It's annoying that the psychological BS is what's getting to you, now, here, in this insane dark Wonderland scenario you're in. But it's really not a surprise, and that's one of the most annoying parts. Of course you're hyperfocused on the things that don't make sense. Of course you're pissed off that the rules are different.
What gets to you is Senna. Her plans, her ideas. Her manipulations. You're the closest she has to a rival - the closest she has to a match - and that's great, that's the one of the only reasons you're not raging against being here at all. (If it was left to David or Christopher, things would have probably fallen apart right around Fairy Land, and everyone knows it.) You're a logical person. You don't really want Loki or Fenrir or Huitzilopoctli wandering over into the real world, and if it was up to Senna there'd be a serious risk of it, because she's definitely not as in control of the scenario as she thinks she is.
The problem is that she hauled you into this nuthouse, possibly knowing that she could make you stay, because the compulsions stop.
You don't know if you could have survived all this if they hadn't. All the dirt. All the muddy water, the fleas, the hands-on food experience, the blood, the sweat, and worse. You'd have lost your grip completely. There's no point denying it, inside your own head. You know this.
No one really knows you, here, except her. That rankles, too. You don't think you can tell the others, and she knows that, so she can hold it over you, forever, and you hate her, you hate her, no, you want to take her down, that's logical, that's only sense.
You wash the mud off of yourself in the bizarro African afterlife river and shake off the burst of senseless desire she inspired in you with her "magic."
It'll make sense someday. You'll make it make sense.
Another thing starts to piss you off, after Africa.
Senna did it on purpose. The group. She built it to fail. In any other situation, you would be endlessly frustrated with David, his stupid machismo, the inability to just dismiss him as impulsive when the guy really has an eye for strategy and a lot of very useful skills. You would more consistently want to punch Christopher until his nose was so broken you couldn't understand any of the racist, sexist bullshit he was slinging at everyone. You'd ignore April, her emotional outbursts, her senseless sentimentality.
In any other situation, you'd ignore all of them, at best.
You figured out pretty early in, though, that she did it on purpose. So you made it work. On principle. Because there was no way she was going to make you one of her tools. Screw that.
When she touched you, in that science lab, it was the simultaneously best and worst moment of your life. It was control. It was losing control. And that's Senna Wales's game, right there. The offer of gaining control by surrendering control. Just give in, and you'll be free.
Some sketchy German assholes had a similar sentiment over the gate into what was essentially hell. You're not really into the idea.
(In the real world, you don't fight the compulsions. You know she might be able to see you, be watching, be able to pop into existence wherever you are, because of mysterious magical whatever that you haven't figured out yet - thermodynamics, maybe, conversion of energy to mass and mass to energy. E-Jalil's problems are too exhausting for you to fight more than one crazy at a time, though, and it's almost a worthy sacrifice to lose control to be able to -
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. You are supposed to be smarter than this.
Is this her?
No. You can't start thinking like that. You can't let her take over real world Jalil, too. You can't
You wake up.
You swear. Under your breath. Things are okay, Everworld-wise. Egypt, crazy-ass crocodile gods aside, is okay. Even the Amazons are okay. Although you're not sure how you feel about Christopher going off to make a baby Amazon with Karaoke Xena. Probably not a great idea. Probably going to bite you all in the asses later, if you live that long.
For now, though, you have a bigger, weirder problem. Somehow.
"You fell asleep," April says, that same warm, affectionate, wry tone she always uses.
It surprises you, but you don't show it. (You rarely do.) She's in the same room, resting on an Egyptian bed, which is far more comfortable than even you figured it would be. It's likely the Amazons made improvements on even the pharaonic temple model. "Yes," you say, maybe a little stiffly, maybe you don't quite look at her, mostly look at her sideways, the way you do so you can appraise but not be read. "Not much going on over there. At least for me."
"Yeah, for you," she says. She rests back on her elbows and glances up at the ceiling. "Rehearsals are brutal when you're waiting on CNN Breaking News."
"It's not so great in the middle of an honor class, either."
You're talking around it. Good, maybe? Good. She didn't mean it that way. You don't have to worry about it. Things are normal, uncomplicated, at least when it comes to this. You only have Senna to worry about, Ka Anor and Loki to outsmart, the Coo-Hatch to pacify, and when you put it this way, man, you sound like David, what the hell.
You heave a sigh, and only really realize it at the relief but also the movement of April's head - the movement of her insanely vivid red hair - towards you. You tense. She's going to say something. You look up at her, casually, unaffected. "You really sold that back there," you say, as deadpan and detached as you can manage.
Her eyebrows raise. "I sold it,"she repeats. "Well, I'm an actress." She pauses. "Also, I really didn't. Neither of us did."
You put your hands up. "You sprung it on me."
"You're getting really good at plotting and schemes, it's true," April admits. "I didn't really think you'd…"
"Predicting human behavior is a lot easier than you'd think," you say. Except for that. Except for this. With this you never know, because when you're invested, when your mind is twisted with hormones or feelings you're not able to see the way things interlock. Right now, in this way, April is a mystery.
You hate mysteries. But it's better than thinking about it, better than complicating things. Better than risking everything you've built up around yourself in this world and the other.
"But I surprised you." There's that tone again. Teasing, lilting.
You really, really don't know why she's turning that tone on you. Galahad, yeah. Ganymede, definitely. You? Why? Oh, why the hell are you even thinking about this. Focus. "You had to claim one of us so we wouldn't get a spear to the gut once they were done," you say. "Can't pick Christopher, he'd take you seriously. Or at least pretend to. And be insufferable while he was at it. Me, I'll just go along with it."
'What, and you don't take me seriously?" She feigns offense. You raise your eyebrows at her. She laughs. "I thought you did. You know, Africa and everything."
"That was…" You shake your head. You're really not into thinking about it. Technically, you won. Technically, you were a stubborn asshole while you were at it. "You know we were wrong. Right?"
"I know that we screwed up, yeah. I also know that the only way we're going to stay ourselves and…be able to make it as ourselves back in the real world is to hold onto what we grew up with, what we are back there." She's so earnest. You're almost gawking at her earnestness, actually, not necessarily impressed or surprised so much as a little awestruck that someone could actually take this stance. Christian, yeah, sure. Millions of them. Genuinely idealistic? That's something else. …Shit, she's watching you. "You think so?"
Suddenly, shockingly, you realize you do. You do think so. What the hell? "I'm here, I'm there, for better or for worse. I'm not going to become some sort of superstitious idiot just because I'm in a place full of them, but I also know the law of the land back there, and I'm going to act accordingly. Idealism and principle and logic are all great, until they get you killed."
April doesn't say anything to that, just thinking, considering something. She doesn't probably consciously toss her hair, but she does it. The corner of your mouth briefly turns up. "You didn't answer my question," she says finally.
"I did," you point out.
"You answered the last question I asked. You didn't answer the other one. Not really."
"What, 'do I take you seriously'?" you quote. She nods. "I actually do. For what it's worth. You're an important member of the group."
"God." She laughs, and it's a seriously relieving sound. How can she still laugh like that? "You're still not answering. I'm pretty impressed, how do you do that?"
"I took lessons from Senna," you say dryly.
April scoffs. "So," she says, without missing a beat. "You wouldn't?"
No context. You look blankly at her. "I wouldn't what?"
"You wouldn't let me go all Amazon on you?"
Wait, what? Context is now vaguely terrifying. "You mean, paper cups?" Flippant. That's the way to play it, sure.
She smiles. "I wouldn't call you paper. Solo cup, maybe."
You're smirking back at her. Too easy. "Christopher is definitely the Solo cup. Once he starts to stink like beer, you have to throw him away."
"You're deflecting with metaphors. It's unlike you," she says.
Hell, she's right. You tilt your head up, thoughtfully, an excuse not to look at her and meet her searching eyes. "You're hitting on me," you say.
"I'm trying," she says; is she sad? Is that sadness? You swear you're not Vulcan - damn Christopher's jokes, he's getting to you - this isn't all alien to you, really. She's just so different from anyone you've ever known, anyone you've ever engaged, and what does that say about you? No, no time for that. "You're…I get it."
"April," you start, and you don't know what to say. What can you even say? Not a denial. You're not sure you could pull off that lie. Not a confirmation, you're not sure you can pull off that conversation. Actually, you definitely can't. Not a declaration of sentiment; you would sound ridiculous. There's an awkward pause as you can almost hear the wheels desperately turning in your own head. "I don't know. I don't think this is the time to do anything. Start anything. Not when there's no end to the shit Everworld throws at us."
"That's not a no," she says. Now there's this softness in her voice and you definitely can't look at her. She's still about twenty feet away. You're fine. "But, I get it."
"The real world dating scene must be much better," you say. "At least for you."
"Is that your way of calling me pretty?"
"That's my way of calling you pretty, yes. And charming. All of that. A catch." It works, as a matter-of-fact statement.
"God, that is so weird coming from you," April says, and outright giggles. "Sorry - just - "
What the hell is even going on? You look at her, then, in a little disbelief. "Okay, I'll stop complimenting you."
"You're a guy," she says, like this is news, her face flushed from amusement.
"Yeah," you say, a little more sardonic than you mean to. "What tipped you off?"
"Well, the defensive response to that, to start," she fires back, not offended, and you glance back at her. She has this look on her face you can't really read, and that's both annoying and worrying. It looks like amusement but it also looks like…pity? No, that's wrong.
You realize you've been silently looking at her for this very long moment. Except it's not a long moment because it's a moment and all the poetic BS you've been using during this quiet, whatever, romantic interlude you could have been using to deal with Senna, to handle David, is really starting to annoy you. You finally speak, and it's not clipped and to the point but not cold - not what you wanted. It's quiet, a simple request. "April. Don't."
"Why not?" She's not demanding, she's still not offended. She's…worried? She's trying to connect with you. It strikes you hard, jars you, and for an instant you worry that this is Senna, Senna the shapeshifter, out to touch you. You lean away, as subtly as possible.
She exhales, wilts, and draws back. "It's not like that, Jalil. It's not…I like you."
"I'm the option you can take," you say, in a sensible tone. "I'm the one you can trust."
She reacts as though stung. "Don't say that."
"I'm the only guy in your life right now who gets it, who works, who isn't an asshole, recovering or not, or who isn't wrapped around Senna's finger. You know that. But that's not a reason to do this. You're the one who wants the real world to be…just that, to be real. So invest your feelings there. Find someone there." You shrug. "We have bigger things to worry about."
April stands; you barely have time to react when she comes to sit on your bed, and shift away, sitting up, but you can't escape her grasp. Senna. You stay on top of your game. You keep your mind clear, clear as you can. But she doesn't need touch. Focus. You look into her face, reading it as best you can.
"You think I'm her," she says, in a fierce, wounded voice. "I see it, you're waiting for me to start spouting her megalomaniacal bullshit and touch you and turn you into a puppet. But I'm not going to because I'm not Senna, Jalil, it doesn't have to be about this stupid game, this stupid world, and that's what none of you get. You idiots," she finishes in a rush, and while you're sitting there like a stunned idiot she seizes you by the shirt and hauls you forward easily.
She's kissing you.
Oh, wow. This is good. And not Senna. Not the surge of…influence she has over you at the touch. Just warmth, and, oh, hell, you really want to keep kissing her, but she withdraws, her forehead pressed to yours, her lips brushing yours as she speaks before you can.
"Yeah. It's because you get it. But it's about you, too. You care about us, you're taking care of us. It's not about a chess game against Senna, not completely, it's about us too. And that's…maybe that means something to me."
You don't know what to say to that. You don't know what to do, not really. She's just there, another kiss away from that warmth and connection she offers, and it's not pure lust or something, but it's not…obvious, planned, picked convenience the way that high school dating is.
"Sometimes I wish I could believe in things," you murmur. "Not a god or anything. Just…that I wasn't so well-built for a world like this, where everyone is a scheming asshole looking for the next weakness to exploit. I'm that asshole, too."
"You're not, I just said - "
"I am," you insist. "What I did to Senna back there..."
"You saved our lives. And she deserves it." She's pained. Talking about Senna now, you realize, is so, so messed up. "Don't let her get to you. She is. I can see it."
"You think you can read me," you say, with more than a little disbelief.
"You're easier to read than you think."
"Yeah? Read me with your crystals or whatever. Take my palm."
"Easy," she says, quiet, breathy, teasing. That is somehow even more intense and stomach-flipping when she's right there and you're frozen for some reason because you're absolutely terrible at this, but she kisses you again and you kiss her back and touch her back and keep her close.
Yeah, this is happening.
Christopher is going to give you so much shit.
It keeps happening there, which is okay. Secretly, which you both agree to. You get the hell out of Egypt after that bloodbath, which is good news, even if it's the best place you've technically been since Olympus. (You miss Olympus, so badly.)
Then April calls you, late on a Wednesday evening.
Kira answers the phone before you can get there. When she tells you it's a girl, you give her your best big brother look, then pick up the phone. "What's up?" you ask, hoping this isn't a pre-empting the CNN Breaking News of "sorry, Jalil, we've all been eaten by crocodiles."
"Can we talk?" April says directly.
You know. Instinctively, you know what this is. "Yeah. I'm good."
"I mean. Tomorrow. Or tonight."
"You can call back," you say reasonably.
"I mean in person." She's not amused.
You have so many rituals to do before you go to sleep. So many compulsions. In retrospect you really, really can't blame the Egyptians, but at least it's not because of religion. Just your asshole brain. There's no time. "What's up?"
She sighs into the phone. You tense. "It's fine," she says.
"It's not," you say. "No girl ever says 'it's fine'and sighs when it's fine. Even I know that."
"You're getting better at this." There's a little snap to it. You actually give a short, dry laugh in response, and she almost audibly cringes. "Sorry."
"You're not wrong," you say. "Tomorrow?"
"Tonight," she suggests again, cheerfully.
"Fine," you answer, weary. "Where?"
"There's a park by my house - "
"I'm a black male between ages seventeen to twenty-four. I am not going to a park in your neighborhood in the middle of the night. I'll get arrested on principle."
"Jalil, seriously," she chides.
"Tell me I'm wrong. Please, I'd love to see evidence to the contrary."
"Shut up," she says. "I'll come to you, then."
"You realize what this looks like, right?" you say frankly.
"This time, it is exactly what it looks like." That teasing tone again. Here. It's very, very different, here. April's fighting with your compulsions, now, she's fighting with your fear of your compulsions, and you really don't know if she can win, or if you can take the strain.
"Fine," you say again. You don't know if you can do this. You don't know so many things, and as usual it pisses you off, but not enough to admit it or show it. "There's a Walgreens down the street from me. Meet me there, we can walk, at least." You pause. "You realize how ridiculous this is, right?"
"You know that school is - "She breaks off.
You interrupt her before she can try to change the subject. "School's where you're the star. Popular. Where the time you spend with me and David and Christopher is…study groups. Tutoring. You can't be seen with me. Not really."
"Don't turn that voice on me," April says sharply.
"I'm not wrong," you say bluntly.
"Just because you're right doesn't mean you should say it," she hisses into the receiver.
You wish it didn't have to come to this. You wish it was as easy here. Did you really just think that it's easier over there? This is such a mess. "Am I making you uncomfortable?" you asks, easily pointed.
"Yes, you're making me uncomfortable, now just - I'm going to catch a train to your damn neighborhood and - "
"Fine," you repeat, for the millionth time. "I'm taking a damn cab to your park. If I get arrested, it's on you and your romantic impulses."
"You just called it romantic," she teases you.
Ugh, hell. "That was sarcasm."
"That was very badly delivered sarcasm."
"I didn't realize I was in Acting II, Ms. O'Brien."
"Ooh, say that again."
Dammit. You are flirting. You are flirting and this is not a good idea, you can't go, you can't leave, and you wish for just one idiotic moment you had Senna's touch to free you. "It'll be an hour."
"I'll hit the powder room," she says dryly. "There's a fountain near the entrance. See you there."
You have to plan this all carefully. You have to get all the rituals done with in time to sneak out and catch the cab before they honk or call your house or your cell phone goes off while you're sneaking, et cetera. It's almost calming to the OCD to determinedly get it all done, all in order, and you really, really hate that.
It has to be done. There's no point in fighting it. Not here.
You hear a sound as you're twisting each oven knob, and you jerk up to look. Your dad is standing in the kitchen doorway.
"I thought I smelled gas," you say lamely.
He never knows what to say. He knows what you'll say, probably. You've had this conversation, or rather nearly had it, a handful of times, and you've been stubborn as all hell. "Jalil," he says, instead of addressing everything, "come on. Get upstairs. It's late."
"Yeah, okay," you say, quietly. You stand there, you wait for him to go, and eventually he does. You hate that silence. You finish the ritual. You sneak out of the front door, slip into the cab, and indicate the park to the driver.
April's sitting at the fountain when you approach. The irritating thing, you're finding, is that now that you've set off dopamine, oxytocin, you're finding her to be beautiful, not just attractive or pretty or charming. In the moonlight, she's beautiful, more beautiful than Senna could hope to be, magic or powers or whatever.
You kind of hate how irrational that is. But it feels too real to deny.
"Hey," you call, quietly enough, and she looks up at you with a smile.
"Sit with me?"she asks.
You do. She takes your hand, though you tense, and runs her thumb over the top of your hand. You go rigid as she feels the broken skin there.
"Jalil," she says, her voice low.
You think you may be sick.
"They know I'm friends with you." She pauses. "I don't care what they think."
She dropped it. You can breathe. Except…"Oh."
Wow, Jalil. That's genius. You're really a genius. That IQ test was totally right, even though IQ tests are serious bunk. Just wait, SAT graders, you're going to be blown away.
"What, is that not what you wanted? Or were you just making a point?" It has less of a bite to it than her tone over the phone. You look up at her, up from her knees where you were looking. (Her jeans are artfully torn at the kneecaps.) She looks expectant.
"No," you say, and have to actually swallow nervously, an action you may have never taken in your life. "I mean…I was making a point. And it's what I wanted. Both of those."You offer a dry half-smile.
Her thumb brushes over the top of your hand again, almost a comforting gesture, if it didn't risk her somehow noticing the near-bruising from your time at the sink. "Senna's going to use this," she says, in a frank tone that sounds more like you than you ever imagined it would. "You know that, right?"
"She already knows, probably," you say. "At least over there. Here…if she knew - we know she can come here, see what goes on here. She'd know it was, I don't know." You don't really want to say it. That makes you have to say it. "Real."
"And then she'd use it," April says. She touches your chin with her free hand and lifts it so you meet her eyes again - when did you look away? You don't remember. You're more avoidant than you ever remember being. "We need to tell the others."
"Of course," you say. "So she doesn't tell them, turn them against us. Or us against them."
"You're the only one she can use, really," she says. You can tell what she's thinking, what's in her eyes, the question there. "It's - "
You have a burst of self-hatred. Wow, you are really the classic teenager right now, aren't you, all hormones and sneaking out to see the girl and self-loathing? It's almost embarrassing. No, it definitely is. You need to tell her. You do. It'll take the bite out of Senna's threat. It'll make April understand.
But her pity might be too much. You couldn't look her in the face again if it was just poor Jalil, he's just like David and Christopher, can't control himself -
Oh, you can't continue that train of thought, that's just stupid. April is not that stupid. You've learned that over the months, now, and the last few days of just talking to her and actually listening.
April seems frozen to the spot, watching you struggle, you know it. So you just talk. "You want to know what she has over me?" you say, to the point.
"You don't have to tell me," she says, taken aback.
"I think I do," you say. You might actually be sick. There's a fountain behind you, if you need to puke, anyway.
You tell her. In plain terms. You don't get into the specific rituals, or any specifics at all. Just what it is, how long it's been there, that you can't tell anyone or talk about it, because that'll cripple all your chances to be something, be someone, be successful, and that, over there, it's gone.
The look on her face is…not exactly pity. It doesn't inspire confidence, but it's better than you expected.
"It explains a lot," she says, quietly. "I'm sorry."
It stings. "Don't feel sorry for me," you say, tone flat. "I don't want pity."
"I don't pity you." April rests her head against your shoulder. "I just fucking hate her for using it against you." Wow, she's swearing. Before you can think twice, you put your arm around her. "I hate her."
"I would," you say, matter-of-fact, but gently enough, "but I'm too busy beating her."
April laughs, a little cynically. "I think everyone thinks they're beating her in this game. And how many of them actually are?"
"They don't have the advantages we have. We know where she came from. Who she is, or nearly. And you - you're the only one who we can trust to get the job done."
There's dead silence for a moment.
"The job," she repeats, not exactly a question.
"Yes," you say, not elaborating.
There's silence again. She shifts against you, looks up at you.
"Yeah," she says, decisively. "I can do that." She kisses you, and it's new each time, somehow, the ridiculous flutter in your chest, the way everything in you reaches out towards her, to keep her close. "Get me there, Bobby Fischer, and I'll checkmate that bitch."
It's such an insanely stupid joke that you start to laugh in spite of yourself, and she laughs, too, and impulsively kisses you again.
Your fingers search into her hair, and you kiss her until you feel like your mouth is bruised, and you realize blindly in the moment that you haven't taken out the wet-wipes, that you're dirty, filthy, that you're going to -
You pour yourself towards her. You can fight that off. Maybe. Maybe it can wait. She's real, more real than that, at least right now.
"Yeah," April says, breathless and grinning. "We have to tell them. Don't think we can hide a makeout session in Everworld for long."
"Nothing during guard duty," you say, half in warning. "We'll never hear the end of it."
"I'll restrain myself somehow,"she says, perfectly deadpan. "How can I resist you, Jalil?"
"You'll have to figure something out," you say, in mock-reassurance.
She kisses you again, gently. It's almost in comfort. You didn't realize how scared you were, still, until that second. "It's okay," she says.
"It's not," you say, plainly. "It's really not. None of this is okay."
"This is." She reminds you with a touch to your face. "And - do what you have to do. Here, I mean. With..." Even she can't say OCD. You hate it, so much. "Just don't…if it comes down to it, kill the sheep, man." She gives you with a wry smile, or something like it. "Get it over with. You know how it works, right? You've faced it, all your life, and…it works by different rules. So..."
"You make it sound so easy." Of course she wants you to get help. Of course -
"I'm not saying go now. I'm saying - think about it," she interrupts your train of thought as it races away, nearly derailing. You try to bring it back, get it under control. "Think about it. That's all."
"I will think about it," you promise, obviously dubious.
You don't make out, or anything. You just sit in the moonlight, in the cold and your winter jacket, but she's warm against your shoulder and like some sort of lovestruck idiot, you really don't want this to end.
It hits again. You don't know why you thought you could hold it off this long. You were sitting in a cab, for fuck's sake. "I, uh," you say, in a low tone. "I should go."
April's not even looking at you and she knows. Maybe there's something to her woo-woo women's intuition stuff. "Do what you need to do. I get it."
It's totally irrational that you're feeling judged. You know that, or at least you want to believe that. "I don't want this shit in my head," you say. "I'm not this person. I'd do anything to know how to just... pry it out, to dismantle it, whatever. I'm not this guy."
She obviously wants to say something about getting therapy or something. But instead she says, "It's not your fault."
No one's ever said that to you. Because no one knows, or at least no one's really talked to you about it, only Senna. It hits you hard. "Yeah," you say, and try to take a breath. Keep your shit together, Jalil, you say to yourself.
"Go on," she says, softly encouraging.
"Can you come with me?" you say, out of nowhere. It surprises even you. "You know, cops. Less likely to assume I'm on my way to rob whatever."
"Yeah." She hops off of the fountain, releasing your hand, a casual gesture that means something to you, at least. She's trying to get it. "I'm going to get so much crap if they catch me coming in, anyway."
"Nice Irish girl running off with a black guy. Yeah, I bet your dad's gonna love that."
"He'll manage. Besides, I don't think he'll care about that so much as 'guy.'"
You walk, and you decide to give her some, yeah, okay, affectionate crap about all this, as you go. Your skin is crawling with the compulsion, your brain is screaming at you, but you manage to make it until the cab gets there, and you don't even care that the cabbie's watching you with your damn wet-naps, you really, really don't. At least not right now.
Nothing is okay. But some things are okay. And that's probably the best you can ask for now.