Haunted 37 – Leo (2/2)

No. It wasn’t only Jake he could see.

That was Sally, he recognized the spirit but not the male human shape, showing up at the house with a note already written and the clothes that felt right to change into and no intention of seeing sunrise. The cuffed khaki pants and drab brown sweater over a shirt with a collar, the close-clipped hair, the rough camo-green canvas bag, all combined to suggest that it was not a recent event, maybe not long after World War Two.

That was Wanda, in a poodle skirt and tight sweater and her hair in a sleek ponytail, all pink and white, and she was startlingly pretty, but she had tears on her face as she walked along the road in front of the Mallory house alone, arms tightly around herself. Her mind was full of images of herself as a Barbie doll, everyone’s beautiful good girl, trying to live up to expectations, target of envy and admiration, but no one ever recognizing that there was an increasingly frustrated and unhappy person inside that skin. Her one small daring act of rebellion had gone catastrophically wrong. She started like a spooked deer when she heard a car, and fled to the closest hiding place she could find, which was the house.

This house was a sanctuary. They’d all been lost and alone, the ones who stayed, and they’d made themselves into a family. This odd space between worlds and outside time where the rules were different was where they could be whole and happy. Mallory meant unlucky. They were that only until they got here.

“Everyone in the house?”

“Mm. Not Tarragon. Came from the other side. Loves our food. Respects Mistress and Master. Cares about us.”

So Cosmo, Ophelia, Thalia, Dora, all had their own broken pasts that had led here. Too many too close together, it blurred out into that blinding brightness again, but he wrestled with it, struggling to tame it and bring it under some sort of control.

It felt like it took either just a few heartbeats, or possibly a year or two, but it gradually muted down to a level that was less looking-into-the-noon-sun screaming borderline pain and more just a world with more colour than he was used to and neon highlights drawing his attention to things that might be of interest, mainly emotions: Ophelia and Thalia in an intense discussion as they tried to puzzle out what had happened, while Dora listened in deep concern and tried to decide whether to check on Leo or leave him to Jake, that was the most vivid cluster right now. Jake just felt still and quiet, though the concern lingered, and Leo was quite sure the minotaur had no intention of leaving him until he was certain Leo was able to function normally.

Leo uncurled and carefully stretched. “Whoa. That was… memorable. Still is, just not quite as insane.”

“Are you okay?”

“Um. I think I told you, I tend to get some extra bits of info thanks to my intuition.”

“Mmhmm. Helping ghosts and all.”

“Something ramped it up so high that I couldn’t make any sense of anything and it was just way too much all at once. Still lots of extra coming in. Like going from fuzzy greys to full-colour high detail. But it’s actually… now I’m getting a grip on it, it’s actually pretty amazing. I feel a bit bad because I think I saw some very personal stuff that is really none of my business…”

Jake shrugged. “Don’t mind.”

“Sally or Wanda might.”

“Doubt it. Not your choice anyway. They can yell at Fi and Thalia if they mind.”

“I’d rather no one yelled at anyone. I don’t like invading privacy, but I gotta admit, that was more like a transcendent spiritual moment than a crisis, although I’m not sure where the line is exactly.” Leo hesitated. “It’s gotta be getting late in the night but I really don’t know if I want to talk to anyone right now. The noise is better but it feels like it might be triggered all over again if I’m focusing on someone.”

“Stay here, then.” Again that snort. “You’ve done more by now than most of us by sunrise. You’ll be okay. Want me to leave?”

“No.” Leo sighed. “I think I’ve got all the intrusive stuff already, for you.”

“Don’t mind,” Jake repeated. “Rest, maybe. That looked exhausting.”

“Yeah. It kinda was.”

Time got fuzzy again, but this time because Leo spent it halfway between waking and sleeping, letting his battered brain begin to recover. He roused fuzzily when Thalia came to the door and murmured, “Talked to Tarragon. We figured it out. Probably just time, though.”

“He’s okay now,” Jake said. “Resting. Explain later.”

“I’ll be with Fifi.”

Thalia was… she was… why didn’t he know how she felt? He could guess by her voice and having interacted with her multiple times through the night, but he didn’t know anymore, the way he had. Those thin bright tendrils that had linked him to everyone else in the house were gone like a dream.

He’d expected it to fade. It was, after all, caused by a potion along the lines of the ones he’d experienced multiple times tonight, and they only lasted roughly an hour. He was fairly sure this one had lasted for longer than an hour, though.

What he hadn’t expected was that it would leave such a deep, echoing void inside, so cold and black that it hurt.

“I… it’s…” He couldn’t get the words out, couldn’t stop tears from escaping, couldn’t stop his next breath from catching in a sob.

Couldn’t stop himself from curling up in a ball again, this time to cry. How on earth was he supposed to get up and go on with his life with that emptiness always there, completely alone in his own head, after experiencing what he had?

Jake got up, but only to return with a very modern box of tissues. He didn’t say a word, just made sure Leo had the tissues in easy reach.

“Jake?” Sally said softly from the doorway. “It’s… oh no, now what?”

“Give us a minute,” Jake said. “We’ll be there.”

“If you say so.” She sounded doubtful. “You only have about fifteen minutes.”

“Yep.”

Leo forced himself to sit up, gulping down the sobs in an effort to master them. “Sunrise.”

“Yeah. Fifteen minutes. Try to have hope and faith for, mm, about sixteen minutes.” He snorted. “Don’t think you picked up quite everything. Still some surprises left. C’mon. Bathroom down the hall. Can clean up, but everyone understands. Believe me. Everyone living here does.”

Leo sniffled and nodded, and climbed off the bed.

The servant quarters bathroom might have been of interest at another time. Right now, he cared only that he could wash his face and run his fingers through his touselled brown-blonde hair that was overdue to be cut, and even make use of the toilet and wash his hands because he had no idea what was about to happen.

Jake was waiting outside, and tossed his head in the direction of the main upstairs corridor. From the top of the stairs, voices were audible below.

Leo took a deep breath. He knew very well that his eyes were still red and he still looked like hell, exhausted from the roller coaster of the past… how long? But Jake’s words helped, and were reinforced by those glimpses Leo had seen. Pain wasn’t a stranger here.

The entire household was in the great hall.

On her feet in the centre was a striking woman with dark hair in a single long braid with a ribbon through it, in a dress not unlike the blue and magenta Leo had worn for a while, but in a sort of sepia brown and pine green. Behind her to one side was a suit of gleaming elaborate armour, and at her feet, like a living Bast statue, was a white cat with black markings.

“Everything’ll be okay,” Jake said, leaving Leo and going to a chair next to Sally.

Virtually everyone Leo saw was showing signs of excitement: on the edge of seats, or sitting properly but leaning forward, or twitching visibly, hands tight around chair arms or another hand, eyes wide and lips parted.

“Glad you’re okay,” Ophelia said. “We don’t often get unanticipated effects. Near as we can figure, you’re just that special.”

“Hush, please,” the lady said, but she was smiling. “I’ve been hearing about you all night, Leo, but somehow have failed to introduce myself, and I’m sorry. I’m Ségolène Mallory. And everything I have heard has been extraordinary. So. Tell me, my loves, about our guest.”

Sally, Wanda, Dora, Ophelia, Thalia, and Jake all began to speak at once.

Ségolène laughed and held up both hands. “One at a time, please. Chronologically, perhaps. I’ve heard from Tarragon already about the beginning of the night. Then what?”

That didn’t entirely help. They still kept cutting each other off, interjecting extra comments, and the whole thing added up to a tangled version of most of Leo’s adventures for much of the night, right down to the little octopus currently on Dora’s shoulder, all told with considerable animation.

“I think I got most of that,” Ségolène said. She sounded like she was trying not to laugh. “The important parts, at least, which are courage and an open mind and an open heart, and also a gift strong enough to allow you to bring a small friend back with you. And something odd happened in the past couple of hours, I believe?”

“Thalia and I intended a potion that would push limits a bit,” Ophelia said. “Leo’s been just absorbing everything we’ve thrown his way all night, after all. So we put together something that was supposed to link thought to form and cause Leo to partially morph to match anyone that he visualized. Just a silly game. We figured it would be fun all around but a challenge too, perfect for late in the night. But something went wrong and it spiked Leo’s psychic abilities to the point of being disabling for a while. Jake handled it while we tried to figure it out. We finally went to ask Tarragon about the psychic angle.”

“From what has been observed and described,” Tarragon said, “which I admit is incomplete, I suspect that what happened when that mixture encountered Leo’s own gifts is to strengthen his abilities to a considerable degree and link morphing to match what anyone near him visualized.”

“Goodness,” Ségolène said. “You’re reasonably certain of that? It would require a substantial level of innate sensitivity already.”

“As certain as I can be.”

“Matches what I saw,” Jake said. “And I saw more than anyone.” He ducked his head, but his tone turned stubborn. “Leo belongs here. Not out there. Nothing to keep him there and doesn’t fit in.”

Wait, what? That was what this was about?

“I have to agree,” Tarragon said. “You remember, Ségolène, how hard your world is on anyone with such gifts, and how unlikely it is for him to ever have the chance to explore it properly and allow it to develop and blossom.”

“Oh, I remember very well,” Ségolène said, with a wince. “And no one knows of any impediment or any reason why not?”

“There aren’t any,” Sally said. “Jake’s right.” Wanda and Dora both chimed in, in ragged harmony, in agreement.

“We knew that hours ago,” Dora added. “We’ve been trying very hard ever since to make certain that there was absolutely no room for doubt.”

“I think,” Richard said with a chuckle, from his chair, “there might be a mutiny if you don’t get on with it, my love. And when did Jake last care enough about any guest to say more than a handful of words?”

“It is true, that.” Ségolène spread both hands. “I intended only to establish that it is a good offer to make on all sides, but I am not going to question this much of my family any further. Leo. Tarragon tells me that you have buried memories of spending time in other houses akin to ours. Every house is unique and has different goals, so I do not know what happened in them or why they chose to do so, but I can give you back those memories. It has also been… suggested by my family that I should offer you the option of staying here with us if you wish to.” Her lips twitched and her voice quivered slightly, though she was clearly trying to stay serious. “It is not a prison and you can come and go as you wish, but time here does run differently and it may not be entirely comfortable to cross back and forth frequently. However, this house does exist between worlds, and that is not a space that humans survive well within. Everyone who chooses to stay changes. I cannot predict how, but in the experience of this household, it has generally been a positive thing.”

Sally, in despair over a mismatch between body and self, could now reshape her body endlessly to match her self… Wanda, who had been seen simply as a pretty face and not a person, could now be seen only by what she chose to show… Jake, ill for so long, was big and powerful and healthy… and what lay behind the others? In all four, he knew at least that form and passion matched.

“Can I write a letter to my family? If I tell them I got a job offer doing humanitarian stuff in Africa or Indonesia or something, they’ll believe it and not be surprised if they don’t hear from me.”

“We can even arrange occasional future letters appropriately postmarked,” Ségolène said, smiling. “We have ways and contacts. And I would prefer not to cause your family grief, if you are concerned that they will miss you.”

“They won’t. They’re used to me being the weird impractical idealist they never understand. But I’d rather they didn’t have to deal with me just vanishing with no answers.” Leo took a deep breath. This really wasn’t a difficult choice. He’d felt horrible, almost ill, when the thought had struck him in the kitchen that he’d have to leave. He felt more at home here than he ever had, anywhere. No one seemed to think twice about gender, or question that he honestly did get info via his intuition, or find it odd that he’d care about trying to help ghosts. “I’d really like to stay.”

Ségolène nodded. “Maggie?”

The cat became the catgirl maid, kneeling next to Ségolène. “I really have no idea how this is going to work,” she said. “You were already inside the house when we shifted it. Genuinely gifted individuals obviously do turn up but aren’t all that common, and I haven’t done this for one before.”

“I don’t expect you’ll have any trouble,” Tarragon said. “Leo, ignore Maggie and think about who you are and what matters to you.”

“Um, right,” Leo said. Who was he? What mattered to him?

What mattered was helping. Making things better. For ghosts, so far, but that was a detail that could evolve and adapt. Connecting to other people mattered. Understanding them. Being a supportive hand and an encouraging smile when that made all the difference.

Who was he? Well… maybe not necessarily he. Not always. Just sometimes. The mad one who found the world fascinating and new sensations worth experiencing just for themselves.

Maggie, a cat again, paced around him in a circle, three times.

Something… shifted, somewhere in his head. Like someone gradually turning up the dimmer switch, but only to a point at which he could see comfortably. All the colour came back, complete with the neon highlights, and right now those were dancing madly with the sheer delight of most of the household.

It was back. Silken-fine threads linked him to everyone in the room, shimmering and faint but there.

Anything he might physically have changed into would be worth that.

But when he looked down at himself, his familiar human male self, he immediately looked up at Ségolène, perplexed.

“I’m not sure, dear,” she said, her forehead furrowed slightly.

“I am,” Tarragon said. “Leo just pushed right back to roughly what Fifi and Thalia’s potion did. Heightened psychic abilities, which, I might add, will need a teacher to get under proper control and I’m probably the only one available, and given that, I’ll bet you a barrel of cookies that the morphing is back too. Which will also need a teacher to keep it from being an absolute nuisance for Leo, so I’ll contact one of my cousins.”

Ségolène laughed. “An empathic shapeshifter. I see. Well. Welcome to the family, Leo.”

“Not Leo,” Leo said slowly. “That’s not right.”

“Yes? You would certainly not be the only one in this house to prefer a new name. We will use whatever you wish.”

“Neon. I’m Neon.”

“Welcome to the family, Neon. And we will do all we can to help you live up to your full potential on all levels. I promise.”

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