What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Toward the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
from “Burnt Norton,” T.S. Eliot
Mika stopped at the cafe’s entrance, quickly glancing around the dining room and hoping that–despite him being nearly twenty minutes late–Dahlu hadn’t already arrived. But he quickly spotted her waving from a table halfway to the restaurant’s back, and made his way toward her.
Her glass of wine stood half-empty; she’d just been picking at the complimentary charcuterie plate. As he pulled out his chair, she said, “You’re not just getting off work now, are you?”
“I’m afraid so.” It was a fair question; he should have been off the clock at six, and they’d scheduled the dinner a full hour after that. “A big job came in late and I stayed to help Frid run it.”
While he spoke the waitress set down his own charcuterie, four parchment-thin slices of cold meat and crispbread. “Are you ready to order, or do you need a few more minutes, sir?”
“I’ll have the braised mutton fillet,” Dahlu said, handing her menu to the Vraini woman.
She nodded with a polite smile, and turned to Mika, who’d picked up his menu and hurriedly fumbled through it. “Chicken something,” he muttered. “Ah. Fricassee. The chicken fricassee, please. And a pale ale.”
“Very good.” She smiled, taking Mika’s menu, and headed back to the kitchen.
Mika layered the meat–all of it–on top of the bread and took a larger bite of his makeshift sandwich than polite, then did his best not to look like he had too big a mouthful.
Dahlu brushed back her hair with a hand, and picked up her wine glass, watching him. “No time for lunch?”
He shook his head sheepishly, swallowing the bite and eating the rest more carefully.
“When’s the last time you had enough free time to finish a piece?”
“Last month. I have sketches for a few others, they’re just… not coming together yet. They’re missing something.”
“You say that about all of your work.”
“Just most of it,” he said with a faint grin. The ale had appeared as if by magic while he was speaking. Somehow that level of service made him uncomfortable. Dahlu thought of this as a casual cafe, but it always made him feel underdressed.
“Mmm.” Dahlu didn’t smile back as she took another sip of her wine. “Where do you want to be in three years? Where do you want us to be? Are you going to still be working at a print shop for low wages, living in a flat?”
“Instead of being an up-and-coming painter living off his high society wife? Pardon, I’d be the live-in lover.”
Dahlu stiffened. “That’s not fair.”
“It’s not polite, but you’ve said yourself that your parents wouldn’t approve of you marrying me.”
“Because you work at a–” Her voice was starting to rise, but she modulated it quickly as the waitress approached again, setting down the plates of food. “Thank you,” she said to the vixen, all smiles.
Mika nodded his thanks to the Vraini, and finished for Dahlu, “Print shop. Which means I’m beneath you.”
“All they’re seeing is income.” She sighed, stabbing at a piece of mutton. The food’s fancy presentation belied the modest ingredients, the mutton sliced and fanned out over a bed of risotto. “And what they think your prospects are. But I know your prospects are a lot more, Mika.”
“I’m not going to be a famous painter with bright financial prospects in another three years. You know that.”
“If you quit your job”–she lifted a hand as he started to object, and raised her voice enough to speak over him–“and painted full time, you might be. Why won’t you do that?”
“Your parents and half your friends already assume I’m involved with you because I want your money. I don’t want to prove them right.”
“I don’t see much danger of that.” She jabbed at another slice of mutton more fiercely. “You’ll barely let me buy you gifts.”
He cleared his throat, cutting off a piece of the chicken and taking his time to chew.
“Look,” she said, leaning forward to catch and hold his eyes with her luminous blue ones, “I’m not asking you to come to any big decisions right now. But I want you to be thinking about them. And I want you to stop being worried about accepting help from me.”
He nodded after a moment, looking back until her gaze released him.
“Thank you for last night,” she said after a few moments. “For putting me to bed afterward.” She tilted her head to one side and smiled. “As exasperating as you are, you’re awfully romantic.”
“That’s usually a polite way of saying ‘impractical.’”
“Not this time. You are impractical, mind you, but that’s unrelated.”
“What did you do the rest of the night?”
“Went back home.” He hesitated.
“And…?” she said, lifting her brows at the hesitation.
After a few moments passed, he cleared his throat. “I met the bat again.”
Dahlu’s eyes widened. “You went back to the docks?”
“No, she came looking for me.”
“Three Mothers. Are you all right? Did you call the Guard?”
He held up a hand. “I didn’t need to call them. We just talked.” He swallowed self-consciously. “She was, ah, trying to find out why I was trying to find out about her, I guess.”
“That makes two of us.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Did you… settle this?”
“Yes.” He nodded hurriedly. “We’re on good terms now. I learned a lot.”
Her tail flicked, whacking against the chair’s leg. “So. Settled?”
He flicked his ears, unsure what to make of her emphasis on the word. “Yes.”
She nodded slowly.
After a few more moments passed, he cleared his throat. “When’s your next party?”
“Four weeks. It’s the autumn equinox.”
“Right.” That tended to be one of Dahlu’s more relaxed productions, unlike the solstice parties, which seemed to have half the city in attendance.
“I hope you won’t duck out of that one early without warning.”
He grinned. “I won’t.”
When the check came, they both reached for it, but Dahlu slapped Mika’s hand until he withdrew it with a self-conscious laugh.
“You misspelled ‘performance’ there.” Frid didn’t seem to have even looked at the plate Mika had just finished composing; the L’rovri had just walked past carrying a roll of blank paper, unlit cigar clenched in his lupine muzzle as always.
“Where–dammit.” Mika grumbled and brought the poster-sized plate back to the compositor, locking it into place, then moved in front of the machine’s keyboard. As he clicked the dials back to the right typeface and size, guide wires ratcheted to the proper line height; he slid them along the plate until they aligned with the miscreant word. To add a letter, he’d have to wipe out that whole line. Sighing, he flipped the lever to the editing position, and retyped the line out. Glowing blue letters formed between the wires as he typed. He double-checked the spelling and centered the line with another dial, then pushed the mode lever down once more to set the type. There was a brief spark as the line of metal on the plate rearranged into the new letters.
Moving the lever back to the release position, Mika waited what seemed an interminable length of time–although it was barely five seconds–before the machine deemed the plate safe to touch and unlocked it again. He picked it up, surveying it for any more missed typos, then brought it over to the press, struggling a bit with its size as he slid it into place, and started the press running.
With heavy parchment paper for posters, the press couldn’t be roll-fed, and it took even longer than usual for each page. The thirty-third poster came out light and splotched. Looking back along the rollers, Mika could see the ink tray had run nearly dry, and a thin, steady stream of black pooled on the stone floor under the machinery. Swearing, he hit the dead switch, and the gears–and ink flow–came to a stop.
The wolf was already leaning over to look at the line. “I think it just worked its way outta the socket there.”
“Again.” Mika took a rag and worked at fitting the metal piping back into the socket. Despite the rag, ink dribbled on Mika’s hands as he worked, and he swore again under his breath. “If we can set the plates with magic, why can’t we just print with magic?”
“Strembley and Sons showed off a press that did somethin’ like that,” Frid said, actually taking the cigar out of his mouth and sketching in the air as he spoke. “You have a pane of glass you set a page on instead of a plate. When it’s the way you want, you just set a stack of cut paper on top of the glass, pull a print lever and presto.”
“How much does that cost?” Mika tightened the new line back into place, trying to ignore another ink dribble down onto his fingers.
He shrugged. “Not for sale and they’re not saying, and I’d be surprised if we see it anywhere outside Raneadhros for a decade. It’s not good for real high-volume stuff until they get it into a roll press, anyway.” Then Frid looked at the clock. “Hey, I’m late for a date I gotta keep. You can close up, right?”
Mika looked at the clock, too. An hour past when he was supposed to have left, and he still had two-thirds of the poster run to do. After, of course, he fired the machine back up and ran it through a test cycle. “Yeah. I can.”
Just as Mika finished locking up he heard the clock tower sound off seven chimes. He sighed. The pre-imperial tradition of marking three hour intervals with the bells seemed quaint–or just confusing–to tourists, but when you normally left work at sixth chime, the seventh sounded awfully sour.
He’d made it halfway to Ted’s before he was conscious of exactly where he’d set out for. This time of night, most of the tables were full and drinkers overflowed out of the bar area and into the street. The light was dim but the air was bright, acrid with alcohol and grease, mixed with the odors of grime and rust and sea salt clinging to half the patrons. Mika edged his way through the door and headed to the booths in back.
He’d almost finished his sandwich–the same type he’d had on his last visit–when someone shouted, “Hey!” and footsteps rapidly approached. Mika turned hurriedly, suddenly imagining Jesse’s ex-gang coming after him. Not that they should have any way to know what he looked like.
Instead he saw the vixen, Orlonda, hurrying up to the table, a glass of beer in hand. “It’s you!” she exclaimed. “You out looking for Revar again?”
“I found her once. Or she found me, if you want to be accurate.”
“Yeah, I heard that.” She sat down opposite him. “That’s why I asked.”
“You don’t think I’d be back here for just a sandwich?”
“No.” She grinned. “I mean, I think Ted’s got the best brisket on spelt around, but I don’t think you’re the kind of guy who’d come here just for a sandwich. And you could get sloshed anywhere. Somebody like you, you gotta seek a place like this out.”
“Somebody like me, huh?” He laughed. “I had a bad day at work and I found myself heading this way, and this is where I ended up. I wasn’t really thinking about meeting Revar again.”
“She works nights, but only a half-shift on Friday. If you wait around until after midnight I can take to where I bet she’ll be.”
He flicked his ears, wondering if Orlonda had listened at all to what he’d just said. With a soft sigh, he focused on the sandwich again. It was not brisket on spelt. “Like I said before, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“Why not? She likes you.”
“She said that?”
She sipped her beer. “It’s obvious enough.”
“What with her not ripping my throat out and all?”
Orlonda laughed again. “Hey, that’s pretty important, isn’t it?”
He stared at her, then laughed, too. “Okay. But I should still probably head home by midnight, not out somewhere else.”
Shrugging, she again continued as if she had no interest in his opinions about his own plans. “When she gets off work on Fridays she usually goes to this all-night coffee shop down on Leeward Street. Four blocks south of here, left and then another three.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
Her gaze sharpened, and she appraised him like a jeweler with a rough diamond. “You do that,” she said after a few seconds had passed, sliding out of her seat and clapping him on the shoulder as she stood up. “I got a couple other people I should catch up with, but I’ll see you around. If you’re still here later I’ll walk to the coffee shop with you.”
“Well–” he started, but she’d already started walking away.
Mika pursed his lips, looking at his beer. Had he just offended her? If he had, should he really care? He finished his sandwich in a slightly more sullen mood, and ordered another beer afterward, then a third. Then he left the bar.
A crowd still jostled outside the doorway, but ten yards past Ted’s doorway the air of camaraderie dissipated. The street was far from empty–this was hardly the only waterfront bar–but pedestrians were few and carriages fewer, and both moved purposefully. Mika didn’t; as disconnected as he felt from the dockworkers’ end-of-week celebrating, he had no interest in going home. This time, though, he avoided alleyways and stuck to a well-lit route. He ambled down the street along the waterfront itself, studying the sea-beaten boats, the way the hulls broke up the reflections of lamplight on the black glass of the water.
The clock chimes sounded far in the distance, and he came to a stop, listening to them over the soft lapping of the tide, counting them off to eight.
He looked across the street at the corner signpost. Bowsprit. That meant he’d walked about five blocks south of Ted’s.
“Oh, hell,” he muttered aloud, walking back north. After a block, he crossed the street.
The coffee shop wasn’t hard to find; the first two blocks of Leeward had no open businesses at all. He wondered if Revar would even be there–did she have that predictable a routine?–but as he approached, he could see her through the plate glass windows, sitting in a corner booth, her back to his approach.
He walked up and rapped on the glass. The Derysi looked up. Her expressions were still hard to read, but that one was clearly surprise. Mika mimicked trying to wedge his fingers between the window and its frame. Revar smirked and pointed at the front door.
As he walked up to her table, she said, “Okay, don’t even think about telling me you just happened to be in the area.”
“Well, no. Um–” He hesitated with his hand on the bench opposite hers, looking at her inquiringly.
She waved him to sit, with wingtip rather than hand.
“Thank you. No, I’d gone to Ted’s after work and ran into your fox friend there, and she said you’d be here after midnight.”
Revar had a plate of three pastries in front of her, with a cup of coffee a size too large for someone who claimed she shouldn’t be drinking it. She picked one of the pastries apart with her claws as she spoke. “So you wanted to see me again, but you still don’t know why, right?”
“Well–” He smiled lopsidedly. “You know, I really didn’t set out to see you tonight. I just had a bad day at work after a bad week and I ended up heading down here to relax.”
“To relax,” she echoed. “Instead of going back uptown to bonk Sexfluff, you came down to the docks where you nearly got mugged to hang out in a seedy bar and then wander around after midnight looking for a blood-drinking woman who’s threatened your life. To relax.”
“You make that sound so strange,” Mika said, keeping his face perfectly straight.
Revar stared at him a few moments, then burst out laughing, leaning back in her seat.
He laughed too, running a hand through his hair. “Hey, you said if I wanted to talk I should look you up. I wanted to talk to you sometime when… I guess when I wasn’t too frightened to think clearly.” Mika felt surprised as he spoke; he’d thought about Revar during the week, but hadn’t considered going looking for her. Until he’d actually done it.
“Talk to me about what?”
Mika paused and let out a breath, feeling like he’d stepped out onto ice starting to crack under him. “I…” No, time to start moving forward, even if he didn’t know where to. “You. I mean, what you do, where you’re from. What things are like here for people who aren’t just wandering down here once or twice a month looking for trouble.”
Revar took a sip of coffee, and dismembered a cruller before eating a large piece. “Why?” she finally said. Her tone wasn’t challenging now, but confused, even a little plaintive.
“You’re the first friend I’ve made down here.”
Her brow furrowed, and she remained silent. He could imagine her thinking, Friends? We’re friends? It’s a hell of a leap from “not killing you” to “friends.” After an uncomfortably long time passed, she nodded once, slowly.
A waitress came by and took Mika’s order for coffee. After she left, Revar began to speak. “What I do is work at the docks as a loader. I’m damn strong for my size, so I’m pretty good at it, and it pays all right. The guys know I’m a vampire and they’re not real eager to spend time with me after work, so I can’t say I’ve got many friends myself.
“As for where I’m from, just around here. Never been out of Rionar, except for one time, when Jemara and I flew to Raneadhros.”
“How is it? I’ve never been there myself.”
“Big. I mean, you can’t know how big until you see it. Only place I’ve ever met other bats besides Jemara and my mother.” She grunted. “Derysi, I guess I should say. What else does your book say about us?”
“Some things that sounded hard to believe,” he said with a faint grin. “That you have to take blood from sapients, for instance.”
“Yeah. That’s mostly true.”
“What?” His eyes widened. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“We take blood from other things, it’ll work for a couple weeks, maybe a month. Then we get sick, fast.”
“But–blood is just blood. Isn’t it?”
She shrugged, sighing. “I bet there isn’t a bat out there that hasn’t tried not to live off other people. But we can’t. And you know what else? The longer the blood’s been out of a body, the less it does for us. And the longer we go without having it, the more we take when we finally catch prey. It’s pretty much like we’re designed to be evil to every other race.” She didn’t bother to keep the bitterness out of her tone.
The waitress set coffee down in front of Mika and left quickly, glancing back at Revar over her shoulder as she hurried away.
“The book said there were stories your race…” He hesitated, then continued, “that Derysi didn’t evolve, but that they were created through some magical curse.”
She picked up her own coffee, and remained silent for a few seconds. “I don’t know much about what I am, I guess, but we have a story of our lost paradise, a land we ruled and never had to hunt in.” She paused for a sip. “So maybe that curse story is the same legend, just written by the food.”
Mika’s tail curled around his legs, and he focused his gaze on the coffee mug until the nervousness passed, taking a long drink of the coffee afterward despite its still too-hot temperature.
“So anything you want to talk about besides my feeding habits? Tell me about your art.”
“What about it?”
Even though her eyes made it nearly impossible to discern her pupils, Mika got the distinct impression she’d just rolled them. “What do you like to paint?”
He shrugged. “Landscapes. Places I’ve been. Nothing that interesting, I guess.”
“Why paint stuff you’re not interested in?”
“I want my paintings to sell, eventually,” he replied with a faint grin.
“So you’ve tried selling stuff that you actually like to paint?” Her tone had a current of smugness; she already knew the answer.
Mika sighed. “I don’t know what else it is I want to paint.”
“I’m thinking that’s kinda an important step.”
He grunted. “Now you’re sounding like Dahlu.”
“So listen to her.” She waved a hand, her wing extending slightly with the motion, making it far more grandly sweeping. “You might fall on your ass, but at least you’ll know.”
He grunted. “Yeah, I suppose.” Then he grinned lopsidedly. “Maybe I should paint you.”
“Actively scare the buyers. Good idea.”
“I bet it’d be striking. You’re striking.”
She smiled a little lopsidedly herself, and finished her coffee in silence. Then she glanced at him sidewise, black eyes glinting. “You feel like doing anything tonight?”
“Like what? It’s pretty late.”
“Not to me.”
“Well. Uh.” He ran a hand through his hair.
“Look, if you think being seen with me on the town in public is unfaithful to Sexfluff, I won’t put any pressure on you.”
“That’s not it.”
“Would she think you were being unfaithful by talking with me now?”
“No, she’d just be worried you were going to kill me.”
She let out a wry laugh. “Right.” Then she stood up. “Well, I’ll at least walk you home. You never know what kind of scary person you might meet out here, right?”
He grinned. “Good point.”
They walked a block in companionable silence. Revar was the first to break it. “You’re kinda rare for not being afraid of being seen with me, you know.”
“Really? I’m not afraid you’re going to bite me by now.”
“Yeah, I know. But I guess it’s like the dockworkers being afraid of being seen with someone gay.”
“I think that’s because they’re afraid they’ll be mistaken as gay themselves, right? I don’t think anyone’s going to mistake me for a vampire bat.”
She laughed, then paused, looking off the side down an alley. “Damn,” she muttered.
“I kinda… need something from that guy.”
He raised his brows, squinting until he could make out the gaunt human, wrapped in tattered blankets, sleeping against the damp brick wall in the alleyway.
“Sorry about this, but I haven’t eaten in a few days. You might wanna keep on going and let me catch up with you.”
Mika gaped. “Wait–”
“I can’t,” she said softly. Then she faced the alley, her demeanor changing; her arms moved slightly outward, and she dropped to a crouch.
“Dammit, you don’t know–stop!” Mika ran in front of her. She looked up. Her eyes were as black and unforgiving as they had been when they first met, her fangs bared to their full length. He flinched, but managed to stand his ground.
Her hands wrapped around either side of his torso, claws digging in just enough to hurt a little. She straightened and extended her arms, lifting him a foot off the ground with no apparent effort, then pivoted and set him down to one side. Without a word, she resumed her hunting stance and stalked forward.
Perhaps some god watched over the derelict that night; he woke up when she was within ten feet of him and stared blankly at her, then sat up, his eyes focusing on her teeth. By the time his face registered comprehension, the god’s attention had moved elsewhere.
“No–” the man started to say, rising to one knee and swinging wildly. The bat deflected the blow with a wing, catching his face in her claw. As he grabbed her arm, she straddled him and pushed back hard with her other hand, forcing him against the wall. The hand on his face moved to cover only his mouth and tightened, tilting his head back to expose a sunburned neck. He struggled harder, knowing what was coming and that he would be unable to stop it. As he twisted, he saw Mika, standing in the shadows, and stretched out a desperate arm to him. When Mika didn’t move, his eyes grew even wider, and he began to yell into Revar’s palm.
She lowered her head to the man’s shoulder, mouth opening wide. The hand grasping toward Mika came around, beating roughly but futiley against the bat’s back. Her wings closed around him, cloaking his torso; then he jerked, his entire body convulsing for a split second. The stifled scream seemed as loud as thunder, going on for ages, getting weaker but more desperate with each passing second. Then he lapsed into a quiet whimper. The sound of Revar’s drinking became audible, and Mika turned away, trying not to gag.
When she finally let go, she stood over her prey for a second, wiping her mouth. The wounds on his neck were not the two neat holes from children’s vampire stories. They were big, diagonal gashes from her upper canines and a ragged slash from her lower teeth. The blood was only a rivulet now, flowing down into his shirt. He made no move to stop it, only drawing his legs against his chest and hugging them with both arms, staring off into space. He whispered something Mika couldn’t hear; Revar shook her head curtly, almost scornfully, and held out a bandage. He stared at it blankly. She dropped it in his lap and walked back to where Mika stood, still paralyzed; she glanced at him and continued down the treet.
The man remained in a fetal position, the bandage draped uselessly over his leg, as Mika turned and caught up with Revar.
It took several minutes for him to break the silence. “You have blood on your lower lip.”
She wiped it off, not looking at him.
“What did he say?”
She sighed. “He asked if he was going to die.”
“You could have–”
“Could have what?” she snapped, whirling on him. He felt a sudden, sharp anger from her, and stepped back involuntarily. “Made it easier for him? How?”
Mika looked at the ground. “You could have apologized.”
“I’m not sorry,” she hissed.
“Aren’t you afraid he’ll recognize you later?”
“That’s why I mostly pick people who can’t do anything about it,” she said curtly.
He swallowed, and walked on in silence.
Soon they crossed into the Northwestern District, and Mika’s building was visible. Revar turned toward him. “I shouldn’t’ve done that in front of you, I guess.” She snorted. “Again.”
He shrugged slightly.
“Right.” She sighed. “Tough to convince somebody I’m not a monster if I keep acting like one.”
Mika turned to face her and smiled a little. “You’re not. I can’t say that doesn’t scare me, but we’re past the monster part now.”
She touched his hand briefly, then crouched down, knees folded, wings extended, claws resting on the ground. “I’ll see you later, kitten.”
Revar raised her arms, wingtips rising above Mika’s head, then leaped up, bringing her wings down hard as she moved. The arc of her jump took her feet to his eye level; as she reached it, her wings had already come up and were pushing down again. Her feet moved down, coming out of the jump, then her legs straightened and she moved up once more, as if she had jumped a second time starting in midair. She flapped powerfully, seeming to balance precariously in space for a full second as her wings moved faster than he thought possible. On the sixth flap, as she began to fall, it was as if a tether had been cut. She soared into the sky, climbing far above the roof of his building in a heartbeat. She circled higher, dipping a wing in farewell, and flew away southward, a dark wiry shadow slicing between ground and stars.
“You’re supposed to move from the shoulder, not the wrist.”
Mika glanced up in irritation. “Seriously? You’re an art critic now, too?”
“Hey, just what I heard.” Revar sat on the windowsill of Mika’s flat, her back against one side and her right foot against the other, sharp toeclaws digging into the soft wood frame. Her left leg hung loosely over the side, the foot barely resting on the floor. Her right arm was stretched over her head, hand on the top of the window and wing partly unfolded, blocking most of the outside view.
Mika was in a beanbag facing her posed figure, a sketchpad on his lap and a lead stick held–incorrectly, according to his model–in his right hand. “Hold still.”
“I am still.”
“You’re talking. That means you’re moving.”
He drew for a few more minutes, then turned away, still sketching. “I have a basic rough done. All I really have to do now is clean it up a bit.”
She hopped down from the sill and crossed over to him, staring over his shoulder. “You’re drawing me nude?”
“I have to get the figure first. And considering that bathing suit you have on, I’ll only have to add three or four lines to detail it.”
“It’s not a bathing suit.”
She made a hmph noise. “Ha ha. These don’t get in the way when I’m flying or fighting.”
“And you enjoy the looks they get you.”
“A little.” She grinned. “As much as I might scare ’em, half the guys I work with look like they want to jump me if I bend over or lift something over my head.”
He looked up. “Lift something…?”
She picked up a chair and demonstrated, bending back slightly. Her chest pressed against the little fabric that composed her top, outlining her breasts in explicit detail.
Mika shook his head, forcing away any comment on her body. “You wouldn’t be as likely to tease big male chauvinists if you didn’t know they were already scared of you.”
Revar shrugged. “Might as well have a little fun with it. You finished yet?”
“Hold on.” He sketched furiously, then produced a gum eraser and started dabbing at the paper carefully.
“Oh, give me that,” she snapped, pushing the eraser aside. “Do I really look like that?”
“That’s as close as I can get.”
“Not what I mean, kitten. You made me… prettier than I am.”
“I don’t think so,” Mika said. He realized he hadn’t quite let himself think about how pretty Revar actually was before; he cleared his throat, feeling a little disoriented.
She studied it a few seconds more, then moved away, pushing it into his lap. “So finish cleaning it up, paint it and sell it.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Sure it is. You have nothing to lose but pride.”
He glared at her.
A faint knock sounded on the door. “Uh-oh,” Mika said. “I hadn’t realized it was this late.”
“Late?” Revar laughed. “Being up this early is unholy. But if you insist on hanging around me, we’re bound to meet sooner or later. Might as well be now.”
Mika crossed to the door and opened it. Dahlu kissed him warmly; as she let go of him and stepped inside, she saw the bat.
“Hello,” Revar said, standing up and extending a hand (relieving Mika of the nagging fear that she would say you must be Sexfluff! when she finally met Dahlu). The cat said nothing, staring at the bat open-mouthed. Revar’s clothes did look like a cross between a bathing suit and lingerie. Mika winced inwardly. At least they weren’t black lace.
Dahlu opened her mouth, as if to say something to Revar, but no sound came out. Finally she took the bat’s hand, very gingerly. “This is, is, is, kind of unexpected.” She looked at Mika. “This is the Derysi you mentioned.”
“And she’s… here.”
“I’m painting her.”
“Oh,” Dahlu said, letting go of Revar’s hand. “I’m Dahlu. If Mika hasn’t mentioned me.”
“He has, yeah. I’m Revar.” She raised her hands. “And since you’re wondering this but you’re gonna be way too polite to ask directly, no, I don’t have any plans to either steal your boyfriend or eat him.”
Dahlu laughed uncomfortably, her tail flicking. “That’s a relief, but I do trust Mika’s judgement.”
“Good to hear,” Mika said a little dryly. “I’ll go get dinner going.”
Revar nodded. “I should get on my way, then.”
“You’re welcome to stay,” Mika said. Dahlu gave him a surprised look, quickly modulated into a pleasant mask when she looked back at the bat.
Revar looked between the two and shook her head, flexing her wings. The motion made Dahlu jump slightly. “No, no, I’ve got stuff to do, kitten, and I don’t want to be… to be… an imposition. I’ll see you later. Nice meeting you, Dahlu.”
The Melifen woman nodded. “You too.”
After Revar left, Dahlu sat down at the table and stared into space. “She called you ‘kitten.’”
“She called me that the first time we met.”
“When she tried to kill you.” Dahlu steepled her hands on the table and started fidgeting. “Isn’t it unusual to use a term of endearment when you’re being threatening?”
“It’s a pet name.”
Mika shrugged, heading into the kitchen.
“She was really here as a model?” she asked after a moment.
“Yes. The sketch is on the couch.”
Dahlu got up and examined it, pursing her lips. “She’s… quite the model.”
“She’s pretty striking, yes.”
“She is. I wasn’t expecting that, honestly.” She ran a hand through her hair.
“A man can be friends with a woman without being her lover.”
“Of course. So you consider her a friend?”
“And you’ve been seeing her at night?”
He laughed. “That’s when she’s up. This is the earliest I’ve ever seen her out, love. I’ve only seen her a few times. I spend time with the few friends I have. It’s one of my little quirks.”
“Don’t patronize me. I’m just worried.”
“Just because she doesn’t have anything in common with you doesn’t make her dangerous.”
“I’m not worried because she’s low society, Mika,” she snapped. “I’m worried because she kills people.”
“Not normally. She really doesn’t. Jesse’s gang–”
“You told me that. I understand. I do.” She let out a long, shuddering breath. “I’m just concerned about you being that… that close to her.”
“Are you worried because she’s another woman, or because she’s a bat?”
“Both,” she replied in a matter of fact tone. “But honestly, mostly it’s the being a bat.”
Mika looked over at her, then continued preparing the food. “I think we’ve established I’m off the menu.”
“Even if that’s true, what about her friends? Or possibly worse, her enemies?”
Mika’s ears started to set back. “Dahlu, I don’t lecture you about your friends, and some of them I’d trust considerably less than Revar. Please don’t tell me who my friends should be.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Yes, it is. Give her a chance. I’m pretty sure she’s willing to give you one.”
Dahlu watched him for a moment longer, then went back to the couch, sitting with her hands folded on her lap.
Mika didn’t feel like giving ground this time, though. “You just said you trusted my judgement. Do you mean it or not?”
“I’m beginning to wonder about my own,” she muttered.
He stiffened. “What the hell does that mean?”
She winced, and shook her head. “That was out of line. I’m sorry.” She sighed, standing up. “Look. I really don’t think I should stay for dinner tonight.”
Mika dropped what he was doing and came toward her. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice softening. “Dahlu, I don’t want to–”
“No,” she said, holding up a hand. “It’s not you. It’s me. I just need time to do a little thinking on my own. Okay?”
He watched her, biting his lip. “I love you, Dahlu.”
There was a long pause before she responded. “I love you, too, Mika. Please remember that.”
He turned back toward her, but she was gone. He stared at the closed door for a moment longer, then went back into the kitchen, put away the food and stared at the wall as the sunlight faded from the window.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” he asked Revar for the second time.
“No,” she said, grabbing the padlock in one hand and squeezing. There was a loud, wrenching click, and it popped open; she unhooked it and swung the gate open silently. “After you.”
Mika looked down at the lock. The thick metal was crumpled and snapped, one of the tumblers physically pushed outside its case. “Damn,” he said, turning a little pale.
“I’m a predator,” she said simply.
At sunset, the park had been cleaned and locked for the night. The empty grounds were filled with mute shades of dark green, insect sounds, the faint smell of wood and flowers. The moon shone brightly, illuminating the paved path down the garden’s center as they strolled along. It was the largest park in the city, east of the downtown area and spanning tens of city blocks in both directions. Mika had never seen it at night, of course; under starlight, it was transformed from simple greenspace into an eerily beautiful world disconnected from the rest of creation. He felt as if he had crossed a magical line into Faerie, accompanied by a dark and lithe winged elf.
“Don’t you worry about getting caught doing this?”
“Not too much. Nobody comes around here at night. And I can fly.”
“So you’d just leave me to get caught.”
She grinned. “You wouldn’t die in prison, you’d just be unhappy.”
“Neither of us would die. They don’t lock you up for life for vandalism.”
“Locking me up for a few weeks would kill me. It’s not like they’d bring me people to bite. I’d die of starvation.”
“Wow.” He lashed his tail, contemplating that. “I think they’d have to come up with something, though.”
“Maybe.” They walked on, passing by several smaller, unpaved paths that crisscrossed the park. “Do you think your fluffball is going to forgive you for being my friend?”
“Yes. But it’s going to take some time,” he sighed. “She wasn’t very happy when she left the other night.”
“Did she see the sketch?”
“Yes.” He snorted. “That was part of the problem.”
“I don’t–oh. Oh.” Revar laughed. “Shit. Proof I’m a rival for your affection, huh?”
“She hasn’t said it quite so bluntly yet.”
“Well, she should’ve forced you to sketch her. Sounds like we’re both just trying to push you to pick up your brush more. She should’ve looked at your sketch and been happy about how good it was.”
He shook his head. “It wasn’t that good.”
“It was beautiful, Mika.” He looked over at her; it was one of the few times she had used his name. “You do want to be an artist, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” He sighed. “I do. But I don’t know how to make a living that way.”
They had reached the park’s center; a pool of water blocked their path, a dragon-shaped fountain carved out of blue marble spraying water from its mouth high into the air. Revar sat down on the edge of the pool and motioned Mika down beside her.
“You just paint. And keep doing it. That’s what you have to make a living at.” She shrugged. “Anything else is just a job. Loading–that’s just a job. I don’t know what my living is yet. You’re luckier than I am. You’ve already found yours.”
“I can’t just drop everything and do what I want.”
“You should always do what you want.”
“Come on, that’s not true.” He shook his head vigorously. “Think about what things would be like if everybody did what they wanted. What if I wanted to go out and set fire to buildings? What if I wanted to go out and rape people?”
“What if you were gonna murder people with axes, chop ‘em up and put em in dumplings? Better never go near an axe, just in case.”
He crossed his arms.
“I’m serious.” The bat spread her hands. “Is rape your idea of fun?”
“Of course not.”
“What kinda person would say yes?”
“Right. And you’re not a monster. I try not to be one.” She grinned. “But you can’t make every damn choice in your life by asking what would cause the least damage if you were a monster. It means you’ll never do anything.”
“That doesn’t mean you can follow every dream.”
“No, but it means you need to stop acting like you can’t follow any dream.”
He remained silent for a while. “What if I don’t know what my dreams are?”
“You gotta find out.”
“I still don’t know if I could make enough money by painting.”
“Then you gotta find out if the problem there is the painting, or what you think of as ‘enough money.’ Do you really wanna stay working in the print shop forever?”
“No. Do you want to stay on the docks forever?”
“No.” She shook her head. “But I have to think I got a place somewhere, right? I know for me, it’s probably a city. Probably a bigger one than this. Maybe Raneadhros. Cities make me happy.”
“What would you do there?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t expect to live nearly as long as you, kitten. I could die any day. But when I do, I can say that for as much of the time as I could, I lived. Not just existed. How many people twice my age can say that?”
“I don’t know.” He stared into the water. “You don’t seem too happy most of the time.”
“Don’t be so quick to think that. The last few weeks I’ve been pretty cheered up.” She smiled; after a moment, he smiled back, a little sheepishly.
“Thanks. I think.”
“No. Thank you,” she said softly, tilting her head. Mika watched her, unsure what to do. He fought back the sudden impulse to give her a kiss.
Suddenly she stood up, extended her wings, and leaped onto the body of the dragon.
“What the hell are you doing?” he said, standing up.
She peered around the side of the dragon, then stuck her hand down its mouth. The water spurted out in a ragged arc. “Aiming.” She moved her hand slightly, and the water shot toward Mika. He yelped and jumped out of the way. Laughing, she kept the water focused on him until he got to the side of the dragon.
“I’m soaked,” he sputtered, doing his best to look affronted.
Revar started to climb down, then grimaced, trying to yank her hand out of the statue’s mouth. “I’m stuck.”
“Serves you right.”
She pulled hard, but the dragon refused to let go. “You asked for it,” she told the statue, and wrapped her legs around the dragon’s side, reaching under its jaw with her free hand. She gripped the side of its mouth with her claws, digging the thumb into its base with a bone-wrenching scrape, and pulled violently. The jaw snapped off, falling into the water with a loud splash. Revar fell with it, letting out a most undignified squawk! as she hit the pool.
“Are you okay?” Mika said, running over to her. “Your wings–”
She spurted water into the air. “Look, I’m a piranha,” she said, shaking off.
“Being soaked looks nice on you.”
She laughed. “You mean it makes my top see through.”
“Yes.” He extended a hand, helping her out of the pool.
Revar looked back at the dragon. It looked sadly pathetic with only an upper jaw; the fountain’s stream had acquired a sharp cant downward to the right, barely landing in the pool. “Think anyone will notice?” she said.
“There’s a pretty good chance.” They walked away from the statue, heading back to the gate. “Between the lock and the statue you’ve probably caused a few hundred vars worth of damage.”
“If you’d like, I could push over a few trees for good measure.” She flexed her claws together.
As they walked on, he suddenly turned to her. “You should come to Dahlu’s equinox party.”
She laughed. “Seriously? You know she wouldn’t approve.”
“Even if you two are never going to be friends, I’d like it if you didn’t hate each other.”
“I don’t hate her, kitten.”
“Honestly, you’re not the one I’m most worried about.”
She shook her head, grinning. “I’ll think about it.” They walked out of the park hand in hand.