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it lives behind your teeth

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After the Unknowing, Basira dreams of Daisy.

Some of the dreams are what she expects: bits and pieces of Daisy and all of them speak, blame, pain, the usual sort of survivor’s guilt. Those Basira can brush off in the morning, reminding herself she did what she could, she barely got out of there as it was. Those, the blame pain unreality that gives her a headache to put into words, those aren’t the bad dreams.

The bad ones are half a memory.

There’s the time Basira asked Daisy if she wanted to grab a coffee and Daisy stumble-stuttered all over herself until, drawing herself up with a self-conscious cough, she agreed. The intense look on her face when she was listening to the Archers and her defensiveness when she realised Basira was watching her.

If her Teta was still alive, she’d have fussed about this. Always an omen when you dream of someone who’s—but she found omens in a lot of things, Teta, and believed in a lot of things that made Basira roll her eyes when Dad insisted they had to humour the old lady on her visits.

And maybe it’s that thought and the vague guilt that she hasn’t visited her Dad much lately that makes her dream of Daisy and the mirrors.

Daisy, stopping on the way out to ask, so aggressively casual, like she just noticed and it’s not something she clocked the moment she walked into Basira's flat, "Why d'you keep the mirrors covered, anyway?"

Like it's not a thing that she's here, that she’s spent the night, that she’s just as unsure about what they are or what they do or where the lines are.

Basira half-remembers or maybe feels it now, how mortified she is that she’d forgotten to take the dust covers off but too late now, so she’s just as aggressively casual when she says, “It’s a thing my grandmum used to do. Just superstition. Guess I picked it up.”

She remembers being so reluctant to admit to something as absurd as superstition. Like it wasn’t deliberate, that Molina happened and her burnt fingertips and Asag and, fuck, Spencer, and she didn’t go home and pass by a mirror and hear Teta’s stories in her ears, warning her of what might crawl out.

It helps that, at the time or at least in the dream, she’s distracting herself by looking at Daisy instead, bending down to get her shoes on.

"Like your necklace with the evil eye in it?" The grin in Daisy's voice says she definitely noticed the looking. "You said she gave that to you too."

"Yeah, like the—uh, it's called a khamsa. Different thing but yeah."

"What's this supposed to protect from, then?"

And Basira changed the subject somehow then, reminded her of her shift or came over and kissed her or—it changes, dream to dream. But in the end, the mirror is uncovered, and she gets to watch Daisy's reflection, sharp and angular, as she re-ties her ponytail or fixes the collar of her shirt or hides a mark on her neck or or or. And nothing climbs out of it.

That hurts, in the morning. Hurts worse when she thinks of Daisy’s angles softened by that unsure smile she got, especially those early days. Used to thank her for the coffee and stuff, until Basira laughed that she hadn’t called sex coffee and stuff since she’d had to lie to her parents about it at uni. Hurts worst to wake up to the ghost of surprisingly gentle hands at her hips, the weight of words unsaid on her tongue.

But what does it matter? They’re all hurting. Daisy’s gone, yeah, but so’s Tim and Jon and she has work to do.

*

Then Jon comes crawling out of the coffin and Daisy is with him, or something that sounds like Daisy. Something that wears her face and her unsure half-smiles and the smattering of freckles across her nose and her little tone-deaf jokes but that forgot the steel in her spine, her swagger. Basira watches her, wobbling on fawn legs on their way back to Basira’s flat. Should be keeping an eye out for whoever might be waiting to pounce on them now that they're out of the institute, but—

Had Daisy really been this small, before? Or has the Buried crushed her down to this size?

Aside from the muscle atrophy, obviously, aside from that. It’s the sleeping curled, back against back, touching but unable to. The eyes snapping open if Basira shifts, searching. The needing to be told, coaxed, through exercises, through eating, through sleeping. The trailing after her. The silent spectre in the corner. Standing there. Basira looks for leads and combs through files and Daisy stands there, so still sometimes Basira waits, strains to listen and make sure Daisy’s breathing. And she is. Deep, slow breaths, like reminding herself she can.

Or being careful to do it right.

It’s still her. Jon says as much. Knows as much. Supposedly. Basira would like to think, after what he’s been through with the Not-Them, he wouldn’t lie about this, but—

Should've stayed at the institute. It isn't safe for her out here. But as soon as Basira said she was headed back to her flat, grab some more things for her, Daisy looked—

Like this. She looked like this and there was no leaving her behind, so Basira unlocks her door to the shadow of Daisy and stands there, for a bit, at the threshold, watching her walk in.

Daisy holds her arms out beside her a little, like she can't stand for even those to touch her, and tilts her head up to look around the place.

"S’the same," she says, flat surprise.

“Haven’t been here in a while," Basira says, finally closing the door behind her. She locks it. Locks won't do much against the Flesh, the Dark, the myriad other monsters out there but. Better than nothing. "Isn't safe out of the Institute anymore but. Well. Not exactly space to keep my things there, let alone…y’know. Anyway, I'll show you where your stuff is."

The boxes she kept from Daisy's flat after she was missing-presumed-dead are in her bedroom, stacked in a corner where she didn't have to look at them. Daisy mumbles her appreciation or something like it and paws through them while Basira grabs more of her own stuff and it's plain as anything they're both just busying their hands so they don't have to talk.

(On her dresser, the other reason Basira needed to come here: a picture of Daisy, cocksure beside her, one of the rare times she’d had her hair down in deliberate waves around her face. Even that softness isn’t like this. But it’s Daisy. It’s Daisy and Basira feels almost disappointed, folds that disappointment neatly away and buries it with the rest of what she feels.)

There are a lot of silences between them now.

What do they even say?

They tried, the first few days with things like, How's the Archers? Lot to catch up on.

And, Have you done your exercises?

And, hey if you're up for it we could go grab some of that fancy froo-froo coffee you like?

They don't say, I'm sorry I left the weird eldritch circus without you. Or, I thought you were dead and had half-moved on already. Or, you look like a stranger but don't worry, I know that's not capital-s Stranger because I asked the spooky oracle in the basement and just checked the picture.

They don't ask, What was the Buried like. What do you dream of. Why do you keep trailing me and standing like a sad gargoyle near anyone who will let you.

They don't ask, What are you working on right now. Where are you going next. Will you leave me behind again.

Why are you different.

What Daisy says, instead, is this: "You never did tell me. 'Bout the mirrors. Why you cover them."

She trails her fingers lightly over the dust cover that hides the dresser mirror, and whatever is behind it.

"Didn't I? Mm…" Basira knows she didn't, because she very purposely changed the subject whenever Daisy got started on it. But that was then, and this is now, and the subject change may be worse, so. "Teta, my grandmum, she used to think things lived behind it. Your reflection, sort of, but ginn as well—uh, or genies, I guess? Spirits? Called qareen. She'd cover them up so your qareen couldn't see you and reach out and grab you. And with everything about…Y'know, the Unknowing…"

The Not-Them were the closest thing to qareen Basira had come across. Seemed foolish to chance it, especially now.

"Oh. Makes sense."

Daisy hums in thought. Basira packs herself more headscarves in the meantime. Living at the Institute means she has to wear them much longer than she'd like and it doesn't exactly offer the facilities to wash them properly. Might as well stock up.

Then, out of nowhere, Daisy says, "What if it climbs through?"

"What?"

"The qareen. It can't see you, sure. But you can't see it either. What if it gets closer without you noticing?"

"That…wasn't in Teta's stories."

"Oh."

The silence lasts until they leave. Basira probably only imagines the dust covers moving.

*

The stories she got were in bits and pieces. Teta’s English had been good—not even much of an accent except for the rolling rs and the vowels somehow too far back, always—but in English she brushed the questions away. Just something from home, or just me being silly, and when she’d start she’d get frustrated halfway and peter out. Fact of the matter was, some things didn’t live in English.

It took Basira cobbling together enough Arabic from her intermittent lessons and what she picked up from her parents and many unrelated aunts and uncles, the ghayn strange and not quite right on her tongue, for Teta to finally answer why. Why the khamsa, and why the fit she got about shoes being sole-up, and why the mirrors?

What she was told was:

The khamsa? Protects from hasad, envy, the bad luck others would wish upon you, and Basira's mum may scoff but the evil eye has split stone, as the saying goes, so what does she know.

(Although it hasn’t done much to protect from bad luck since all of this started, but maybe she’s being ungrateful. She survived, after all. She walked out of there.)

The shoes? Flip them over so they soles aren't facing heavenward. She wouldn't lift her feet to her elders, would she? Well then, why would she think that's fine to do in the face of God Himself? That's just rude.

(If God’s watching? If all of this is some test? Basira figures He’s owed some rudeness. Double goes for the bloody Eye, which she knows is watching. She hasn’t bothered to flip shoes right-side up in a while.)

And the mirrors? Well.

Ginn are made of smokeless fire, and there are good ginn and bad ginn, and all of that is in the Quran, thank you, so it's not made up like fairies or anything. And every person has one of the ginn, just like them, just in the ginn-world, and that's called your qareen.

The qareen is tied to you from the moment you're born and yes, there are good ones and bad ones, but mostly they exist to tempt you, pull you astray, and although you live in separate worlds, mirrors can bridge that gap. They are a reflection of you, and you of them, and so when you look at your reflection you might be looking at your qareen and not even know.

Basira half-joked, “That why you tell me off for looking in the mirror too long?"

But Teta nodded, very much not joking. "Look too long and she can get jealous of you. Pull you in, or pull herself out. Safer, you see, to keep them covered, especially when you sleep. People have gone mad from less."

Basira had been all of seven or eight when she’d asked, but even then that sounded less than plausible to her and it must have showed on her face, because Teta laughed and called her Arooba, gently, with a pat on her cheek.

She still doesn't know what that means, just that Teta said it whenever she was being particularly clever (or particularly cheeky) and that it's always made her feel a bit of warm pride just under her throat. She never thought to ask. Just like she never thought to ask how to make decent molokheya, or more about where she came from, or any number of things that hadn’t seemed important until after Teta was gone.

Kind of a running theme, that.

You'd think the Magnus Institute, spooky-central, would have everything she needs to know, but if it isn't about shambling mummies and the Serapeum, all they have are colonialist narratives of the charming bits of “exotic folklore” some British prick or the other picked up on their little jaunts. Nothing about ginn, nothing about qareen, nothing that might answer Daisy’s question except this statement from back in ‘72 about the newslady who was watched by something in a mirror and then broke it.

Basira ignores the itch of being watched. There are no mirrors in the institute, but she avoids reflective surfaces in general. Just in case.

*

It takes time to recover from those hunters, and time for Basira to overcome her feeling of wanting to throttle Jon. Daisy is awake now, sitting in the corner instead of standing because her legs won't hold her yet, but she's still gone so much of the time. Sometimes Daisy will tilt her head, close her eyes, and it's like she's listening to something that isn't there. Or trying not to.

After Basira's fourth time calling her name, Daisy finally turns to her. Opens her eyes. There is a flash of gold before they settle. Normally Basira pretends not to notice.

"Hm?” Daisy inhales deeply, just waking up. “Oh. It's lunchtime, isn't it. I've been keeping you here." She starts to push herself up but Basira holds her hand out.

"What were you listening for?" Basira asks. "Don't say the quiet. Your eyes were...You want to go out there. Don't you."

"Of course I do, Basira."

"So do it."

"What?"

"Go. Hunt them. They're dangerous, and we have plenty of statements about them killing. One from the old man that confesses he killed someone innocent, even. They're proper monsters. Nothing you have to feel bad about—"

The sound Daisy makes is something like stop, if the letters had been passed through gravel first. Then she buries her face in her hands, hiding away with a groan. Her wrists are…so small.

"M'sorry," Daisy mumbles from between her fingers. "But it's hard enough not to listen as it is without you giving a voice to the blood as well."

"I only meant—"

"I know. Basira. You meant I should go out and be myself again. Be strong. Not a…" A huff of something like laughter. "Dead weight. Yeah?"

Jon wouldn't have told her. Even he had better self-preservation than that. But it's…it's not surprising, that Daisy noticed. Just makes Basira disappointed in herself that she was that obvious, despite it all.

"This is hurting you." Basira reaches over, closes her fingers around the bones of Daisy's wrists. She gently pulls the hands down, revealing Daisy's scrunched up face. "I already lost you once, to that coffin. I don't want to see you…wasting away like this."

"Trust me. If I go after them, I'm good as gone too."

"You can't just go cold-turkey."

"Can we drop this? Please."

She says the please on a tired exhale, opens her eyes at the same time, and Basira clicks her mouth shut, tucks the words away. They're no more welcome when she brings them out the next day, or the day after that, or after that. Daisy stops trying to reason. Stops answering altogether. She closes her eyes, tilts her head, and listens for the quiet even beyond Basira. Her face is blank but the lines in her skin run deep.

*

Now, she dreams of her Teta, perched on the edge of the sofa in her childhood home, fingers stained red with sauce and flecked with uncooked rice, busy still with wrapping vine leaves. The movements are vague, fuzzy if she tries to follow them, going from flat leaf to rolled perfection in a blink. Basira never learned how to do those properly either.

Dreams of herself, with her too-weak too-soft Arabic, asking Teta about her stories, and Cairo, and the weird little things she does. Teta in return tries to wheedle Basira into talking about herself, her schoolwork, her work, her friends, and Basira comes back and back and back again. The mirrors. Why the mirrors. What if they come through.

Then she’s sitting at Teta’s feet, those fingers busy at work in her hair instead of vine leaves, and Teta’s saying, Bossy ya setty, here’s how it goes, and the same story Basira already knows.

She feels herself ask why. “What did you see, ya Teta?”

And the fingers in her hair still.

She asks again, “What did you see? All the aunties and uncles I spoke to, they’d heard of the stories, but you believed them. Did you see one? Did it come out? Teta. Teta, what did you see?”

And Teta’s answer is another bossy. Look. Look. There is a mirror in front of them, hidden under a dust cover, and she and Teta both yank it down.

A flash of gold eyes, a wide, toothy smile, all the wrong angles. That’s what Basira remembers of her reflection when she wakes up.

As they’re getting ready in the cold dark damp of the tunnels, Basira unfastens her Teta’s khamsa from around her neck, puts it around Daisy’s.

Daisy cradles the open silver palm in her own palm, looks down at the blue eye, huffs a laugh. "Keeping an eye on me, are you?"

It makes the side of Basira’s mouth twitch. Another time she'd have groaned, but she has no issue with Daisy's worst jokes. So long as she’s here to make them.

*

They glance at each other while Jon stammers through his discovery and know, without a word, that neither of them will quit.

Daisy still asks her, in the quiet dark, back pressed to back on a cot that's too small. Whispers, "You could get out."

"So could you," Basira murmurs back.

"Not without you," Daisy replies, like she knew she would. This, at least, Basira can count on.

"Fine pair we'd make then. Banging around in the dark.” And they know, don’t they. What waits in the dark. “Can't even see what's coming. And we'd need some time to adjust. Who'll take care of us then? Jon?"

"You'd be surprised. He'd try."

"And we'd just get pulled right back in. Or used as bait. Or taken out as collateral damage. Or—"

"Mm, point taken."

The silence after is heavy, pressing on her chest. Basira listens to the slow in-out of Daisy's breathing and pretends each exhale doesn't make her shoulder blades jut even more against Basira back. After a few beats, she adds, "Besides, we have more important things to worry about."

"Right. Yes.”

"After. Maybe. After all this, we have a way out."

"Yeah. After."

Then the silence descends again to swallow them both.

*

Except apparently Daisy never thought there’d be an after, never planned for one.

The story went that if you covered the mirror, didn’t look too hard, your reflection couldn’t hurt you. That’s how it’s supposed to go. But Basira watches those two hunters loping down the hallway towards them and knows, finally, the answer to Daisy’s question.

They’re sharp angles and cocksure smiles, steady hands on their weapons, and the only difference between them and them is that Daisy and Basira know better than to smile. Turns out, if the thing that lives, that is, your reflection comes through, you’re fucked. You didn’t see it soon enough, didn’t catch it, and now you’re fucked and it’s your fault and—

“Basira, promise me something.”

“What?” But she knows what, can’t bury that down, fold it neatly with all the other things she knows but won’t put words to. “Daisy, no.”

She does make the promise. And she does run.

But this time...this time Basira looks behind her. She sees sharp edges of Daisy’s face, the teeth bared in a snarl, the not-right angles of her legs as she bounds towards the other hunters.

Basira looks, and she sees. This time, she makes herself see.