"You're not in your head," said Book.
"No, you're not in our head," said Holly impishly.
"People have tried going past the Barricade before, you know. Generally they die. Or they come back hobbling along on legs they swapped from trapped birds. Or they meet gakuoso and they spend the rest of their lives in waking false-sleep and if they make it to a city without being slurped up like oysters by klaonso, they have to be behind the dreamward forever, like children -"
"When we were children, we didn't need to be there," contradicted Holly.
"Yes we did, just not for all the same reasons. We still had to learn to drowse mice."
"Someone could have done that for us," scoffed Holly. "If they knew it would work."
"What does Crystal think about all this anyway?" Book asked. "Does Crystal want to go - there?" He gestured vaguely, away and down, hubward: miles away was the Waste. At the moment there was a tiny blue sun receding in that direction, and a larger white one approaching a bit clockwise of the blue.
I want to find jewels and scrolls and traitstones full of treasures, thought Crystal dreamily.
"Crystal wants to wear the Crown of the Frozen Queen in our hair and be the darling of the Kuigao National Library," Holly reported.
"You'd look ridiculous in a crown, even with Crystal's posture," Book said. "You're too short. You don't have a remotely royal nose. You know why I didn't ask anyone if I could take your nose with me when I moved?"
"Because you hate our body?" Holly asked snidely.
"That's not fair. Crystal doesn't hate my body; that doesn't mean she'd want to live in it."
"We are still keeping that secret from Lightning," Holly warned, before Crystal panicked and reminded her.
"He can't hear me."
"I know that. And you know you want to go. But you think Lightning will think you're irresponsible."
"Well, he will. I can't volunteer to walk my cohabitor into a swarm of demons just like that."
"Let me ask him. Go to sleep, Book."
"You'd better let Crystal ask. Lightning always liked her better."
"You've not been able to see me talk to him for harvests now. He likes me just fine."
No, Book is right, opined Crystal.
Holly ignored that. "And Book?"
"You wouldn't even let me ask Lightning if you didn't want to go." She smiled; it showed all her teeth.
Book rolled his eyes and went to sleep; his cohabitor took over with one long blink.
"Hullo, Lightning," said Holly.
"Crystal?" asked Lightning.
"No, Holly. But you can talk to her, if you'd rather," Holly sighed.
"I'd rather," said Lightning
Holly rolled her eyes and faded back. She was still aware, but only through Crystal: she knew it when Crystal thought thoughts, but didn't feel Crystal press her hands together and sit up straight - or feel how Crystal felt about Lightning. (Holly thought feeling anything for Lightning was weird. His body hadn't taken even one trait from them when Book moved, but Book still lived there, and Book was their brother, and that made Lightning their brother too, as far as Holly was concerned.)
I didn't ask to like him, you know, Crystal thought at her sharply.
I know, I know.
"Hi, Lightning," Crystal said.
"Crystal," acknowledged Lightning, yawning. "Where are we?"
"On top of the art museum. Are you tired? I don't have any mice with me -"
"Not really tired, no, don't worry," Lightning assured her. "What are we doing here?"
"Holly dragged Book up to talk without anyone listening because she - well, me too, but I think Holly will be up front for much of it - wants to go past the Barricade. And find treasure and possibly fight demons. Small demons without such thick exoskeletons, I mean. We would have to run from anything like a tuifnka."
Lightning blinked at her. Crystal waited, neither smiling nor frowning, watching his eyebrows move. He used his face in a different way than Book did - Book was still unaccustomed to it, still tended to smile and purse his lips in the ways that had gotten the best results when people had looked at him and seen a girl. Lightning had never had that problem.
Tell him we can live off the land and bring plenty of mice, thought Holly. Tell him we'll be rich. Tell him, she adds with sudden inspiration, that we can't go without him.
"We can't go without you," Crystal said, but she thought, why won't you let me alone? Why won't you properly sleep?
I don't have to. No one would if they didn't have to.
This was probably true. Crystal was nearly able to truesleep - not quite, however much she wanted to, but she had the knack of it more than Holly, who was always at least dimly aware of their body. Book could truesleep completely even before he left them; this was almost the only reason it was expected to be safe for him to move in with someone who was born alone, like most people.
"When would we go?" Lightning asked.
Crystal smiled. "After a shopping trip and letting our parents know. What else would stop us?"
--Fourteen harvests ago--
"I'm not Holly!" Book screamed. "Stop calling me Holly!"
Yeah! thought Holly. Stop calling him Holly!
"Where is Holly, then?" asked the doctor patiently. He was wearing a blue robe, very distinguished. He had a mustache. Book wanted a mustache. If he had to keep living in Holly's body he could never grow one. The doctor looked smart; could he understand?
"Holly is sleeping," Book simplified, because no one ever understood if any of them tried to explain just being faded back. "I named myself Book. Holly's asleep. So is Crystal."
Only sort of, thought Crystal.
He's trying to help, thought Holly.
"Those are the two imaginary cohabitors she's invented," said Chime, one of their mothers. Book could tell it was Chime because she sighed those little puffy sighs. Couldn't Chime tell the difference between her daughters and her son?
"I'm not imaginary, and Crystal isn't either," snapped Book.
I didn't make up anybody! I don't need imaginary friends! I have real ones, fumed Holly.
Chime said, "We humored her, we asked her if she could prove it, the way they - it was horrible, treating her like a criminal - Cloud, my cohabitor, wrote that she tried hiding a cookie, when Holly admitted to being Holly, and then 'Crystal' could find it. But Holly doesn't think that's how adults work. Holly didn't expect me to remember this after Cloud went to sleep."
"We don't sleep like grownups," Book grumbled. "We're different."
"Well," said the doctor. "If Holly and - Crystal?"
"Crystal," said Book firmly. "Holly named her. She couldn't think of anything herself."
Just not anything good, thought Crystal.
"Our parents only named Holly, not me and her," continued Book. "I kept asking Cloud what my name was and she just said Holly, over and over, and I'm not Holly."
"If they're really asleep, then when they wake up, they won't be tired," the doctor said.
"We've been up for almost ten sands," said Book.
"Well, yes, your body has," the doctor said. "But grownups learn to drowse mice, so their bodies can be rested all the time. When Chime sleeps, Cloud is awake, and when Cloud is awake, Chime sleeps. If Book is awake, and Holly and Crystal are asleep..."
"If we learn to drowse mice," Book said, seizing on this idea. "If we do that and then we can keep our eyes open all the time, swapping around, then you'll believe us?"
Why didn't you think of that? Holly thought.
Why didn't you? Book thought back.
"I think that makes sense," said the doctor genially.
"Put our tiredness in a mouse for us, then, and we'll stay up," said Book.
Chime cut in. "She'll only invent another reason why she's different, when it doesn't work."
"I admit there's a possibility that if one of us drowses a mouse for her she could claim we didn't really do it," acknowledged the doctor.
"Teach us to drowse mice," Book commanded. "We can do it ourselves."
I'm best at troportation, objected Holly. I can already change colors on flat stuff.
"Teach Holly," amended Book. "She'll get it faster."
"Well, if you'll go to sleep and send Holly out," said the doctor patiently - why couldn't he be one of their fathers instead of Reed and Mountain? - "then I think Chime and I can probably make some progress on that."
Book faded back, but not all the way, even though he could, because he wanted to learn this too.
"I'm Holly," Holly announced, surging forward. "How do I make a mouse be tired instead of me? Teach me how now."
"You think she's - actually - naturally - she was just born with several souls -" Chime murmured.
"A great many things are possible," the doctor said.
Crystal started the hike awake. They weren't likely to run into anything dangerous early in the trip, and she and Holly were agreed that Holly was the fighter between the two of them. Book was awake, and he was ranging a little ahead, hauling himself around on his walking stick over the rocks. Her body was lighter, nimbler, and she hadn't picked up a branch yet. Crystal was carrying their mice in her backslung cage and Book had the food and the pure water. Their white fox Tiag - Book still claimed one-third ownership even since vacating the body Tiag recognized as her master - trotted along after.
"Demons don't eat animals," Crystal said. "Right?"
Book would have said to leave her at home, if they did, Holly pointed out.
"Tiag's going to be fine," Book said. "She doesn't have a soul. If she did the klaonso would've eaten it the first time she took a nap outside the dreamward."
"Klaonso aren't the same as demons with bodies."
"They all eat souls, Holly. Klaonso are just the only ones who can do it without physically attacking."
"Not Holly, Crystal. I can tell you and Lightning apart -"
"Oh. Sorry. I keep being surprised when I see you in front," Book said, looking over his shoulder. "Given that you have that enormous crush on Lightning, wouldn't you want to spend more of your wake time when he's out and not me?"
"I like him. But you're still our brother," Crystal said. "I don't want to just never talk to you again. I'm surprised Lightning could do it. You were his friend, before."
Book shrugged. "Everybody has to make tradeoffs, when it comes time to cohabit. Except you."
"We still miss you," Crystal said softly.
"I'm here," Book said.
"Right. Not here. I can't hear you thinking anymore."
"Would you want to hear me thinking ugh, ugh, ugh, I'm growing breasts? I think that's most of what you missed."
"No," she admitted. "I guess this is better. You were never all the way happy."
He was so uncomfortable all the time. I bet that's why he learned to go completely asleep! thought Holly in a flash of insight.
"I miss you too, sometimes," Book said. They came to a brook and started moving along it, looking for a spot with a solid place to jump to on the opposite side. "It's very quiet in here."
"If Lightning were the tiniest bit awake, I'd have to mind my chat," laughed Crystal softly.
Book shuddered. "I'm not going to talk you into telling him, certainly. What if he said swell, let's mix some properties?"
"He's not my brother!"
"He cohabits with me. That makes him -"
"Everyone else mixes body properties. You only moved your soul."
"Yes, well, everyone else is discarding one of the bodies when they move in together. I was leaving my original behind with two people still in it. I would've liked the eye color, maybe the feet, maybe the ears, but you're using them."
"Lightning didn't get more related to me when you moved."
"Did I get less related to you?"
"No," mumbled Crystal. "You were - oh, never mind."
Book sighed. He found a good place to jump. They leapt, with Tiag clinging to Crystal's shoulders. Tiag was domesticated with a troport from a dog, but unlike dogs, she climbed around on people in a manner very like a kitten.
"What?" Crystal said quietly.
Demon? This close to home? Holly thought.
Crystal drew their knives, and Holly woke up as much as she could without sending Crystal to sleep just yet, trying to help process the forest. The nearest sun was a low red one, and it made the ground not shaded by dark-leafed trees look splattered with blood. Book had a string of miniature spears dangling from his belt; he plucked one, troported sizes between it and his walking stick, and held the weapon ready.
"Maybe you'd better let Lightning," murmured Crystal.
"Not tired enough," Book muttered back, maneuvering to stand with his back to hers.
Crystal shuddered. She didn't know how Book had given up that ability, in spite of everything - to fade back at any moment, instead of accumulating mental fatigue over sands and sands first. She didn't want to fight a demon. If one appeared, Holly would do it.
Tiag didn't bark again. She just clung to Crystal's shoulder and sniffed the air with her little black nose.
"False alarm?" Book said, after the still and red-lit forest dislodged no threats in their direction.
"Maybe," Crystal said.
They pressed on. Book used the spear as his new walking stick, since it was already grown.
--Thirteen harvests ago--
"Cloud?" Holly said.
"You need to walk Tiag yourself," Cloud said.
"Crystal did it. It's something else."
"Well, what is it - um - Book?" Cloud was not good at guessing. They had three different wristbands, now, but they faded in and out quickly enough that they sometimes didn't bother. Their black hair was too short to style differently depending on who was talking. They could always just tell people.
"No, I'm Holly, but it's about Book." Book himself was as deeply asleep as he could get. He did not want to have this conversation; he wanted Holly to do it for him, so she would.
"Why isn't your sister talking to me herself, then?" asked Cloud.
"That's the thing. Book is a boy."
Cloud blinked. "Holly, all three of you share a girl body, just like me and Chime share a woman body."
"Yes, I know, but Book doesn't like it." And it was getting worse as they grew older. Book went to sleep every time they needed a bath, and spent his hoarded suns on ugly androgynous clothes now, instead of the namesake books he used to collect.
"I suppose if I could adjust to there being three of you at all, I can start calling him your brother, then," said Cloud amiably.
"Book wants to move out," Holly said. "Into a boy."
"Oh." Cloud sat back. "I - I don't know if that's doable. You aren't the same as everyone else."
"We know that," said Holly. "But can you find someone who knows about it? And ask?"
"I suppose," Cloud said. "I'll let you know. I suppose if he wants to do that he'll have to find someone to move in with."
"I guess we have to go back under the dreamward, then," sighed Holly.
"Maybe you'll make some friends," said Cloud.
The red sun marched counterclockwise and no replacement was yet close enough to properly illuminate the forest. Holly climbed a tree, and spotted a swift green sun that was coming up behind them, high in the sky.
"Stop here for dinner?" asked Lightning. "Follow the green sun when it gets closer?"
"Yes," said Holly. "Do you need a mouse?"
"Yeah," Lightning said. "My feet are killing me."
He should have let me pick out better shoes for him, fussed Crystal.
Holly moved the mouse cage from her back to where she could reach it, and picked a gray-furred one up by the tail. Lightning took it from her hand, focused, and offered it back. Holly replaced it, and took a fresh one for her own aching knees and complaining heels, as well as accumulated fatigue. The discomfort drained away as soon as she focused on it, and herself, and the point of contact between her hand and the mouse's tail. The mouse yawned when she put it away.
"Rocks or tree bark?" Lightning asked.
"Rock's easier to troport," Holly said. "Tree bark makes for easier portion sizing. Your call, I can do either one. Didn't you go on Wilderness Survival?"
Lightning picked up a couple of meal-sized rocks and handed them to Holly, who rubbed dirt off them with the heel of her glove. "Yeah," he said. "We went rimward, though, along the canyon. There was fruit."
"You took a Wilderness Survival class that didn't cover troporting edibility," said Holly, staring.
"I told Crystal about it once."
He did, thought Crystal, last planting, in the butterfly garden.
"I'm not as asleep as you get, when she's in front. That doesn't mean I'm paying attention," Holly said. "Hand me a raisin, and one of whatever you want after I've done my rock."
Lightning unpacked a sticky, dehydrated grape. "Do you want your checklist?" he asked.
"Uh, lemme see if I remember everything on it," she said, closing her eyes. "Edibility. Large and small nutrition. Texture - in the case of the raisin, I have to open it up and touch the inside to not just get lots of solid peel. Taste."
"Smell," Lightning added.
Yes, you need your checklist, Crystal thought.
"Well, that one's not really necessary anyway," said Holly, but she let him hand over the checklist anyway. She set her rock on one knee, and touched it with one hand, and held the raisin between thumb and forefinger of the other and split it open with her nail. Carefully, she turned the rock into a decent facsimile of the raisin, and the raisin into a raisin-shaped pebble, as inedible and nutritionally worthless and hard and mineral-flavored as the rock.
"Is any of it necessary? I could just port sizes. I can do sizes, when it's just yea big," Lightning said.
She bit into her raisin, then tore off a raisin-sized piece of it and passed it to Lightning to be put away again. "Well, sure, you could just blow up a peanut or whatever, but it's got as much nutrition as a tiny one if you do it like that. People have starved to death filling up on giant food they made by shortcuts, you know. You're lucky you have me. What can I get you?" she asked.
Lightning passed her a crumb of the dry bread, and his sponge.
"Pampered housedweller," teased Holly. "You want nice bread."
"Can you make it or can't you?"
"Yeah, if I pour water over the sponge first." She held her raisin in her teeth and performed the necessary operations to trade the essential features of bread and stone, and then to move moisture from the sponge to the crustless loaf. She handed the dried sponge and the puff of bread over to Lightning.
He bit. "This is terrible," he said.
"I'm not a chef. It'll keep you going. There's a reason we don't eat food made of rocks when we don't have to carry everything we eat, anyway," said Holly. Her raisin tasted fine to her.
Maybe you forgot a step on the bread, Crystal thought.
I did not. He's just got a housedweller palate, that's all. "Don't forget to save a crumb of it, since you like it so much," she said.
The green sun began to shed appreciable light over them when Holly had finished her raisin and Lightning was through with his bread. They got up to chase it hubward.
--Twelve harvests ago--
That one, thought Book. I want to look like that.
You want to be a towhead with arms as long as some people's entire bodies? Holly thought.
Yes, thought Book firmly.
"Hello," Crystal said.
The blond boy looked up from his book. "Hi," he said.
"I've heard of you," he said.
Crystal sighed. "Everyone seems to have."
"It wasn't anything bad. Just odd. You're already cohabiting and you come to mixers anyway."
"What's your name?" Crystal asked.
"I know. You said," says Lightning.
"Oh. Sorry," said Crystal, cheeks warming. "And my cohabitors are Holly and Book."
"That sounds familiar," said Lightning.
"We come to mixers because Book wants to move out," Crystal said.
"But you're a - you're girls," said Lightning.
"How's that meant to work?" Lightning asked.
Crystal shrugged. "It just happened, is all. So he wants to move out of us and into somebody like you."
Lightning looked at the little list of things to be concerned with that they always handed out at mixers. "Responsible, communicative, keeps promises, shares my risk tolerance?"
"Yes and yes and yes, and what's your risk tolerance?" Crystal asked.
"Heh, that's funny, he's got references already," mused Lightning under his breath. "I don't want to volunteer for the navy or anything. But... I don't know, I'd work it out with my cohabitor first, but I might want to do something a little dangerous someday. Go cloudwalking, or sail to Marheen, or try for the Luin Sunstone. Who knows?"
Cloudwalking has always looked like fun to me, Book thought.
Crystal nodded. "Book is about the same. He mostly studies things, but he pays attention in our knife classes, and he wants to learn spearfighting after he moves out. Cloudwalking sounds like fun to him."
"Cool," said Lightning with a left-leaning smile.
Crystal liked his smile.
"What the longdark spitting-pit is that?" shrieked Holly, running as fast as she could. She had the mouse cage clutched to her chest and her arm thrust into it so they were all touching her, and she was pouring exhaustion into each in turn, because whatever it was, it wasn't slowing down. Tiag on her shoulder was barking and whining by turns, earsplitting, afraid.
"I don't know!" Book shouted back. He didn't have the mice with him, but he had better endurance; Holly could only hope that was enough, she didn't want to have to figure out a way to transfer the mouse cage to him midstride. "I didn't get a good look at it before I started running for my life!"
"It's too small to be a tuifnka -"
It didn't have wings, did it? Crystal thought.
No, thank all the luck - Holly responded.
"I told you I don't know what it is! Except that it's obviously a demon and it's got more armor on it than the entire Sixth Fleet! There - there - see - there's a -"
"I see," said Holly, and she veered right, towards a cracked-open tree that looked like lightning had struck it. From a distance it looked like it could hold them both in the trunk, and keep the demon out of reach -
"No good," she corrected after a closer look at the crevice, and she charged down the hill; they had a few pounds on the demon if she guessed right, and their speed would benefit from the slope more. Book didn't argue with her, just followed. "Do you think it can climb?"
"I don't know! I don't know what it is!"
He can't think straight when he's scared, ask him questions, make him answer you, urged Crystal.
"Think! What could it be? Can any of those things climb?" cried Holly.
Book either lacked the breath to reply or didn't see the point. He didn't need to; after they'd run for a few strides more he found a likely-looking tree and threw himself up into its branches. Holly was shorter, and had to skid-turn to get to the other side of the tree in search of a lower handhold. The first one she tried broke off in her hand and she scanned for a second choice, frozen in place.
"It's coming! Find another tree!" screamed Book, already halfway up his.
Holly bolted. Book's tree acquired a new claw slash in its bark, right where she'd been standing. She poured more weariness into the mice, but she was running out of fresh ones; all but a handful were sleeping it off at the bottom of the cage. She ran anyway.
Finally she located a tree barely even shouting-distance from Book's that she thought she could get into. She went up: one body length, two, three, until she was well out of clawing range and short on higher branches that could hold her.
Tiag wasn't on her shoulder anymore, but Holly couldn't worry about that, couldn't think about anything except getting away from the demon and figuring out what it was and how to kill it...
She clipped the mouse cage closed, breathed deeply, and looked for the demon.
Holly had apparently gained on it while zigzagging through the woods in search of a tree. It caught up presently, though.
She had no idea what kind it was. There were a few hundred kinds of demons; she only knew the common ones, and this headless whiptailed thing, with its bladed forelimbs and caterpillar legs and segmented plates of armor all in black gloss, was not a common one. Book was the one who knew this stuff. Book would know its common name and its epithet and which foreign zoo dared to keep one and which of their scarce weapons could crack it open and destroy it.
And Book had not had a chance to inspect it.
"Go back to Book's tree," she told it. "He'll know how to kill you. Go on."
It can't understand you, Crystal thought.
The demon, which after all couldn't understand her, circled the trunk of her tree. It emitted a yowl-roar, which Holly could vaguely imagine was frustrated. They ate souls and couldn't starve to death and only ever got to hunt a handful of stupid explorers, it had to be ravenous.
That did not mean she was going to let it eat her.
"BOOK!" Holly yelled at the top of her lungs. "BOOK, CAN YOU HEAR ME?"
There was no answer. Or none that she could hear.
--Eleven harvests ago--
But you like him, Holly thought. It's in all the fact sheets, you don't cohabit with your friends.
It doesn't matter if I like him, Book thought. It's better if I don't, afterwards I never get to talk to him again,
You like us, though, Holly thought.
You I had better like, hadn't I? You I'm awake at the same time as, we read each other's minds, that's not going to be how it is with me and Lightning.
We'll miss you.
I'll still be around. We'll hang out all the time! But I - I can't do this anymore, I want to be him, I want people to look at me and see that, please understand.
Holly understood. So did Crystal, who was less inclined to complain in the first place.
Are you going to go live in his father's house? wondered Holly.
Book thought, I might hang out there sometimes. I'll still keep my books and things in our storeroom. Unless you want to kick me out of it.
Never, Crystal thought.
Holly agreed, Not ever.
You pay a third of the rent, Crystal teased.
But when the day came, Holly wouldn't walk their body into the room where the move would take place, and Book had to shove her out of the way and stomp through the door himself, and Crystal was faded far with trepidation.
His sisters hung back, listened to him think, waited.
The troporter who would be making the transfer looked nervous. She was consulting a checklist. "You are - Book?" she says. "Book and his cohabitors, and you're moving with no physical alterations in with - Lightning?"
Lightning was late. Book sat. The nervous troporter re-read her checklists. "Have you considered the risks?" she said.
"Yes. It's - it's important," says Book. "We all understand. But it's important and I need you to try."
The troporter's mouth was a thin line. "You realize if something goes wrong it's not only you -"
"My sisters understand," said Book.
Your sisters will miss you, thought Holly.
"They'll miss me but they understand."
"And Lightning?" said the troporter.
"The risk to him is much smaller - right?" asked Book.
"Yes, but I can't claim there is none."
"He understands too, anyway."
The troporter asked no further questions.
Lightning arrived half a sand late. His father was with him, which one Book couldn't tell for sure. The father hung back and Lightning came forward.
Soon Book would get to see that face in the mirror, just exactly himself, the way he'd look if he weren't crammed in with -
It's not like we're ugly, thought Holly.
But, thought Book, you're a girl.
Don't let these be the last things we think to each other, pleaded Crystal. We love you, Book, and we're happy for you -
I love you too. Hey, he added, soon I can hug you, won't that be something?
Holly couldn't laugh aloud with Book in front, but she could think it.
Book was smiling when he nodded to the troporter that he was ready.
Holly had all the mice. When Book's soul got tired, Lightning could take over. When their body got tired, they needed her mice - unless they could catch a wild animal alive while stuck in a tree. Book might be able to troport food; he had the samples and Holly was just the best troporter, not the only person in the party capable of it. Holly, if she had to, could kill and open up a mouse and turn tree bark into quantities of... raw meat (except Book had her checklist, but she didn't need her checklist). She dearly hoped it didn't come to that. She had no idea where Tiag had gotten to but the fox ought to be the least of their worries...
Book, quite reasonably, was staying up in his tree, presumably not wanting to be caught off guard by the reappearance of the demon, but if he could hear her, she couldn't hear his replies.
Holly started evaluating her ability to get from her tree to an adjacent one without falling straight into the demon's claws. If she could even get a few trees over, close enough for Book to hear her, she could tell him where the demon was and he could have freedom of movement while it was busy cornering her.
She'd come from that direction. The next tree over had bad handholds or she'd have climbed it instead, but its upper branches looked plausible.
It might be that he could hear her and she couldn't hear him. Before she risked it, she hollered:
"BOOK, IF YOU CAN HEAR ME, I'M GOING TO WAIT ABOUT A TENTH OF A SAND, THEN TRY TO GO TREE TO TREE IN YOUR DIRECTION. THE DEMON'S HERE AND IT WON'T LEAVE."
There. Now to follow through.
"Me too, Crystal," Holly muttered, "me too."
Her time sense was okay, but Crystal's was better. Crystal faded forward to count rapid heartbeats and watch shadows of the quickest nearby sun (low, blue, fast) lean from hubward to rimward.
It's been about a tenth of a sand. But - but wait - I'm -
"I'm scared too," said Holly, and she inched along the branch towards the other tree.
--Eleven harvests ago--
Lightning was awake first.
Crystal hadn't known to expect that Lightning would be awake first. She'd expected to be able to confirm right away that Book was there, that he was okay, that he was comfortable.
And instead she and Lightning were sitting together awkwardly, under the dreamward until it was confirmed that both of them could swap as necessary and stay awake.
It's so empty in here, Holly thought.
It's emptier for other people.
That doesn't mean it's not... empty.
"You feel okay, right?" Crystal asked Lightning.
"I feel - normal," he said. "I guess we won't know for sure whether it worked until I need to sleep. I hope I figure out how to transfer consciousness soon."
"Oh, yeah," said Crystal vaguely. "That takes practice, doesn't it, for most people?"
"Yeah. Maybe Book will be able to do it just as easily with me as he could with you, but - I can't."
But I want to talk to Book, thought Holly. I miss him, I miss him -
I miss him too. "People figure it out even without practice by the time a few days have gone by, don't they?"
"Yeah." Lightning sighed. "All my friends are going to want to know why I don't look different."
"Did you want to?" asked Crystal. "You look handsome, Book picked you out specifically."
"I didn't - need to. I just thought it'd be more of a negotiation. I didn't lose anything. I got a perfectly good cohabitor without having to compromise and make tradeoffs and I think a lot of the lectures I got about it were wasted."
"Was that funny?" asked Lightning.
"It - yes, a little. It just means that you and Book are a good fit, you see? He didn't have to compromise either. He got his very first choice. He wanted to look like you. You work other ways, too. I'm excited for when he wakes up and - and does. I miss him and so does Holly but we're glad he's going to be happy and - and thank you."
"You're welcome," Lightning replied, sounding unexpectedly touched.
"When do you think you'll be able to sleep?" Holly asked.
"I faded in, I'm Holly," she said impatiently.
"Oh. I don't know - two sands?" He hesitated, then said, "If you want to come back to my house to wait you can."
"Thank you," said Holly.
It was about a sand and a half.
And then Lightning blinked and Book opened his eyes.
Holly could tell instantly and they met in the middle, trying to hug each other; he misjudged the length of his arms and clonked her on the ear but finally figured out how to manage his elbows. "Book. You're okay?"
"I'm -" Book shook his head. "I'm good, Holly." Pause. "It's - Holly, right? I never had to tell from the outside - wow, your voice sounds so -"
"Yes it's Holly, don't be silly of course you can tell -"
"Well, let Crystal have her turn -"
Crystal took her turn without Holly having to do much letting. "It worked, I'm so glad it worked!"
"I want a mirror," said Book.
"I saw one on the way in, I think -"
They managed to walk awkwardly to Lightning's house's entrance hall with the mirror in it without unhugging.
And Book looked in the mirror and stared.
"Good?" Crystal asked.
"Bit late if you want to change your mind," Holly leaned forward to comment.
"Perfect," said Book.
Holly was tempted - and urged by Crystal - to creep to the edge of the branch, crouching and holding onto another branch overhead, ready to back up in a hurry if something creaked, and then creep from the edge of her destination branch to the trunk of the new tree.
Holly thought that if she was going to fall she'd rather be in more control of her momentum than that, and was about to try to jump the distance.
Crystal shoved her back. "No, absolutely not, no."
If I jump then if we fall it's on our feet and we can run -
"You'd break an ankle." Inch, inch, inch.
I'll do it holding a mousetail in my teeth?
"That's disgusting, Holly. And you can't troport a broken ankle fast enough, the demon is right there."
It was, indeed, right there, right under them. They might not even break an ankle if Crystal slipped, they might just fall directly into its waiting claws and be torn to shreds.
Crystal didn't slip. She got onto the branch of the next tree. She shuffled as best she could towards the trunk, and hugged it. She'd gone just a few meters, no more, but -
How many times were they going to have to do this to get within shouting distance?
If they stayed put, how long would it take the demon to lose interest?
"BOOK, THE DEMON'S PAYING ATTENTION TO ME. YOU CAN GET OUT OF YOUR TREE AND COME CLOSE ENOUGH TO TELL ME HOW TO KILL IT."
Silence apart from demonic chittering.
Crystal maneuvered around the trunk to look for a way closer to the way she'd come.
And then she heard Book's voice, terribly faint -
"Can you hear me?"
"I CAN JUST BARELY HEAR YOU," Crystal hollered back.
"- to me," called Book. "Fire and -" Something. "- a pragsuu -" something.
Holly came forward. "I DON'T GIVE A DRAINED SHARD WHAT IT'S CALLED, HOW DO I KILL IT? FIRE, DID YOU SAY FIRE?" she shouted.
"- yes -" something "Fire and -"
"FIRE AND WHAT?"
"Fire and oil -"
"IT HAS TO BE OIL FIRE IN PARTICULAR?"
"That's all," Holly thought she heard.
"I'LL DO MY BEST."
Holly looked at the tree she was in. If it didn't have any oil she could extract, she was likely out of luck. She also wasn't sure how to start a fire. Why wasn't she carrying the food? She could really use a peanut. And a match.
--Four harvests ago--
"Crystal, that's completely -"
I know I know I know.
Stop talking aloud, what if Mountain hears you?
He wouldn't believe it if I told him outright, I barely believe it and I can read your mind - Lightning. The one who cohabits with our brother.
Mountain doesn't like it when we talk out loud amongst ourselves anyway -
Don't change the subject, thought Holly.
I don't know what you want me to say. I didn't decide to have that daydream.
That utterly mortifying daydream!
Why won't you learn to sleep? Why won't you just leave me alone? despaired Crystal.
Holly flumphed onto the bed.
I didn't mean that, Crystal amended.
Yes you did. You wanted to be alone in our head, you wanted me gone.
But just for a second. I don't want you to leave. It's bad enough Book left.
It's just when I have opinions that it's -
What if it was you? What if you had a crush on Lightning?
I never would! thought Holly.
But what if you did, what if he was your type and what if he liked you enough that you sometimes thought maybe -
Then I wouldn't want you ranting, but what if I did something that made you want to rant?
You do that all the time, Crystal pointed out.
I'm not going to do anything about it, Crystal added. He'd probably think it was weird, too, I don't want people to think I'm weird. You I can't help, but...
Are we going to have to agree on who we kiss? Just because we can't quite sleep...?
I don't even want to kiss anyone, Crystal.
You can do it if I'm not paying attention and it's not Book's face you're kissing, suggested Holly. Kissing, daydreaming, whatever. Just don't accidentally think about me or I'll notice what's going on.
But avoid daydreaming when I'm noticing things.
I'll try, Crystal thought dubiously.
Holly was systematically scrubbing a relatively clean woodchip from the mouse cage all over her face. If they'd done a normal merge they'd certainly have gotten rid of the oily skin in the process, but here they were with what they'd been born with, and for the moment she was too relieved to be annoyed.
She scrubbed her fingertips into the wood. She got a splinter, and this was distracting enough that she paused to swap the splinter's color with a leaf so it would be easy to see and she could pick it out. When she proved unable to get ahold of the splinter even while it was clearly visible through her skin, she swapped its texture with the leaf, too, and then it was too soft to hurt much. She resumed working oil into the wood.
How much was enough? Better to keep at it until she was sure she had as much as she could collect. She didn't even know yet how she was going to set it on fire. She felt at her hair: no. Dry, reasonably clean, and too puffy to easily run a woodchip through for oil anyway. She went back to scraping it across her forehead.
When her face was raw and she had two more leaf-soft splinters in her fingers, she had an idea she thought might work for setting the chip on fire.
We'll freeze to the branch, thought Crystal.
"Do you have a better idea?"
"Do you think either of us will come up with one if we wait?"
Holly put one of her splintered fingertips to the bark of the tree. She held the oiled woodchip in the palm of her hand. The demon circled below, chittering.
Most troports were swaps. If she swapped the warmth between the tree and the woodchip, they wouldn't change much. The tree might get a little warmer, because the woodchip was warmed by her hand and the tree was barely touching her relative to its size.
Some troports, like the one that had put Book's soul into Lightning's body, were transfers.
Transfers moved all of a property, not just an amount appropriate to the target object.
Holly moved all of the warmth in the tree into the tiny woodchip.
She was intensely uncomfortable, immediately, in too many ways to make clear sense of right away. The tree froze solid under her shoes; the branches stiffened and snapped. Including the one under her.
The woodchip burst into flames in her hand and she fell towards the demon and thrust the flaming thing at its lack of a face.
The fire caught. The demon's exoskeleton crackled and split; it leaked black sludge. The sludge burned. The demon writhed.
Holly staggered away from it and the frozen tree, towards warmth, towards Book. She reached for her mice. There was only one that was definitely still alive. Several of her fingers on the hand that hadn't held the woodchip were numb. She didn't dare swap it her injuries or her cold. It might die; they were going to need to drowse it to make it home. She didn't dare try to swap her chill into a different tree - then she'd be the tree's temperature, all over, instead of frostbitten but basically intact from being too near the frozen wood. If she transferred instead she might well catch fire just like the woodchip.
Crystal probably wouldn't even be able to walk if she came forward, she'd just collapse, crying. Holly took another step, and another. Book. Where was Book?
Still in his tree.
"Holly - what happened?"
"I set it," she said through chattering teeth, "on fire."
Book climbed down and wrapped her up in his arms and tried to get warmth into her extremities. The tree had been so cold - Her finger was bleeding, where the tree had taken the splinter and a chunk of flesh with it. She leaned on Book.
"Do not false-sleep on me," he hissed. "Drowse a -"
"They're dead. Except one. We need it or I'd have given it my burn and my frostbite and -" She hiccuped.
"I see two moving around."
"We have to go home."
"Yes. Drowse a mouse and give it your injuries so you can walk. You'll slow us down if I carry you and Crystal's going to have to take over sooner or later."
Where's Tiag? wondered Crystal.
"Where's Tiag?" Holly asked for her.
"Not far, I think. She'll catch up. I can drowse her if I have to."
Holly nodded and reached with creaking frigid joints for the mouse cage. Book had to open it for her. She tapped one with her bleeding finger and drowsed it and got rid of her injuries and her cold. The mouse died under her hand and she released a held breath.
"Better?" asked Book.
"Yeah. We need to go home. Tiag! Tiag -"
A distant bark.
That was good enough for Holly. She turned rimward and started walking.
"We didn't get any treasure," Holly said.
"Nope," agreed Book.
"And I'm going to have a hell of a time convincing any of you to come out again."
"Next time you might not be the one who gets hurt. If the demon had touched you -"
Or if it'd treed Book - he knows how demons work but he can't troport as well, put in Crystal. Lightning even worse!
"Well," sighed Holly. "We had an adventure, I guess."
They walked. Eventually Crystal came forward. Book noted the change in his sisters' posture but didn't say anything. Tiag caught up and slept in Crystal's arms.
They went home, nervously trading off the last mouse until they could buy more past the Barricade, following a high white rimward sun.