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we are the masks we choose to wear

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It was Zusu's job, each morning, to paint their face. She started with the thin, curling tendrils of the rusa. The lines were tenuous, faint even on their pale skin, but she imagined them deeper, darker, as though each stroke of the brush were the slash of a knife. Some of the Others found the process disturbing and preferred to flee into the dark recesses of their mind, but Jamisia stayed near the surface, supportive. A little proud, even, that Zusu had found this adaptation, this way of channeling her need to dig furrows into their shared flesh.

You're growing up, thought Verina, and Zusu felt her insecurities pierced, if only briefly, by a flicker of pride.

To the base Zusu added flourishes for each of them. Shy kita, for herself, with a hint of tensan. She was changing, after all, even if the process frightened her, made her drive her nails deep into her palms. Assivak, when Katlyn was in ascendance, its delicate web blending with rusa until the two almost seemed to merge. It was plain to see for anyone practiced at decoding Gueran kajas, though. How Katlyn had hated that at first. What use the web when all the flies had warning? Oh, there were some whose Variations led them to dive into it, to welcome its strangling embrace, but there was no challenge there, nothing to set her pulse racing.

You want a challenge? Derik had finally snarled at Katlyn. Then go out there and find someone who knows exactly what you're after, and convince them it was their own idea anyway.

Derik, Jamisia ventured, uneasy. He had never been comfortable with Katlyn's projects.

I mean it! I'm fed up at listening to her moan.

Jamisia subsided. So did Katlyn, thoughtfully. That night she picked her clothes with care—and had Zusu draw assivak with stark, strong lines, until rusa was nothing but background.

She came home with a man, of course. And another the next night, and another.

Perhaps you should pursue a career as a motivational speaker, Verina told Derik, dryly.

Fuck that, thought Derik, but with no real heat. He had learned to defer to Verina, whose nantana was blended with a hint of simba. They all had. Verina was the one who had navigated the labyrinth of Gueran social expectations to find them an apartment, to enroll Raven (and by extension the rest of them, although Jamisia sometimes felt like the only other one who studied) at the university, to find Katlyn a job as a store clerk so all of them could go on eating.

Derik, for all his tendency to rage and order the rest of them about, wore his rusa touched with not simba but raj—how Zusu loved drawing those fierce, straight strokes—and yuri. Aggressive, predatory, yet using both in service to the whole. It had taken time for him to learn to tame his more violent instincts, to accept that they were no longer in flight. He had once nearly broken the nose of one of Raven's classmates in a bar brawl.

The next day, the classmate had taken only a moment to survey Raven's kaja—rusa twined through curious yakimi's sinuous curves, with no hint of raj—before giving her a friendly, open smile and babbling at length about their latest assignment.

They had all begun to relax after that, even Derik. Maybe this was a safe place. A place where they could be who they were—all of them—without hiding, without fear.

Jamisia herself always asked Zusu to frame her kaja with the incomplete spirals of the tanji, those who forsook individuality for the herd. It was important to her to signal, to the Others, that she no longer thought of herself as the dominant personality, falsely intruded upon. That she understood they all had equal claim.

Near midterms, needing to access the library for study, she left their apartment with the paint still wet. She stopped on the narrow bridge that led to the university to let her face dry in the brisk winds that coursed above the city. The same breeze sent clouds scurrying above the capital's skyscrapers. When the light was right—as it always was, this time of morning—the polished glass towers faded into the sky, leaving clouds and reflections to move as one.

She felt like the buildings, sometimes—clear, colorless, blending into the vast expanse that was the Others. But it was an illusion. She was still there, still herself, real and solid as the towers.

"The optical effect this angle of viewing gives is no accident," said Dr. Masada's quiet voice from behind her. "We will study the mathematics behind it later today."

Jamisia turned, and watched the doctor freeze as he took in the tanji spirals tracing her cheekbones and jaw. He had expected Raven, his student. And she would give him Raven, soon, could already feel her rising eagerly to the surface. But first she had something to say for herself.

"Thank you," Jamisia said softly. "Thank you for bringing us here."

He blinked, once. "I am not responsible for your residence."

She supposed he wasn't, to his iru mind. That was Guildmistress Alya, was Sonondra Ra. But he had been the first to trust her, the first to treat her, not as damaged, but as human. Gueran.

"Thank you anyway," she said. And then, before the need to interact on an emotional level caused him any more discomfort, she stepped aside, let Raven slide smoothly into place.

"They're similar to the equations that determine the angle of viewing for the ainniq, aren't they?" Raven asked.

Jamisia tuned the rest of the conversation out. She enjoyed her classes in history, politics, philosophy; she left Masada's seminars to Raven's eager mind. The skyscrapers still glimmered at the corner of Raven's eye, and Jamisia turned her attention there, watching them gleam and then fade for as long as the angle of light would allow.

I wish I could disappear like that, thought Zusu, wistfully.

And then who would paint our face? Jamisia thought. We need you. We need all of us.

Damn right, Derik thought gruffly. Jamisia could feel Verina and Katlyn concur. Even Raven took a moment to set aside her conversation—Dr. Masada would understand—to share her support.

They were a team, after all. Always rusa, always together, no matter what other flourishes they wore.

Oh, thought Zusu, with a hint of wonder. And for a moment, even the crying one fell silent, at peace.