer the word out. She didn’t want to offend Ayla.
She took a long breath, picked at the hems of her gloves, and continued. “So I’m a freak whichever way you cut it. The trick becomes to understand it, and control it.”
She glanced up again, startled how reluctant she was to continue. “So I know what they’re looking for. In high school, they wanted someone strange, you know the girl who saw dead people. No matter what I said, or did, it was coming out of that morbid girl who slept in cemeteries and talked to ghosts, you know?” She got a little nod from Aelgifu, hesitant and frowning but not disagreeing.
“I learned to use it. They expected a morbid freak, so I made that my face. They thought I was creepy, so I was creepy. Then we were on the same page, and I was speaking to their expectations, so I wasn’t ever startled by their reactions. Of course they thought I was weird; I didn’t own a shirt that was lighter than dark purple and I hadn’t seen the sun since I was thirteen.” She wasn’t sure if she was getting through, but she was on a roll now, so she kept going.
“It made high school survivable, if not easy. Addergoole is harder, because, well, considering there’s a vampire in your European History class, no-one’s really freaked out by anything I could do. So,” she frowned, and tugged at her gloves again, hating the vulnerability, the nakedness, “I don’t really know, didn’t really know, how I was supposed to be. It was easy enough to just kind of float along – the clothes carry a certain dignity with them, so I could stand straight and proud and at least pretend I wasn’t entirely at a loss – but then, this, Hell Night, all of the rest of it, well, I finally understood what they were looking for.”
She caught herself leaning on the They, but, well, it was honest. This whole school, everyone but Aelgifu and Yngvi and maybe just maybe a couple other Fifth Cohorts, weren’t they all a giant They? The Enemy, the Other, the oh-so-strange Norm to which she’d never been able to conform…
She took a deep breath, pulling herself back to the present. “I knew what they were looking for, so I knew how to act. Not to go within their expectations this time, because what they wanted was victims. So I subverted – we subverted – their expectations. They wanted us scared and running and not thinking straight. Scared of their monstrosity. Their freakishness. I can’t be freakier than them – well, I can, but I have to wander around touching people, and it’s really not a lot of fun, all things considered.” She felt a wry smile cross her lips. Understatement of the decade. “And, in all honesty, I’m not sure how I’d feel about someone like that guy that grabbed me being afraid of me.
“So I went with a different tack – I decided to just not be scared. Well, not to show that I was scared. I figure that, all things considered, that would probably confuse just about everyone.” She let her smile grow wider. “Looks like I was right.”
Aelgifu nodded slowly. “So, you’re saying that it’s all an act?” she asked softly. “The self-confidence is just something you’re pretending at?”
Shahin winced, not bothering to hide it. She wanted to say something light and flippant, to blow it off, isn’t all social interaction an act? but she couldn’t. Not when she was pretty sure Aelgifu was getting at something more deep than it seemed, not when their friendship might be at risk.
“It… it sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she admits. “As long as I don’t ever drop the mask, I know exactly who I am, and that’s kind of reassuring.” She found herself chewing on the edge of her gloved fingertip, and frowned. “I…”
“It’s amazing, Sheen,” Ayla said softly. “I wish I could do it. I just… I can’t stand it when people are looking at me.” She looked miserable for a moment, and then, almost as quickly, it was gone, and she proffered a little smile. “When I’m following behind you, though, it’s like I’m part of your outfit. I-” She shook her head, negating whatever she was going to say. “You two are just amazing. I’m just not that brave.”
Shahin wanted to say something, to have some proper reply to that. She could see the gaping hole in her friend more clearly every time they spoke about these things, and she wondered what had been done to leave her with that wound. She wondered, for the first time, if any of them here in Addergoole were really whole. She wondered if she could do anything to soothe the bare look on Ayla’s face.
“What about Barem?” Emrys asked, and Shahin’s only consolation was that she was not the only one who jumped – Aelgifu twitched, and, while Yngvi didn’t look like he’d been startled, he did glare fiercely at Emrys.
“Which about what?” she asked him, wanting to yell at him, to slap him for interrupting, wanting to slap herself for forgetting he was there.
“Barem. The ghoul – uh, the albino who grabbed you in the hall. Was that just an act?”
Is it true? Do you really see dead people? Out there, they’d meant, exactly how crazy are you? In here, she wasn’t sure that was the question. She stripped her glove off slowly, minding her sleeves while trying to watch him, at her left, and Aelgifu, across the table from her, at the same time. Both of them were watching her cautiously; Yngvi, kitty-corner from her, was watching both of them watch her.
She reached towards Emrys, and saw the moment where he decided not to flinch away and, instead, laid his hand out flat on the table, palm-down, as if playing five-finger fillet, his eyes following her fingers.
She held her hand above his, just a whisper separating them. “You’ve touched me,” she said softly, loading the words with meaning, ignoring for the moment that Yngvi and Aelgifu were listening. “Do you think what I did to Barem was an act?”
He looked up at her, his eyes burning blue, his hand so firm on the table it was almost shaking with the tension. “Could have been,” he challenged her.
“It could have,” she agreed, “but it wasn’t. I never lie about death, Emrys.” She set her hand down on his, fingertips brushing his wrist and his, damnit, brushing the underside of her wrist.
He knelt, not because he wanted to, but because he was chained in such a way that he could do nothing but kneel, and still he struggled. It was Emrys this time, not the conglomerate vision she’d seen yesterday, but an older, dirtier Emrys, the raw steel of the collar welded around his neck cutting into his skin and weighing him down.
His hair hung in greasy strings in his face, and soot and blood smeared his chest, where his tattoos sat, flat and black and lifeless as ink, even the patterns they’d fallen into seeming to speak of surrender. Bruises mottled his face and body, and, although she couldn’t see them, she knew the soles of his feet were covered in burns, and many of the bones broken. Still he fought to stand.
His hands, chained behind his back with thick, heavy steel woven through with branches and incongruous flowers of the hawthorn tree, were linked to his feet by a too-short length of chain, his feet tethered to the floor by another short chain. The collar was leashed to the wall in two places, so that if he slumped at all, the rough edges of the steel would both cut into him and choke him. And had, because he’d been chained there for quite a while, and even the strongest man sometimes slumped. Still, he struggled to stand.
She did not know whose eyes she saw him through, but he looked back at “her” through eyes flat and human-brown with naked pain and desperation and need. “I..” he said, fighting to reach his feet again, before he slumped against the chains in defeat.
She lifted her hand off of his, setting it down with exaggerated care on the table, next to his hand but not touching, needing that hair’s-breadth of space. She met his eyes, glad to find them blue-and-purple and dancing with flames, and took a breath, considering her words.
“I don’t see death when I touch you,” she said carefully. “I don’t know what that means.”
“What do you see?” he asked, in a low voice that she couldn’t quite interpret. Her eyes fell unwillingly to his throat, bare and unmarred, while she considered and discarded several answers. “I saw you fighting,” she said honestly. “You, older,” he twitched at that, and she wondered why, so she clarified, watching him carefully. “I mean, it was you. Your chest,” she gestured towards him, while her tongue darted out over her lips, and his eyes slide back down her body as if remembering it naked, “your eyes, definitely you, just,” with her gloved hand she touched the smooth edge of his jawline, “a little older.”
He glowered at her, but the heat of it only made her smile; it was like standing in front of a fireplace after a long day in the snow. That only made him glare more, so she leaned forward while her gloved hand found his back and tugged him towards her, and kissed him.
She meant it to be delicate, just a quick peck. They were sitting in front of her friends, after all. But he had other intentions, that glower translating into a fierce kiss, almost as if he were claiming her, his hand splayed across her back and his tongue in her mouth.
As if he were claiming her. She’d have to ask him about some of the things she’d heard in the halls out there – later, when they had less of an audience. For now, when she pulled back, she let her hand brush against the back of his neck, watching the way he shivered at the touch and tried not to show it.
“Whoever it was you were fighting for,” she told him, pitching her voice low and somber so that it didn’t sound jealous, “in my vision, you loved her dearly.”