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the edge in your affection broke my skin

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One of Rai's earliest memories (which might not be a memory at all -- it feels too vivid, replayed and worn smooth into a story) is of her mother sitting on the edge of her bed, stroking her hair and saying, "You must keep your light with you all the time, or the shadows will get you." Rai doesn't remember what she said in response; she is a witness in this memory rather than a participant. But she must have said something, because in her mind's eye her mother's face is troubled, and she adds, "I know what the old stories say, but you must promise me, darling," her calloused hands enveloping Rai's small ones and pressing down so that Rai clutches tightly to her nightlight. Their intertwined fingers glow redly from the light they hold between them.

The rest of her early childhood is smeared together in her mind, as most people's childhoods probably are. It would be nice, Rai finds herself thinking sometimes -- especially on nights when she's had enough to drink to feel maudlin and hasn't found a distraction, someone to take in a bar fight or a bedroom -- it would be nice to remember more of her childhood. She knows that Nyka taught her the correct way to hold a knife; she knows she fought with him a lot, scuffles or shouting, especially when he made fun of her for not learning how to walk quietly and sneak by without being seen; she knows that she loved him.

This last is the easiest to remember, because at eight years old, when the shadows took her big brother, Rai was too scared for anything else to seem important. The specifics of Nyka fade into obscurity. She still has pictures of him, but they are static; the only memory she has of his face in motion is a moment of it twisting into horror as tendrils of darkness slid up his cheekbones. She doesn't even remember his voice, because she was screaming.

Yeah. A bar fight is a lot better than walking home alone.

*

In a dark forest on the outskirts of Halr, on one of the weirder nights of Rai's life, a figure separates itself from the shadows that surround it, the faceless form of a man outside the circle of Rai's light, and leaves a dagger at her feet with a flourishing bow.

She makes the connection to Nyka immediately, of course, in the sense that every unnatural living shadow is responsible for taking her brother from her; every shadow is the shape of the negative space where Nyka used to be. She makes Alokas pick up the dagger with a handkerchief. She drops it in the bottom of her pack and forgets it, because it's either that or try to figure out why a shadow is giving her gifts, and there's no good answer to that question.

(When she does figure out the answer --)

*

Rai learned a long time ago not to rely on hope or kindness. Tangible things are more reliable: the barbs of her nets; the gears she lovingly adds to Tymora; the reassuring heft of a flail. (The point of a well-sharpened dagger.) It's a good way to live, for the most part, given that the combat training she received as a teenager in Inym's fighters guild taught her that her own body is the most reliable weapon, given that spending her twenties kicking drunkards from taverns and following minor nobles on boring noble business and shaking down debtors and lowlifes has shown her that all people are basically petty and just trying to scrape along as best they can.

It's even a good way to live when Rai finds herself with her life-force bound to her best friend and four strangers, somehow stuck in a parallel dimension where the world has gone much more to shit. Weapons still work in a shit world; people are still petty and trying to scrape by.

Hope is the real kicker here, the thing that metaphorically knocks Rai to her knees, the thing that makes her feel like the world has been yanked out from under her feet when even a Halr besieged on all sides by Outer Planes couldn't make her feel that way.

Nyka is alive here.

Nyka is not ten years old anymore.

Nyka also isn't fully human here -- his skin has a greenish tinge -- but he is recognizably Rai's Nyka. He has the same mop of curly hair he had as a child, the same dark eyes, the same smile. As an adult, he has broad shoulders and a strong jaw and carries himself with the easy confidence of someone who knows how to hold their own in a fight, and he is devastatingly attractive.

It's possible that Rai is overwrought at seeing him again, but she's not so overwrought that she doesn't realize it's stupid for her brain to describe anyone has devastatingly anything, nor so overwrought that she doesn't realize that, different heritage and different timeline be damned, finding her brother attractive is fucked up. She shoves it aside, of course, because even if this flavor of fucked up is bizarre she's lived through plenty of bizarre things -- see new timeline, see also many of the things Alokas has done in the course of their friendship -- and she isn't going to let a little thing like attraction get in the way of how amazing, how wonderful, it is to see Nyka again. When she's convinced him that she really is his sister Rai, Nyka hugs her with crushing strength. Rai allows herself to feel, just for a moment, every complicated thing she's going to push down later: afraid, furious, happier than she's ever been, attracted to him, protective and tender.

After that, she tries to be only the most useful of these things, careful and protective. She doesn't do a very good job. It's too complicated; it makes everything she feels complicated too.

*

It's probably coincidence that this keeps happening in dark forests, but Rai still finds herself thinking, ridiculously, Not again, while she fends off a moving shadow with a blade as it tries to kill her newfound brother. Not again is much easier than that looks like Nyka's shadow, but once she's thought that, it exists as a fact, a door of realization that can never be closed again. The shadow that gave her a dagger months before, and is trying to kill her brother now, is also her brother.

She wants to ask Nyka -- real Nyka? alive Nyka? -- how he feels about this, but by then she's torn him from his home timeline and it seems to be all he can do to hold himself together as his memories of his own life run out of him like water. Now isn't the time to ask him how he's holding up with an evil shadow version of himself trying to murder him, because he's not holding up at all. The best Rai can do is hold his hand while they walk down the streets of new, creepy-utopian Weshara, their fingers entwined, anchoring.

Rai also kind of wants to ask herself how she feels about this, but mostly how she feels is like hitting something, specifically whoever has turned her other brother into a shadow thrall. That's more useful than navel-gazing about how she has two brothers now, neither of them quite the original.

It's more useful than wanting to hold Nyka's hand forever, memorize the weight and warmth of it before she's left alone again.

*

In theory, rescuing young Nyka from being killed by shadows inside a Mistworld memory should be therapeutic, letting Rai relive her worst memory and do something different about it. In practice, she gets to see another version of herself get dragged off by shadows, so even though they do rescue Nyka, it's more or less a wash in terms of healing childhood trauma.

The thing that does make Rai feel lots better is setting her brother's soul inside the indestructible golem fortress that is Mr. Chainsaw. It would have been even cooler if she was able to set herself inside it, but turning Nyka into a high-tech killing machine is still one of the most reassuring things she's ever done. It also has the side-effect of restoring all Nyka's memories of the previous timeline, which cements the feeling Rai has that this is the way she's properly saved her brother.

They sit together on the deck of the Friendship, watching the mists drift by beneath them, Rai and her golem brother. "So you have it all back?" Rai asks.

"I think so." It's entertaining to hear her brother's voice come from Mr. Chainsaw's expressionless unmoving mithril face. "And you have ... three worlds of memories now?"

"Yeah." Rai leans on the steering mechanism and smiles up at Mr. Chainsaw. She selfishly enjoys having a golem brother, both because it's so metal and because he no longer looks like the sort of gorgeous man Rai would happily tie to a bed and ride for hours. (Not that advanced robotics aren't also hot, but Rai feels less weird about that.) A golem brother is blessedly simple in a life that has become an endless parade of absurdities.

They glide along in silence. "Hey," Nyka says. "I really missed you. I know it's not the same, but I'm glad to have you back."

Rai looks back out at the mist, trying to control her face before she goes sappy. She so, so grateful that Nyka is a golem. "I love you too."

*

She doesn't show it, but being stuck on the outside of the Friendship's cabin watching a magic budgie flit around an unresponsive Mr. Chainsaw is one of the more terrifying things Rai's ever experienced. There is no light in the golem's eyes and Rai thinks, I've lost him, again, how do I keep losing him, how many times --

They drop out of the Mistworld, falling from Ellesmere's sky, and flee with Mr. Chainsaw's chassis a dented wreck behind them. Rai tells herself Nyka wasn't in there anymore, that he hasn't been in there for hours, that she hasn't made a mistake and lost him, that she isn't a child anymore.

Nyka is alive again, in his own body, when they pull him back out of their bizarre blinged-up bag of holding. For hours afterwards Rai can't stop staring at his face in every free moment she can snatch, checking him for the signs of confusion she saw when they first arrived on this timeline. Instead Nyka smiles, engages in discussion, comes more alert and alive in combat than Rai has seen since they were fighting off an apocalypse. His face is heartbreakingly beautiful, and he keeps tossing his curls out of his eyes, and Rai has never felt such relief.

It isn't until hours -- days? -- later, when they've been in and out of the Mistworld again and have talked their way out of being killed in Ysgard, that Rai finds a free moment to check in with Nyka. Well. She creates a free moment accidentally by getting into a friendly fight to the death with a Ysgardian warrior over dinner.

"I'm fine," she tells Nyka, pretty sure her voice isn't slurring, but he puts a firm hand on her shoulder and presses her back down onto the cot provided to her in this Ysgard healing house.

"You drank your weight in mead, lost a lot of blood, and probably have a concussion," Nyka counters. "Sure, you're fine. How many fingers am I holding up?"

Rai bats at his hand. "Four. Stop it."

"You're not seeing two of me?" Nyka jokes. Rai probably is drunk enough to not be able to control the expression on her face, because Nyka's smile fades almost instantly. "Gods. Sorry." His thumb rubs little circles in her shoulder. "I'm here, okay? Right here. Not going anywhere."

"You don't need to coddle me," Rai grumbles. "I know you're not going anywhere. You came through the Mistworld with us without getting messed up." She sort of wants to pull him down on top of her; she feels tipsy enough that it's tempting, but she also feels injured enough to know it'd really hurt. "Do you still remember everything?"

"Yeah." Nyka scoots his chair closer to her bedside. "I guess being Mr. Chainsaw was good for my mind. For my soul? I don't know how this works."

"Neither do I," Rai says, yawning. "It's late. You can go sleep, if you want."

"I told you, I'm not going anywhere." Nyka smiles, brushing a strand of hair out of Rai's face. Her whole heart lurches. She doesn't do tender, usually, but Nyka is exactly the sort of sweet person for whom tenderness seems to come naturally, and it looks wonderful on him. Rai imagines coming up onto her elbows to kiss him.

Then she imagines the shock and horror on his face, and is grateful that her imagination is so practical. No ridiculous fantasies about Nyka kissing her back, at least. She sighs and leans into his hand. "Fine, you can stay," she says. "I'm gonna drool on you."

Nyka laughs. "Wouldn't miss it for the worlds."

The last thing Rai thinks, as she slides into sleep, is that she would literally kill anyone who tries to take him away from her.

*

The first words her shadow brother says to her are, "Stay safe."

She's jumped up on adrenaline, from the fight and from the fall and most of all from the fact that this brother keeps trying to kill her other one, but he says that and everything in Rai goes immediately still. Her whole being focuses on him; she looks him in the eyes -- in what should be his eyes, are eyes only if fathomless black voids are eyes -- and sees that his whole being is focused on her, too. The shadow that used to be Nyka looks so much like the Nyka she's recently come to know, except that in the flickering torchlight of this tunnel his form wavers with the flames, half-there. His curls move in a breeze she can't feel. The creeping tendrils of shadow that crowd Rai's nightmares are still there, sliding over his face, but not pulling him down the way she remembers; they breathe with him now, a part of him.

Rai's own little-girl scream is high in her ears, crowding her throat, still threatening to push its way out of her. Instead she steps towards him, and opens her mouth, and says, "Wait."

*

Later, when they're back in Terraw's mansion with their bagfuls of rescued prisoners, now free and wandering around a room in a daze, Nyka -- alive Nyka -- pulls Rai aside. She lets him: her companions are gearing up for a debate on the pros and cons of rescuing Terraw from the Mistworld versus the probability that another dying god is going to turn up and attack them there, and Rai is happy to let a consensus happen without her. She's more concerned with Nyka's grip on her arm, and the fact that he's still breathing.

"We need to figure out what to do with him," Nyka says, low, when they're out of earshot of the others. "Every time we've run into each other, he's tried to kill me!"

"Well, you did accidentally hit me this time," Rai points out, but Nyka looks supremely unimpressed. "He talked to me. He can be reasoned with, more or less. He doesn't seem to be a -- a thrall, right now."

Nyka's lips are pressed tight together. "What if that doesn't matter? He listens to you, but that doesn't mean he doesn't still have orders to kill everyone around you. Or maybe he doesn't, but he still wants to kill me anyway. He might see me as a threat."

"Maybe I can explain --" Rai starts, only half-believing it herself, but Nyka shakes his head.

"It's not the sort of threat you can explain away," he says. "I feel it too." To Rai's surprise, Nyka's cheeks go deeper green. "You're his sister, but I want you to be mine. I mean, I -- I think of you as mine --" He fumbles, and stares at Rai pleadingly. The look is much less disconcerting when Nyka's eyes are brown instead of shadow-dark, but they really are near-perfect copies of one another.

The rest slowly sinks in.

It's not quite the same thing as Nyka blurting that he finds her devastatingly attractive; Rai could be reading this completely wrong. But it is a weird thing to say, especially since Nyka doesn't seem to be, on the whole, a very possessive person. And Rai isn't often wrong when she reads people. She shuffles back through all his actions, and they balance on an ambiguity between how someone should act when they reunite with their presumed-dead sibling and how someone would act around a person with whom they were falling in love.

Rai doesn't have a lot of experience with how that looks from the outside.

"You are," Rai says, at a loss, taking Nyka's hands. They're shaking. "You are mine. I could have a brother on every possible timeline and you would still be mine."

Nyka quirks a smile. He leans forward, very slowly, so his intent becomes unmistakable but Rai still has a long freefall of seconds in which to disengage and pretend she didn't notice anything.

Rai doesn't disengage. She leans forward too, and meets his mouth in the middle. For a moment their lips press, in warm soft alignment; then Nyka breathes out a shivery sigh through his nose and wraps his arms around Rai, pulling her crushingly close as he opens her mouth with his. It's almost like a kissing a complete stranger, and also the most familiar thing Rai has ever done. Part of her is freaking out -- this is not normal -- but she left normal behind years and years ago in a dark bedroom that no longer held her brother, and this is wonderful. Nyka kisses her like he's known her forever. Rai wraps her hands in Nyka's curls and tugs, gently and then harder when Nyka gives out a soft shocked moan and melts a little against her. Rai flushes with arousal and joy.

She feels a sudden sharp pinch to her earlobe -- Alokas' pinch point, on the safety side -- and comes back to herself abruptly.

"Is this ...?" Nyka starts as Rai pulls away.

"It's fine," Rai assures him, leaning forward for another brief kiss, and gets to watch the shy delighted grin that spreads across Nyka's face. "It's much more than fine. But we've been gone a while, we should get back to the others."

"Oh, yeah, of course," Nyka says, smiling and willing and, for the moment, no longer worried about his shadow self trying to kill him.

That's a problem for another day, Rai thinks, along with the problem of how she's ever going to have a physical relationship with Nyka without the four people she has in her psychic back pocket knowing exactly what's going on. It would be nice if her private life were private. For now, she takes a moment to compose herself before heading back into the other room with her brother, to help strategize their next move.

*

In retrospect, it should have been obvious that shadow Nyka wouldn't take this latest development well.

A week -- probably a week, more or less, accounting for Mistworld time -- later, Rai and Nyka have managed to snatch a few quiet moments together to kiss breathlessly and disengage before Rai becomes worked up enough for it to be noticeable to the others. This isn't long-term sustainable, and Rai suspects that Alokas already knows what's going on, but despite his recent willingness to confess his secrets to her, Rai doesn't know how to have this conversation.

Then the decision is taken out of her hands anyway.

One moment, she's getting ready for bed in Terraw's mansion; the next, she's passed through the sick cold sensation of shadow-jumping, and is standing in a nondescript mid-quality inn bedroom with her shadow-brother's hand on her arm. I thought Tarraw had better security than this, Rai thinks irritably, mostly to keep from panicking. "Nyka, what the hells?" she says.

"If I remember correctly," shadow Nyka says, "you wanted me to talk with you. Sorry I didn't have time earlier. Too busy rescuing everyone."

His voice still sounds unnaturally far away, as though it's coming from another room. There is a new quality to it, too: before he'd sounded nearly inflectionless, but now he sounds sarcastic. Angry. More alive. His hair still drifts eerily around his face, and the tendrils of shadow that slide across his skin are moving faster tonight, agitated.

"Thank you for that," Rai says carefully. "What do you want to talk about?"

"Nyka," shadow Nyka says. "I should kill him for touching you. But look. I'm not. I brought you here instead."

This is officially the most surreal thing that has ever happened to Rai. She has to stop topping that record. "Thank you for that too," she says. "I really don't want you to kill him. For any reason."

The shadows in Nyka's face are forming strange shapes that Rai doesn't want to look at for too long. "Why him?" he asks. It's raspy and angry and doesn't sound anything like the other Nyka, back in Terraw's mansion. Rai finds herself trying to picture what this Nyka would be like if he were still alive, and can't, and for the first time in a while feels the loss of him so acutely that tears threaten her eyes. "Why him," shadow Nyka asks, "when you knew I was here?"

"I didn't," Rai whispers. "I didn't know what you were. I still don't."

Shadow Nyka moves, in an awful flickering way, from halfway across the room to right in front of Rai. It takes all her willpower not to flinch back from him, but she does it. Nyka's eyes are still terrible dark voids. Then he smiles, the slow sweet smile she's memorized on her other brother's face, and even on an undead wraith that smile makes her heart crack with affection. "I'm your real brother," Nyka says.

"I missed you." Rai's voice cracks. This is so different from having this conversation aboard the Friendship, in the quiet mists, with her brother a golem at her side. Every part of her is screaming against it, but she reaches out and touches a careful hand to Nyka's jaw. It feels solid, raspy and cool under her fingertips.

Nyka shudders. "I'm your real brother," he says again, insistently, and then vanishes from under Rai's hand, leaving her standing alone and bewildered in the dim inn bedroom.

She barely has time to begin to panic -- she doesn't have any idea where she is, and more importantly she doesn't have any idea where Nyka (either Nyka) is -- before the shadows at the edge of the room move again, horribly, and her shadow brother emerges from them, towing the other Nyka. Her living brother looks furious and frightened, shaking the shadow off immediately.

"Nyka --" Rai starts. They both turn to her, with exactly the same alert tip to their chins, and Rai simply settles into the surreality of it. She turns to her shadow brother. "What are you doing?"

Shadow Nyka throws a contemptuous look at his counterpart, who is gripping the hilt of his sword. "I want him to see this," shadow Nyka says.

"See --?" Rai starts. Shadow Nyka flickers across the room to her; she does flinch this time, unable to help it. But shadow Nyka seems unoffended. He settles a cool hand on her jaw, mirroring her earlier gesture, and draws her to him with gentle assured inexorability. Rai has apparently lost all ability to make reasonable decisions, because she lets him -- she does miss him; she does need him to know she still loves him.

When he kisses her it's almost exactly like kissing other Nyka, except that everything about him is several degrees cooler, and he doesn't bother with hesitation: he tilts his head and slides his tongue over hers and keeps holding gentle fingertips to her jaw instead of drawing her in.

"Rai," says Nyka from across the room, his voice cracking.

Rai draws slowly back from her shadow brother, careful not to startle him, and looks over at her other brother. To her faint surprise, he doesn't look angry, or even upset: he looks relieved, and the green flush to his cheeks is as vivid as if he were the one she'd been kissing. She glances back at her shadow brother. This Nyka's terrible eyes are narrowed, though in calculation rather than anger.

"Okay, you've made your point," she says, even though she's not sure that's true.

"Have I," shadow Nyka says. He flickers back across the room, reappearing in front of his counterpart, who startles back; living Nyka gets halfway through drawing his sword by the time shadow Nyka's hands are on him, and Rai barely has time to start moving across the room to stop her shadow brother from attacking other Nyka again when she stops, because -- shadow Nyka isn't attacking.

He's kissing Nyka.

Living Nyka goes backward with shock; his back hits the nearest wall. Shadow Nyka follows, his mouth still on living Nyka's, his hands tangling in Nyka's hair. For a moment longer Nyka struggles before going abruptly limp, sinking into it while shadow Nyka tugs on his curls.

Maybe, Rai thinks blankly, shadow Nyka knows that trick because he likes it too. Maybe he knows because he's been watching them. Either way, Rai feels rooted to the spot, stunned into inaction because of how unexpected this is. She watches, with slow warm shock, while living Nyka trembles and brings his hands up to shadow Nyka's waist, pulling them flush together. He's making quiet noises now, the soft whimpers he tries to muffle when he kisses Rai, the ones that make her feel so crazy for him that she usually has to break it off then.

"Hey," Rai says. Her voice sounds breathless and strange. "Hey."

Shadow Nyka turns his head slowly, still pinning other Nyka to the wall. "What?"

"I'm glad you're not trying to kill each other, but what?"

"Have us both," shadow Nyka says. Rai stares at him. Shadow Nyka smiles and tugs at other Nyka's hair; Nyka gives a choked-off moan, his hips pushing against shadow Nyka's, and throws Rai a wide-eyed look. "I know what I like," shadow Nyka says.

Rai wants to shake him. She hasn't had a straight answer out of him this entire time, and while attempted sex is lots better than attempted murder, she still doesn't know why he's here, what he really wants, whether he's safe or even really anything but the shell that used to house her brother. "First explain," Rai says, "anything, please."

Shadow Nyka lets go of other Nyka and steps away, leaving him to sag against the wall. "You're mine," shadow Nyka says. "I know he doesn't want to hurt you now, but he can't have you." He glances over at Nyka, slowly straightening, shaky. "Unless he's mine too."

Spending several decades as an undead shadow was probably not good for having a healthy sense of boundaries, Rai reflects. "What if we say no?" she asks. "Will you let me leave? Will you let us leave?"

The pause before shadow Nyka replies is uncomfortably long. But, "Yes," he says. "I'll still protect you." His edges jitter. "Please don't say no."

Rai tries to sift through frustration and arousal and bewilderment and the aftershocks of fear for what she's really feeling. Still irritated. Protective. Careful and tender, not just towards the Nyka who's been at her side for months, but for the Nyka standing tensely before her wreathed in shadow, her old nightmare come back to beg her to take him in her arms.

She wants to.

"Nyka?" she says, addressing it to her living brother.

"I ..." He licks his lips and laughs shakily. "This is much nicer than being stabbed." He glances over at shadow Nyka. "That could be me. If it were me, I'd -- I'd want me to say yes. He deserves kindness." There's no pity in Nyka's voice. Rai loves him, a ridiculous spilling-over of affection, and after a moment she's able to apply it to the shade of her brother too.

"Come here," she tells the shadow, and opens her arms to him.

*

Rai wakes, much later, to the sleepy memory of being transported through shadows, and of being too warm and satiated to be afraid. She's in one of the smaller bedrooms at the mansion, living Nyka spooned against her back in the dark, breathing deep and even. Rai can sense no one else in the room. She feels gloriously sore, her limbs pleasantly heavy from exertion. She'll have to apologize in the morning for the multiple orgasms she didn't warn anyone they were going to have. She'll have to look them in the eyes and tell them the truth -- or at least she'll have to do it with Alokas, and maybe ask him to be her alibi; she's not above that.

All of that can wait until morning. Now, Rai wraps Nyka's arm more securely around her and drifts back to sleep, safe in the dark.