Flick was half way down the road towards the pawnbroker, with her eyes fixed upon the shop's sign, when she heard the first yell.
It stopped her in her tracks.
“Get out of it! We don't want your kind around here! Go back where you came from!”
Flick had hunched down without even thinking about it, as if she could somehow hide and make herself look more like a noonday. She looked around, frightened by the aggression in the stranger's voice. It sounded like the kind of voice that wanted to break things. Maybe break her.
For a long, scary moment she couldn't see anybody, and then she understood it was because the voice had come from the mouth of an alleyway just ahead of her.
“Freak! Monster! Get lost!”
There were several voices, Flick realised. She peered very cautiously around the corner of the alley, wondering if it was another gloam in trouble, and what she could do about it if it was, and then she sagged with relief to see that it was just a fauxbeam. There were five or six young noondays surrounding it in the alleyway. The fauxbeam had fragmented into half a dozen flimsy shadows in different shades of grey, and all of them had their translucent hands opened, palms forward, trying to ward off the blows that were already starting to fall upon it. It was making a frantic, wordless keening sound of distress.
Flick turned away. It was none of her business, after all, and the fauxbeams weren't welcome anywhere. It wasn't the first time she'd seen one getting beaten up, and it wouldn't be the last. That was just the way of the world. No point borrowing trouble.
Except...except Iris's words suddenly echoed in her mind, and if it hadn't been for the flarefolk taking a risk to help her, she'd have been marched off by the Shadowcorps that very morning, and found herself rotting in a cell somewhere. Iris hadn't minded borrowing trouble, and she wasn't even shadowkin.
“Oh, sunspots,” whispered Flick, feeling sick to her stomach. She ought to interfere. Indigo would want her to, and Iris would too. 'Pay it forward,' Iris had said. But there were six of them, and only one of her – surely Iris wouldn't want Flick getting beaten up for the sake of a fauxbeam?
And after all, it wasn't like the flarefolk were ever going to know.
“Freak!” yelled one of the noondays again. The fauxbeam's wordless wailing echoed through the narrow alley along with the thick, painful sounds of kicks and punches.
“Clouds!” Flick swore, loudly, the word exploding out of her in a scandalous breath with all the force of her frustration and anger and fear at finding out the truth about the moon, and being publicly rejected by Loom, and nearly being caught by a troop of armed guards, and throwing herself into this quest, and now throwing herself into this stupid, needless danger. She curled her hands into fists and before she could think better of it, flung herself into the alleyway, howling at the top of her lungs.
The noondays scattered, startled, but when they saw that here was only one person storming the alley, and only a gloam at that, they quickly pulled themselves together. Flick had put herself between the crowd and the whimpering fauxbeam, but now she was standing there she wasn't at all sure what to do next. She was taller than them, to be sure, but she was still just one shadow.
“You try that again and you'll be sorry!” she said, as fiercely as she could.
One of the noondays made a rude noise. “Freak-lover! You're just a gloam,” she sneered. “Don't you know not to interfere with your betters?”
That was, as it turned out, exactly the wrong thing to say to Flick.
“Just a gloam? Just a gloam? I'm the gloamiest gloam that ever gloamed, you pampered little idiot!” snarled Flick. “I'm a wanted criminal, and a heretic, and a friend of the flarefolk, and I've looked upon a thousand shining suns while you've never even looked on one! I'm not as good as you, I'm better, and if you try laying one finger on this fauxbeam I'll make you wish you could jump into the Otherworld just by praying to! I'll end you!”
The noondays all took a step back, because even though Flick was badly outnumbered, at that moment she felt capable of anything, and it really showed.
“Lunatic!” said one of the noondays, sounding rather impressed.
“There's only one of her,” pointed out another. “And she's just a dirty gloam.”
Flick let out a howl of pure rage at that. “No difference, only distance!” she yelled like a battle cry, and flung herself upon the noonday who had just insulted her and all her caste. He toppled over with a shriek, scrabbling at Flick as she punched and kicked and bit.
“Help!” he yelled, sounding panicked by the sheer ferocity of her attack. “Get her off! Help!”
They all piled in then, and for all her wild bravado things would almost certainly have gone very badly for Flick if a longray hadn't suddenly appeared out of nowhere and sent the noondays scattering.
“The Shadowcorps are on their way,” it announced, sounding terribly posh and disapproving and utterly out of place. “This is a disgrace.”
Flick couldn't have been more astounded if it had been the Shadowking himself. She was curled up on the ground clutching her belly where one of the noondays had just kicked her, aching too much to get up straight away, but even so she was conscious of a sense of absolute astonishment at being saved by a longray in a dirty alley in The Cusp. The noondays fled, a few of them shouting vague threats back at Flick and the fauxbeam. Flick groaned, and started to push herself clumsily to her feet, praying to the sun that she wasn't about to get arrested by the Shadowcorps after all. That would just teach her not to go meddling in other shadows' affairs.
She nearly fell back down in surprise when she realised that the fauxbeam was helping her to her feet. She'd never actually touched one before, but the strange tingling sensation of a grip that shifted from firm to weak to ghostly to strong could have been nothing else.
“Oh!” she said, staring blankly into two – no, three – no, two identical faces. “Um. Thanks?”
“So brave to save us, fighting and smiting and biting bad noondays! Helpless, hopeless, feeling foolish, broken rulish, made us mulish, moaning, groaning, saved by gloamling!”
The fauxbeam was looking at her with an expression of dazed adoration that was nothing short of embarrassing.
“Er,” said Flick, taking a step back and pulling her arm out of the fauxbeam's eerie grip. “Right. Uh. Well, you're welcome, I guess?”
“Face off noondays, chase off fear oh hero moonray ask a boon pray?” said the fauxbeam earnestly. The chorus of voices was, frankly, one of the creepiest things Flick had ever heard.
“Um,” said Flick. “Well, I have to be going. Um. Glad you're okay.”
“Stolenrefrain alone and in pain, then mighty gloam our plight has known and scared away the cruel noonday!” said the fauxbeam in worshipful tones.
“Right,” Flick said, awkwardly. “Oh, clouds!” she added, a heartbeat later, as it crossed her mind that the only reason she wasn't still sprawling in the gutter getting kicked by noondays was because some longray (and, really, what was a longray doing in The Cusp?) had appeared and announced that the Shadowcorps were on their way.
She stared around, wide-eyed and panicky. “Where's – where – did you see which way the longray went?” She couldn't hear the Shadowcorps marching anywhere nearby, but there was surely no way that the longray could have been mistaken.
“No longray, gloam wrongsay,” said the fauxbeam, splintering into six and looking a little embarrassed at having to correct her. Flick shuddered. She hated it when they split up like that.
“There was definitely a longray,” said Flick, feeling impatient. “Look, I can't hang around here waiting for the Shadowcorps to come and get me. I've got to go.”
She bit her bottom lip for a moment, considering, and then decided that the safest course had to be carrying on down the alley way and then working her way gradually around to the street with the pawnbroker again. So long as they didn't find her in the middle of a fight, they wouldn't have any reason to take her prisoner. Unless there was a Wanted Poster out there somewhere with her description on it from the flare fair – and in that case, all the more reason for her to take Indigo's beautiful necklace to the pawn broker and swap it for some money.
It worried her, a little, wondering where on earth the longray had gone, and what it could possibly have been doing in The Cusp, but she didn't have time to think about it.
“Come and go, to and fro, no more gloamling, all aloneling,” said the fauxbeam sadly as Flick set off down the alley. She felt an unexpected twinge of guilt.
“Look, you'll be fine,” she said briskly, glancing back over her shoulder. “See, you're already – you – oh!”
Because her gaze had slipped down to the fauxbeam's prism, and to Flick's utter astonishment, it was a shape she knew. Her shape. Her boy. Just like the prism she'd seen on the Honourable Obfuscous back in the flareground. Flick stared down at the fauxbeam's prism, and then at her own, and then at the fauxbeam's once more, and she felt as though she'd just been kicked hard in the stomach all over again. Or maybe, this time, in the heart. There was that same unwanted sense of connection, as though somebody had handcuffed her to the fauxbeam whilst she wasn't looking. As though the fauxbeam were somehow part of her, and she'd never even realised it until this moment.
“You and me are truly we,” said the fauxbeam in wistful tones.
“I – I really have to go,” said Flick, guilty and desperate and torn.
“Can we come?” asked the fauxbeam, sounding almost sane.
Flick swallowed hard, glancing up at the mouth of the alley in expectation of armed soldiers appearing at any moment. Obviously the fauxbeam couldn't come. The very last thing she needed was some fritterbrained fauxbeam floating around after her when she was setting off on an important quest. It was difficult enough asking sunshadows to take her seriously when she was a gloam; if she was a gloam who chose to hang around with fauxbeams, her credibility would be nonexistant.
“I – I guess so?” she said, astonishing herself. The fauxbeam's smile spread across its six see-through faces like a sequence of falling dominos, and when it reached out its overlapping hands Flick found herself accepting its tingling grip automatically. It wasn't actually all that unpleasant, when one got over the strangeness.
“Finding home with kindly gloam,” it said in its singsong voice, sounding so happy that she hadn't the heart to tell it this was just temporary.
“What's your name?” she asked. She couldn't keep on thinking of it as 'The Fauxbeam'.
“Stolenrefrain is our only name,” said the fauxbeam, sounding a little reproachful. Upon reflection, Flick supposed it had tried to tell her that already.
“Okay,” she said. “Well – I'm Flick. Pleased to meet you, I guess?”
“Quick, Flick!” it said in half a dozen teasing tones all at once, sounding gleeful as it tried tugging her deeper into the alley. “You go too slow!”
Flick found herself laughing in spite of herself as she began to run.