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The warm water continued to stream over Vivian’s body, but despite it, she’d gone cold. With the bathroom door closed and the power out, she was unable to see a thing.
Panic rose and she swallowed it back purposefully. They’d expected this to happen at some point. But the apartment was warded; as long as they stayed inside, they’d be safe. They’d literally bought flashlights just for this purpose.
It was going to be fine, she told herself as, with a trembling hand, she turned off the shower and fished outside it for a towel. Finding one with her fingertips, she dried herself off quickly and held the towel to her.
“Thys?” she called. “Can you bring a flashlight?”
No answer. Maybe, she told herself, Thys just didn’t hear her. After a moment of indecisive hesitation, she decided to put on the clothes she’d just discarded rather than her pajamas; she knew where she’d dropped them and, besides, if something was about to go down, she’d rather not be in PJs.
She dressed in record time, and while she was pretty sure her leggings were on backwards, there was no time to change it. It didn’t matter; if they rode a little low in the back, her sweater would cover it. Hair still wet and sticking to her, she flung open the bathroom door. “Thys?”
Still no answer. The living room outside was dimly lit from the windows—but dimly only, the blinds drawn, no candles yet lit. Viv found where she’d left one of the flashlights and turned it on, shining it around.
A sudden noise almost made her drop it, but it was just Notch, hissing and squinting in the sudden light. Except, she realized, Notch was in an aggressive stance; always the fighter of the three, he’d stepped in front of the other two cats, puffed up and arching, growling low. The other two were totally silent behind him, also puffed, in a lower, defensive crouch.
Shit. She scanned the room with her flashlight hurriedly. The couch was empty.
Her beam fell across the open front door and her hands went cold again.
No no no. Why would Thys leave?! It didn’t make any sense! They had a plan! They’d stay in the apartment, where they’d be safe. If they had to leave it, they’d stay together and keep their flashlights on them. If they couldn’t stay together, Thys would dissolve into moths and leave by the window—not the door, not out into the hallways—while Viv, unable to do the same, would grab something heavy in case she had to fight, then run for the fire exit. The alarm going off would cause chaos in the building, and help their escape.
She couldn’t do that now, though, not when she didn’t know where Thys was. That was only a plan for if Thys had already gotten out and Viv wasn’t with them. If she did it now, the lanternfish might make off with Thys in the middle of the confusion.
So why would Thys abandon the plan like this—
“The power thing, it sings to me. When the lights are on normally, it’s fine. But sometimes, they flicker, and it calls me. It calls, and it’s so hard not to answer. And when the light goes out, when it’s dark, I’m lost.”
Viv drew a sharp breath, then grabbed Thys’s kettle, freeing it from its base. It was surprisingly heavy, and had a handle, and was relatively safer to run with than grabbing a knife. In a pinch, she could hit something with it. There was no time to think about it further. She grabbed another flashlight off the kitchen counter and shoved it into her pocket, then ran out the door.
Whatever was hunting Thys had been toying with the power for a few weeks for a reason, she thought, furious at herself for not wondering about that sooner. Wearing down Thys’s resistance, maybe. Making the lure stronger and stronger. Or learning to control individual lights, individual wires, learning where to place the call, learning—something.
A faint amount of light showed at the end of the hall—the elevator was still lit, and was open. The doors were, however, closing, and she could faintly see the silhouette of a person inside. Viv took off at a sprint, arms and legs pumping, but didn’t make it before the doors closed.
Just before it did, she thought she saw the shadow of the person inside split, as if someone had stepped out from behind them.
Viv swore, slamming her finger bruisingly hard into the elevator button, hoping the elevator hadn’t yet left and the doors would open—before she realized that the buttons weren’t even lit. Whatever had allowed it to keep power had turned off; she could hear the elevator moving, but it was no longer summonable to this floor.
Running down the stairs wasn’t the safest thing at the best of times, let alone barefoot, let alone in the darkness, let alone without using the rail since she had a flashlight in one hand and a kettle in the other, but Viv tore down them regardless, heedless of her own safety. She knew she was too slow; she’d lost precious time trying to get the elevator doors to open.
She didn’t know for sure if that person in the elevator was Thys—not with how much time she’d wasted in the bathroom, in the apartment, but perhaps Thys was going slow, was fighting even while entranced—
The connection to Thys vanished. That feeling of sharing space with someone was just abruptly, gone and Viv found she was alone as she fled down the stairs.
Her foot slipped. She managed to get her legs out in front of her as she fell, so she slid the last flight instead of tumbling. Even so, when she hit the ground floor, she pushed herself to her feet at once. Her ankle hurt, her knee hurt, her hip hurt, but they held her weight as she flung herself upright and through the doorway into the lobby.
Thys turned back from where she was opening the outside door, and sighed. “Oh, it’s you,” they said.
Viv was brought up short. They seemed—fine, every inch their actual self, and in her pain and fear and confusion all she could do was stare for a moment. “Thys…?”
“Listen. I thank you for your help,” Thys said, and curtsied, exactly as Viv had seem them do before, holding their wings out. “But your debt is repaid.”
“What are you even—”
“You can have my apartment if you want. It’s paid for. I’ve been thinking, and I’ve decided to return to my people. I have duties. Responsibilities. They’re waiting for me. And I’ll be safe there. It can’t hunt me there.”
“B-but we—” It wasn’t real, Viv told herself. This had to be that lanternfish, that shapeshifter, trying to hurt her, distract her, something. But it looked so much like Thys, sounded like Thys. Talked like Thys. And she didn’t know Thys, she still didn’t really know them. The same person who spontaneously decided to marry a stranger just for rescuing a moth and offering it sugar water could surely withdraw it the moment another spontaneous decision occurred.
And it wasn’t as if this Thys—the lanternfish? The real Thys?—was wrong. If it was the real Thys, they’d be safe if they went through the gate, safe with their own people.
And if it wasn’t the real Thys, should she let on that she knew? If the real Thys were already dead, could Viv even take this creature in a fight? She wasn’t sure, both because she knew she was outmatched, and because she didn’t know that she could hurt something wearing Thys’s face.
If it was the lanternfish, could she afford to let it go? But if it was the real Thys, could she do anything but?
Her heart ached. It ached, and it pined, and she found herself straining inside herself, desperate for that sense of connection again, like something inside her was beating at its cage, wings in her chest slamming against its bounds like something inside her had grown too huge to contain.
“Well. Again, I thank you,” Thys said, and turned, pushing on the doors out. “Goodbye, Viv.”
And suddenly, the cage burst. She couldn’t breathe, panic and fear and swelling power inside her. And through it all, she realized she could feel someone dying nearby, in the other direction from Thys. They were right at the edge. It was as if she had been born simply to sense encroaching death, that was how certain she was. It was a trembling candle flame, guttering in its own wax.
And she knew if she didn’t find it in time, it might go out.
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