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The Heart No Longer Stirred

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Her parents say all the right things, but Lila knows that what they feel about her being home again goes beyond discomfort to something bordering on actual fear. It makes sense. Yes, it's a gift that they get their little girl back after she was snatched so cruelly away, but it doesn't happen until significantly after all of her dirty laundry got dragged all over a courtroom in an attempt to find her killer, and now they're not even certain they knew who she was before she died, never mind now, after she has killed, after she has wandered the streets as a mindless monster, and has feasted on human flesh. In a way, Lila can't even blame them.

I am a Partially Deceased Syndrome Sufferer, and what I did in my untreated state was not my fault.

Lila knows all about affirmations, remembers her mother reciting back candy-bright words after the voice on a cassette when Lila was a child. She knows about the words you say to make them true because she's been doing it her whole life. She's one of their most cooperative patients at the treatment center. Still, sometimes she gets nightmares.

Griffin doesn't even pretend not to be disgusted with her, but that's alright, Lila thinks she was mostly done with him anyway, even before she died. Now that she's beyond things like popularity or status among the living, his rejection doesn't even hurt, although his dismissive, "who do you even think you're fooling?" with a gesture towards her face, "Everyone knows you're a freak," does piss her off. It's after that encounter that she stops wearing the cover-up and contacts.

It's not like the makeup or the contacts give her back what she's lost, he's right—no matter how carefully she does her face, it always comes out blank-looking and washed out. Dull. Like the adept but lifeless portrait in a high school senior's final art portfolio, not like Lila's face. It's strange to realize, now that it's gone, how much and how deftly she'd used her face.

Still, there's no sense in chasing after what won't come back. She can tell it unnerves her parents, when she show up to breakfast each morning with bare face and naked, staring white eyes, but once she starts to get used to it, Lila thinks it suits her better than even the most expert cover-up did.

The shift away from makeup doesn't have much of anything at all to do with Griffin, no matter what Lila's mom seems to think. She doesn't intend to see him again, so doing anything to impress or to piss him off would be useless, and Lila doesn't like to waste her time. She's pretty sure that most of Griffin's anger is less about her partially deceased state, anyway, and more about the time he was tried for her murder, and the things about her that were revealed in the trial.

That knowledge makes what she does next harder, but really, when Lila was at the treatment center, thinking about what she'd do when she got out, there was only one person she wanted to see.

She doesn't think Rebecca will mind the sight of her uncovered face. Rebecca never did like pretty lies.

...

Lila has just a moment after she knocks on Rebecca's door and before she gets an answer to worry that maybe she miscalculated, there. The color partially dead flesh takes on can be unnerving if you're not used to it, and the eyes still creep Lila out sometimes, if she catches a glimpse of her face in the mirror and isn't expecting it.

Then the door swings open, and it seems Lila was right not to worry.

"Hey, dead girl," Rebecca says, grinning, "I was wondering when you were going to drop by."

She looks thinner, older, tired, but then, she's aged five years, and Lila has gone through a change that has nothing to do with age. Lila tries on the smile that used to turn a no into a yes or an A into an A-plus and throws out some cheerleader-inspired jazz-hands. "You miss me?" she asks.

She's not expecting it when Rebecca's face crumples, is expecting it even less when, instead of turning away or slamming the door, she sways into Lila, wraps her wiry arms low around Lila's waist, tucks her face against Lila's cold-like-the-weather neck, and holds tight.

"Yeah, I fucking missed you," Rebecca breathes.

...

When Rebecca finally lets go, she draws Lila into the apartment, shuts the door, takes a shuddery breath and says, "I can't believe you're here. I mean, I heard you were one of the ones, I heard you came back, but I still can't believe—" she breaks off to stare at Lila. "It's you."

"The one and only."

"And how long have you been back?"

"About a month?" Lila isn't sure whether that length of time makes her sound reluctant or obnoxiously eager to see Rebecca. Screw it, she thinks, surprises herself by thinking, it's the truth, it is what it is.

"Christ," Rebecca says, crossing over to the dresser just inside her bedroom door and grabbing a plastic baggie and a familiar pipe. "Took you long enough to stop by, princess."

"Yeah," Lila agrees. It feels like a million years since she was last in this room. "I had some stuff to work out." She knows she's staring, but there is something incredibly soothing about watching Rebecca's long, slender fingers pack the bowl the same way she has dozens of times before.

She used to sit on the filthy floor of Griffin's room in the frat house and watch Rebecca roll a joint or lay out some lines and think about how it would feel to have those practiced, steady fingers inside of her.

Griffin never liked Rebecca, but Lila thinks he could sense that Rebecca was one of Lila’s non-negotiable conditions. She would play along with his frat events and his virginity pledge for a while, but not if it meant giving certain things up, and Rebecca had been on that list almost since Lila met her.

Here, now, Rebecca asks, "I can't even get you high anymore, can I? I'll feel shitty smoking up in front of you and not offering you some, but it wouldn't do anything for you anymore, would it?"

Lila shrugs and ignores the buzzing from her cell phone. It'll only be her parents again, and they've made it very clear that they don't approve of who Lila said she was planning on visiting this morning, and they can't even look Lila in the eye when she is home, so they no longer get check-in calls. They're lucky they get a courtesy text, and they wouldn't even get that if they weren't still jumpy about that time Lila got murdered.

"Probably not," she tells Rebecca. "Nothing else does, pot would be a weird exception."

"Nothing?" Rebecca asks, which, yeah, unfortunately, because Lila would really not mind taking the edge off a little. Except—

"I did hear a rumor once, at the treatment center, about sheep's brains? Other animal brains would probably work too, actually."

"And they'll get you high?"

Lila shrugs. "Apparently."

"Good," Rebecca says. "Let's do this shit. You're tense as fuck, it's making me nervous."

...

They talk about checking out delis and butchers' shops, but it's not the fucking Middle Ages, there aren't brains lying around everywhere, and even if they do find some somewhere, Rebecca says, it'll be obvious what they want them for. PDS prejudice isn't as bad here as it is in some places, but it's bad enough that neither of then are really in the mood to stir shit up.

In the end, Rebecca suggests they do the same thing she's done every time she's wanted to try a new substance since she was twelve years old—call her big brother.

"Used to be it was you I could count on to hook me up when I wanted to try something new," Lila teases as they wait at the crosswalk outside of Rebecca's building.

Rebecca shrugs, smiles. "Yeah, I'm not so into that scene anymore, you wouldn't need me at all if you met me now, I'm really boring. Wes says I've matured."

"Who's Wes?" Lila demands before she can stop herself. It's stupid to think Rebecca hasn't met new people in the years she was growing up and changing while Lila was busy being dead.

"My, uh, my neighbor," Rebecca says, and there is something significant in that pause, Lila can hear it. "I'm actually surprised you haven't met him already, he tends to turn up. He was—um. He helped me, a lot. During the trial."

When I was on trial for killing you, Lila hears, though Rebecca won't say it, and there's something fragile in her tone.

Lila reaches out, carefully, because her new touch has unnerved her parents enough that she won't be trying to touch them again, and takes Rebecca's hand the way Rebecca held hers the night she died. "I like who you are now," Lila replies to Rebecca's earlier comment.

Rebecca turns he head to look at Lila, and her smile is so soft, her face all tragic-eyed, Lila wants to sob, she wants to hold her, she wants to run as fast as her unfeeling, undead legs can carry her in the opposite direction, so of course that's the moment that some asshole down the block yells, "Hey, zombie!"

Lila whips her head around, and of course, he's one of the frat boy dickheads who she would have had eating out of the palm of her hand when she was a pretty, alive girl, and not a twice-autopsied dead one, but now he's shouting, "Yeah, you! Why don't you crawl back into the grave you came from?"

Lila doesn't even know how to respond to that, so she's lucky Rebecca does. Rebecca turns to flip him off and growl, "Walk away, jerkoff," and she's the one who sounds dangerous, she sounds like she could take this guy down.

And she's still holding Lila's hand.

...

When they get to Danny's, he touches Lila's shoulder and tells her that if anyone had to rise from the dead, he's glad she was one of them. Then he launches into a spiel about dosages, because apparently they are not his first clients on this, PDS druggies are a thing now.

Lila remembers when Rebecca first brought her to Danny's, and the way he hadn't been what she was expecting.

"What were you expecting?" Rebecca had asked, and Lila hadn't known how to respond.

"Not someone's big brother," she'd said, which had been stupid, but it had been the best she'd had, and she'd already begun to realize that Rebecca wasn't going to make her feel like a ditz even when she sounded like one.

A couple of weeks later, she'd made a pass at him, and he'd said, "come on, we both know why we're not going there," and Lila had known, but that hadn't meant she'd been ready to face it.

She thinks she might be ready now, though—resurrection can do amazing things for your perspective.

...

The thing that Lila has learned about sheep's brains tonight is that she is a total lightweight on them, it only takes just a taste to get her fucking trashed, which is the best excuse she has for why she tells Rebecca about the baby.

Not that it exists—she doesn't have to tell anybody that, the criminal justice system took care of it all for her—but about the way she thinks she can feel it sometimes.

"Which is stupid, right?" She asks, laughing a little at herself. "It's not like I was far enough along that I could feel it when I was alive, and I probably wasn't even—I probably wasn't going to keep it."

Her voice is starting to go wobbly, but Lila is pretty sure it's still with laughter, she has to still be laughing. "But I checked. I asked. After they—after they exhumed me. They put it back. It's still there. And I know it's not going to grow or anything, not any more than I am, not any more than I'm ever going to need another haircut—" and Lila had loved haircuts, when she was eight, she'd wanted to be a hairdresser when she grew up, she'd told her mother and it had been years and years until she'd understood why her mother had laughed "—but is it so strange to think that if I woke back up a little in the Rising, that maybe it did, too? Just as much of it as was there when I died?"

"No," Rebecca says, and her voice is so soft, Lila has never understood how Rebecca could be so hard-as-nails with everyone else, but so soft with her sometimes. "No, it's not so strange."

That's the moment that tips the scales, send Lila from grimly giggly into a choked sob, and Lila doesn't even know if she can cry with her body like this, but it looks like she's about to find out.

Rebecca uncrosses her legs, unfolds herself from where she's been sitting so carefully apart, and she draws Lila in, holds her close, warm, alive hands running over mottled dead flesh and miles of autopsy scars as Lila curls closer and closer.

After a moment or two, Lila draws in a shaky, unnecessary breath and notices that the strange, oily black tears have stained Rebecca's shirt and smeared across the exposed skin of her chest. Rebecca doesn't seem to mind, though, so she doesn't move away. After another quiet moment, she feels the moving pressure of Rebecca's hand combing slowly through her hair.

"You know," Rebecca says, still quiet in the still room, "I used to wonder if it would have made a difference, if maybe I'd held you like this that night, maybe you wouldn't have gone after him later? Or, I guess I don't know what happened, even. But. If he came after you, maybe I would have been there. Maybe you wouldn't have been alone."

Lila doesn't know what to say to that because, in all honesty, she has no idea if that would have changed anything or not.

Instead of answering, she sits up. Rebecca looks upset, and Lila isn't sure what to do about it, so she does what she always used to when she was alive and was confronted with emotions she wasn't sure how to face—she changes the subject.

"So this guy, Wes. Is he your boyfriend?"

The thought has been bouncing around in her head since Rebecca mentioned him earlier, and she asks, but at this point, she's not totally sure she cares about the answer.

Well, she does care, obviously she cares, she cares more than she probably has any right to. It was bad enough, the way she was sort of expecting, in the back of her mind, for Rebecca to wait for her, while she fucked around with Griffin and Darcy and tried to figure her head out. It's a hundred times worse to have somehow, somewhere deep in her subconscious, kept expecting Rebecca to wait for her even after she died.

So she cares, is the point. She cares if Rebecca and the boy next door are dating or banging or about to walk down the aisle. That matters to her. She just thinks that, even if the answer is yes, she probably won't let it stop her. She didn't let full-on matrimony get in her way when she was alive, and this is her second chance. This is the do-over. The time to get it right. If not now, then when?

She's surprised by how relieved she is when Rebecca says no.

"We did that for a while, but Wes needs someone to fix, and I'm okay with myself broken," Rebecca says.

"I don't think you're broken," Lila almost keeps that thought to herself, but second chance runs through her mind in a tone that sounds a lot like last chance so she blurts it out, a moment late, and she doesn't think she's ever sounded this flustered or nervous before, in either of her lives.

Rebecca doesn't even seem to pick up on it, though, just smiles a blade-thin smile and says, "Thanks. You're going against popular opinion on that one, though. So yeah, me and Wes have been doing the friends thing the past year or so, and it's going a lot better."

"Good," Lila nods, "that's good, that's great."

"Slow down, cowboy, it's not that good," Rebecca says with a sharp laugh. "He's a good guy, we were good for each other for a while, and we've been through a lot."

"I'm sure," Lila agrees. Rebecca has always had great taste in people. She always hated Griffin, for a start, and Darcy too, for that matter, even never having met him, though now that she's thinking of it, those dislikes might have more to with reasons other than just a general taste in people.

"I just—it seems like the courteous thing. To check if you're seeing anyone," here goes nothing, Lila, "before I ask if you're in the market for an undead girl-toy."

They both let that statement sit there for a moment, before Lila exclaims, "Shit," and Rebecca bursts out laughing.

"That sounded—in my head, that sounded sort of suave and lighthearted," Lila tries to explain. Rebecca has collapsed against the comforter and her giggling is starting to sound almost hysterical. "I must be higher than I thought, what is in these sheep's brains?"

Rebecca shoves herself up on her hands, grinning big enough to split her face in half, and says, "Don't blame the sheep's brains, you don't get to take this back now, this is the most romantic thing that has ever happened to me." She giggles again. "You want to be my girl-toy," and that sets her cackling into her hand again, doubled over.

"I mean, I'm flattered," she tells Rebecca, "but if this is the most romantic thing that's ever happened to you, I am so sorry." Lila is smiling too, though—she has a feeling if Rebecca looks this happy, she's not about to get rejected. Just to check, though, she tries, "I'll have to step up my game in the future."

"You will," Rebecca nods. "I hold my girl-toys to very high standards," and Lila isn't quite sure how to respond to that one, but it looks like she's not going to have to because Rebecca is leaning in to finally (finally? finally) kiss her, and Lila wouldn't talk through that for the world.

Nerve endings are a funny thing, when you're partially dead—both there and not there, probably at least half sense-memory, slow to respond, but still, there's sensation there, a smoother slide of lips when saliva gets involved, the awareness that the lips moving against Lila's own are warm, but without any reinforcement of that awareness. Pressure.

Lila presses back harder and Rebecca takes that for the hint that it is and bites at her lower lip, and that's a starburst of brightness, for a moment it's like Lila can feel everything—the currents in the air around her, Rebecca's breath against her face, the odd texture of the chip out of the corner of Rebecca's left bottom front tooth that Lila never would have guessed she'd know Rebecca's face well enough to recognize just by feel, but here she is recognizing it, and it somehow feels almost familiar.

After the space of a few of Rebecca's heartbeats, she draws back, and "Wow," Lila hears herself say.

When she opens her eyes, Rebecca is smiling again. "Yeah," she agrees. "Not bad, for a dead girl."