“We need to talk,” Eric said.
“That’s what we’ve been doing, isn’t it?” Anne asked, confused.
“Yes” He replied, “ but I really need to tell you something, something I’ve never told anyone.”
“I’ve been keeping a secret from you,” He said, looking her in the eye. “From everyone, friends, family, maybe myself.”
“Eric?” she asked.
His reaction stunned her. It was if she had slapped him in the face. He recoiled, almost knocking his chair over as he stumbled away from the table, finally stopping to stand in the middle of the room, trembling.
“Did I say something wrong?” She asked, alarmed.
“No,” He replied, “its not you.”
“Not you,” he repeated, “me.”
He took several breaths, “its me.”
He was clearly struggling to get control of himself.
“I can’t explain, but I can show you.”
He closed his eyes and then she watched in amazement as a soft golden glow began to grow in the middle of his chest.
The light quickly spread outward, encompassing him completely until there was just the suggestion of a human form. She watched as it seemed to strain upward, as if trying to break its earthly bonds. Arms spread wide, head thrown back, she thought that it would truly take fight, and then it changed.
The form became more feminine, more rounded, softer. The suggestion of hair cascaded down.
And then the light began to reverse, coiling inward as if caught in a vacuum until it faded and was gone. Where just moments before her friend had been standing there was now a beautiful young woman. Delicate features framed by long black tresses that fell to her waist. Seeing her figure, Anne could understand the sweat clothes.
She stood there for a moment completely still, then she suddenly paled and seemed about to collapse.
Terrified that something was going wrong, Anne surged to her feet. She only realized that she had moved when her chair crashed to the floor.
Green eyes snapped open and fixed on her, their intensity almost a physical thing, though what Anne saw there was terrible to behold. There was such despair, such pain, that Anne had to catch her breath.
Then something changed, something dark and dangerous seemed to engulf all the life from within until they were left empty.
A whisper, harsh and broken,“I’m sorry.”
Almost quicker than she could follow, the girl turned and fled into the bathroom. The closed door muffling the sound of her being violently ill.
She didn’t know what she had just witnessed, but Anne knew it was bad. There was a lump of ice lodged in her gut as she moved toward the bathroom and what was on the other side of the door. As she drew closer, she hesitated. She didn’t want to simply barge in, but how could she announce her presence? She raised her hand to knock when the sounds from within changed.
Sobbing, that is what she now heard. Gut wrenching sobs that tore at her heart. That she would have done anything to stop.
She lost track of time as she sat on the cold tile floor, just stroking the girls hair. She didn’t say anything, choosing to simply let her presence convey her support and understanding, though to be honest, she didn’t understand anything. Who was this girl and what had happened to her? How could that overwhelming personality that she so briefly glimpsed be so suddenly and completely crushed?
That she was a changeling was beyond doubt, no one could witness such a transformation and mistake it for anything else. Anne shook her head. She never suspected a thing, the girls cover had been perfect.
Anne paused for a moment, what had made her think that this was the core personality? She had known Eric for more than three years, but what did she really know about him? Could it be that he was nothing more than a mask? Possible, but when she thought about it, it made more sense that he was the primary and this girl was his secondary avatar. That behind that beautiful face was the man she knew, but what if she was wrong?
Before today, Anne had believed in her ability to spot a changeling, there was always something that gave them away. Some small inconsistency that would point them out to her. Not this time though.
Having a Changeling with their Avatar being the opposite gender was very rare, but not unheard of. She had never met one personally, though she thought that it should have been even easier to spot them, not harder. There might be time enough to work all that out later, but not if she didn’t do something now.
Second or primary didn’t matter, the girl was clearly in trouble. She was on her side, huddled in a ball, knees to chin, holding herself so tightly that her arms were shaking and her knuckles were white. The sobs had finally stopped though her breathing sounded pained. Her eyes were closed but tears still coursed down her pale cheeks and Anne feared that she would bite through her lip which was caught tightly between her teeth.
She had to start somewhere, and she chose the simplest point.
“What is your name?” She asked.
She thought for a moment that the girl hadn’t heard her, then she stirred.
“Kira,” she said softly, “my name is Kira.”
A chill ran down Anne’s spine.
She put on her best smile, “Nice to meet you Kira.”
Kira slowly came uncoiled, grimacing in obvious discomfort. She sat with her head lowered.
“Please don’t.” Her voice was raw.
“Don’t what? What are you talking about Kira?” Anne asked. This simply didn’t make sense.
“Please don’t act like nothing’s changed when everything has changed.” Kira answered.
Of course everything was different. How could it be anything else? What was going on in this girls head?
“Kira, please look at me.” Anne was genuinely concerned, she was missing something, something serious. “I want you to look me in the eyes. I want to see you, not the side of your face.”
A bitter laugh escaped Kira’s lips. “Afraid I’ll turn into a real monster? Or just more of one?”
“Why would I ever think that?” Anne asked, truly stunned.
“I saw the look on your face Anne. What you thought was very clear.” She said in a strangled whisper.
“Oh God.” One sentence explained so much. “No. Kira, no.”
Anne wanted to weep, to scream, break something. She had been a fool not to see what had happened. Everything had been moving so fast she hadn’t thought about her own reactions or how they might appear. True, she had been caught flat footed, but that was no excuse. Kira had clearly placed all her trust in Anne’s acceptance and she had appeared to throw it back in her face.
“Kira, look at me.” She reached out and took Kira’s face in her hands. She tried to flinch away, but Anne was determined to face this now, before the damage became irreparable. She didn’t know what had happened to this girl, but clearly Kira was extremely fragile and it might not take much to send her over the edge. She just prayed that it wasn’t already too late.
“Kira, it’s not what your thinking. I swear it’s not. I was scared because I thought something had happened to you. You turned so pale I thought that something had went wrong when you changed. I thought I might loose you before I even got to know your name.”
“Kira. Listen to me. I don’t think your a monster. How long have we known each other? More than three years, Kira. Three years. Why would I think of you as anything less than my friend?”
“Just look in my eyes and you’ll see the truth for yourself. Please, just look at me.”
She had to slow down, she was talking too fast, pushing too hard. Her hands had started to shake and the cold in the pit of her stomach was threatening to stop her heart. She took a deep breath and forced herself to relax, not breaking the contact.
After a long pause, Kira seemed to surrender, the tension beneath her hands relented, if just a fraction, and she was looking once more into liquid emeralds.
Again the raw pain in those eyes was as disturbing as it was shocking.
Anne refused to look away, she didn’t dare to blink, fearing that the spell would be broken. She had to choose her words carefully, there could be no hesitation, no doubt in what she said.
“Kira, I was afraid for you, not of you.”
She took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry you had to go through this, you don’t deserve to suffer for my mistakes. I just hope you can forgive me.”
How many times had she heard someone trying to describe seeing a war of emotion in a persons eyes? It was nothing compared to the reality of what she saw in Kira’s eyes. The hope and fear, the pain and joy that shifted and clashed. The blazing desire to trust and the crushing expectation of betrayal. It was all that she could do to not break down herself. There was nothing she could do, this was a battle Kira had to fight on her own. She wanted nothing more than to reach inside and take what she saw into herself, to lift this terrible burden from Kira’s shoulders. No one should have to bear such a weight alone. She held her breath, waiting.
When life returned to Kira’s eyes, it did not wash or flow, it exploded. One second, they were a dull, listless grey green full of hopelessness and longing, the next they were dazzling emeralds. The hope and need in that gaze was stunning. Annes heart caught in her throat.
Then she collapsed into Annes’ arms. The sobs this time were of release and though they still tore at Annes’ heart, they brought a sense of relief. It seemed that the worst was behind them, and that though Kira wasn’t completely out of danger, Anne wasn’t worried about her suffering a complete break down.
They are sitting on opposes ends of the couch, each with a fresh cup of herbal tea. For some reason, a hot cup of tea always seemed to sooth Annes’ nerves, and they needed soothing right now. So much had happened so quickly. She looked at Kira, sitting in one of her bathrobes, her hair wrapped in a towel. Her feet tucked beneath her. She had had the girl take a long hot shower as much to give herself a little time to think alone as the fact that she needed it after what she had been through.
She frowned into her cup, who was this person? Was it Eric or Kira behind those green eyes? What was her story?
She gritted her teeth, this was just too complicated. Part of her wanted to think “Eric” another “Kira” and she was damned if she knew which was right. One thing was undeniable, she has made a serious mistake and Kira had paid the price.
“I really am sorry Kira. If I hadn’t reacted that way, none of this would have happened.”
Kira looks at her surprised,
“What are you apologizing for? I was the one who sprung all this on you. I doubt you were expecting an after dinner show.”
Annes lips twitch then set in a firm line.
“No, I lost control of the situation. That’s inexcusable.”
She shook off the self pity, there were things to be done, people to be contacted. First she had to get this straightened out, there was going to be a lot of questions and only one person had the answers.
“Kira, I know this isn’t easy, but I need to understand what’s going on. I need you to talk to me.”
Kira’s shoulders fell for just a moment before she straightened them again. She took a breath and with a reigned tone asked,
“What do you want to know?”
“It’s cliche, but why don’t you start at the beginning?”
She made a rude noise. “I hope you have a lot of time.”
Anne smiled, “It’s Friday and I didn’t make any plans this weekend.”
“I was born Eric Thomas Mills, at least that’s what it says on the birth certificate.” She gave Anne a sad smile.
“My mother was sixteen and a party girl, and I’m sure that the last thing she wanted was a brat to weight her down. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, when I wasn’t staying with the neighbors because they were too drunk to come home or passed out in a bar somewhere.”
She paused, looking into her cup.
“When I was six, my mom came back and I stayed with her and my step dad until I joined the service and got the hell out of there.”
Anne wondered if she was finished, but then she looked up,
“But that isn’t really what you’re wanting to know is it?”
Anne shook her head.
“I didn’t think I could get off that easy.”
She set the cup down and folded her hands in her lap.
“As I said, my mom and step dad took me when I was six. I found myself in a new place, surrounded by new people. New kids that were nothing like the older people I had known up until then. It wasn’t until then that I realized that there was something different about me, about the way I thought about myself.
I just didn’t fit in. I didn’t think like all the boys and I didn’t look like any of the girls. I was just the weird new kid that everyone saw as a target. I quickly learned to keep my head down and my mouth shut.”
When Kira looked at her, she again saw that pain and loneliness and knew it was the pain of a child who just wanted to be accepted for who they were. It was all she could do to keep the tears out of her eyes. She couldn’t begin to imagine what it would have been like to grow up like that, but what she saw in those eyes told her that she didn’t want to.
“When I was ten, my step dad got a new job and we moved again. It turned out to be a mixed blessing. While I had just as much trouble fitting in as before, this time there was a library within walking distance of my house and I spent every moment I could there. It was a building full of people who didn’t judge me, who didn’t care what anyone thought or said. They simply excepted me. I met a lot friends there and some really great teachers.”
“I learned to laugh there.”
Kira fell silent. When she looked, Anne saw the tears that were tears streaming down her cheeks, unnoticed.
“It was there that I finally found my name. I don’t remember the book now, I guess the title really isn’t that important. It was a book of short stories that had been miss sorted and forgotten in some corner, but I remember that story, that character. She was the center of the story and from the first she captivated me. I remember sitting in there reading and rereading that story until I had it memorized. Every word describing her seemed to have been written by someone who had looked right into my heart. Even the way she looked. Her hair, her eyes, everything was just what I had dreamed that I would look like if I could have looked into a mirror and saw my true self.
Her name was Kira.
I still didn’t know what I was or why I was so different. I hadn’t found anything that told me what was wrong with me, and believe me, I had looked, but I knew who I was.
Everyone still called me Eric of course, nothing outside had changed but inside everything had changed. I came to despise that name. It represented everything I wasn’t and never wanted to be.”
When she didn’t start again, Anne got up and took their cups to the kitchen.
“I think these need a refresh, just give me a minute.”
She refills the tea pot and sets it on to boil, then starts to look for the new box of tea she had forgot to get out after the last pot. Reaching into the upper cabinet, she sees Kira slip into the chair next to the kitchen window. She looks so small sitting there looking out at the dark. They really hadn’t talked much, there had simply been too much happening, but she was already seeing some things she remembered Eric doing. They were small things she probably didn’t even realize she did, but Anne had always found endearing. The tilt of the head when she was thinking, the little furrow between the eyes when she was confused. The way she held her cup, with her pinky out.
“You didn’t have to get up,” Anne said.
Kira took a deep breath. Seeming to steel herself.
“Anne, can I ask you something?” She didn’t turn around.
“Of course,” Anne’s stomach tightened.
“Would it make it easier if I changed?” She asked quietly.
Anne understood exactly what that meant.
With one simple question Kira had offered herself as the price she would pay to make Anne happy. How could she make such an offer?
Then Anne understood. Because that was what she would do for someone she loved.
There was no reason for Kira to have revealed herself to Anne, doing so had been a great risk. Why hadn’t she simply disappeared from her life? Gone someplace where no one would think twice about her?
Because you don’t walk out on someone you love.
You don’t keep secrets from someone you love.
Kira was willing to sacrifice herself for love and consider it even.
If Kira loved her that much, what did that imply?
That she had been in love with her far longer than the few hours since Eric had called her. Which meant that he hadn’t. She had been there the whole time.
She looked at the woman sitting there. She thought Anne wanted Eric back and she’d give him to her if asked. How could she think that?
Anne went cold. Because that is exactly the way she had been acting. All the pushing and prodding, all the questions. She had been so sure that she was looking at a mask. Eric was the real one, not this cute little thing that happened to wear his clothes and she had been determined to to find him in there. That was why she kept getting confused, she simply hadn’t thought of this being one person, no matter how many faces they might wear.
This was something she had never seen before. Every other Changeling she had met had simply used their Avatars as masks, costumes to be donned or removed and she could get to the truth if she just pushed enough. Kira was different, there wasn’t that separation. She was who she was.
How could she be so thoughtless? It was a cruel thing she had done, asking her to be something she wasn’t.
How could she tell her that she understood that now?
By setting her free.
The answer came softly, “Is that what you want?”
Kira stiffened as if she’d been struck.
“It doesn’t matter what I want.” She whispered.
She didn’t hesitate, but went to her and slipping her arms around her, hugged her as tightly as she dared. Hot tears ran down her cheeks and onto Kira’s neck.
“Of course it matters,” She whispered in her ear. “It’s all that matters.”