Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
But merely fans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
from “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot
“Taste this.” Dahlu held out a spoon with a small amount of thick, light orange goo at its tip.
Mika paused at his task of meat-slicing, sniffed it once, then licked it. “Wow. That’s good. What’s it supposed to go with?”
“Either a vegetable dip or a sandwich spread.”
“It’d be great with cold cuts.”
“Yes, but it’d be pretty in a bowl with paprika sprinkled on top.”
“Until the first vegetable got dipped in it.” He grinned.
She waved a hand. “Unavoidable. Do you think it’s spicy enough, or too spicy?”
“Hmm. It could be a bit hotter.”
She grinned. “That means it’s just right.” She wrapped the bowl of dip up in wax paper.
“I’m not that much of a spice head,” Mika snorted as she put it back in the icebox. “How many are you expecting?”
“Yes, you are. And I’m not positive. I’ve invited just under two dozen, but I’m expecting some to bring friends.”
“So it’s open for friends to drop by?” He resumed slicing.
Dahlu glanced over at him, pausing with her hand on the icebox door as it swung shut. “You’re thinking of inviting Revar, aren’t you?”
Mika faltered slightly. “Well. It was a thought. I’d like you two to… well, try and get along. You still don’t have a problem with me seeing her, right?”
She sighed. “No, and if you want to invite her, all right. I’m not sure she’ll enjoy herself very much here, though.”
“We’re not her kind of crowd, Mika.” She waved her hand around her kitchen, which wasn’t much smaller than Mika’s whole apartment. It hadn’t occurred to him before that it had likely been designed for a household with, if not live-in servants, at least hired staff.
“I’m barely your crowd,” he said wryly. She flashed him a pained look, but he continued. “I hope you’re not really just worried how your friends will react to her.”
“Truthfully?” She sighed, placing both hands on the counter and leaning forward. “Yes, I am, and vice-versa. You know more about Derysi than anyone else who’ll be there, and she still makes you nervous.”
“No, she doesn’t,” he said. “Not anymore.”
“Yes, really. I’ve seen her two or three times a week for the past, what, month now.” He realized it wasn’t the right thing to say after he had started.
“Isn’t that nice,” Dahlu said, the temperature of her tone dropping fifty degrees or so. You know as well as I do that when I tell everyone that dinner is served, half the guests will expect her to go for their throat rather than the table.”
“But she won’t–”
She raised her hands. “I know she won’t. It’s the interactions I’m worried about–what happens if someone else says something provoking. From what little you’ve told me of her, she doesn’t seem the type to look the other way at an insult.”
He crossed his arms. “You can trust your friends not to start trouble, can’t you?”
“I can’t plan for every contingency,” she said, giving him a hard stare. She shook her head and hurried out.
The L’rovri leaned back in his chair, a picture in each hand, and pursed his lips. After a moment, he set one of them back on his desk, and held the other one up. “This is the best one.”
Mika looked across the desk. It was the finished painting of Revar. He’d left the whole work nearly monochrome, the tones ranging from black to dark sepia, with glimmers of brighter color seen through the window behind the bat. “I like what you’ve done with the shadows here,” the wolf continued. “Some of the other ones you’ve executed in similar ways are effective as well. Your stippling needs work. But the effects are quite creative.
“I’d be interested in showing this one”–he gestured toward Revar’s image–“and this.” The second indicated was a dock scene, a ship being loaded at twilight; the colors were all subtle shades of cool, dark blue and grey. It wasn’t one Mika himself was that fond of. “But,” he continued, “I can make no promises. The bat woman might be a–how do they say–hard sell.”
“Even though you think it’s the best one?”
“It is not a matter of what I think, merely of what is. But it has a more limited audience, especially in the local area. The buyers here are looking for work that can be hung over the sofa and complement the carpet. She–” He tapped the mat around Revar. “She is intense. Even in the relaxed pose, you sense danger. Your color scheme only highlights that. It is a work to be appreciated more by gallery owners than by most interior decorators.”
His voice sounded slightly regretful as he continued. “In Rionar, they want flowers and sunsets. Not a portrait of someone they wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.” He frowned. “Did you use a live model for her? An actual bat?”
“Really.” He leaned forward. “Where did you find her?”
“A dark alley.”
The wolf looked at him, then grinned, showing off his impressive teeth. “You’re serious? That’s delightful.” He pulled out a small stack of papers. “Read these, and if you like them, sign. There are art dealers with smaller commissions, but most require a higher fee up front. And they are likely to display your work in the back, far away from the flowers and sunsets.”
A few minutes later Mika was standing outside Phisfir Galleries, his portfolio in one hand and the papers in the other. He shook his head, wondering what had motivated him to actually take his work to someone who might be interested.
Of course, he knew exactly what–who–had.
He walked home, feeling a disorienting mixture of happiness and confusion.
“So, how’s the criminal element?”
Jack grinned as he passed by Mika. He smiled mechanically in return, briefly picturing the fox wearing Dahlu’s gooey orange dip.
“Be polite, Jack,” a female human who had been talking at Mika for the past ten minutes said. “It sounds kind of exciting. It’d be fun to do some of the things you’re doing, Mikki–I just don’t have the nerve for that sort of lifestyle, I guess.”
“I think of it more as a life, not a lifestyle,” he said. She smiled at him blankly; he took the opportunity to excuse himself and head for the relative safety of the kitchen. “And I hate that nickname,” he said to the icebox. It didn’t reply.
He had no idea where Dahlu was. Skit, the canine, had been following her around earlier. He always did, but after being rebuffed politely–and not so politely–a few times, he usually gave up until the next party.
The doorbell went off again, for at least the twentieth time. None of the guests moved; Mika left the kitchen and got the door himself, opening it to yet another happy couple he didn’t recognize. He wondered if they even knew whose house this was. Some of the guests, he was sure, were only there because they had smelled a party nearby.
The equinox wasn’t a traditional holiday; Dahlu liked to think of herself as an unconventional hostess. Mika preferred to think of the party as celebrating his first appearance in a gallery, however small. He had only shared it himself with a few friends: beyond Dahlu herself, just Frid, Jack, and a couple school friends he saw occasionally, neither of whom were at Dahlu’s party. It occurred to him, not for the first time, that his circle of friends had no intersection with Dahlu’s other than Jack, the only person she’d introduced to him that he saw occasionally without her. Dahlu had made a point, though, to mention it to every being she came in contact with, and even this accomplishment–which had seemed so major earlier in the day–was beginning to make him somewhat numb.
The doorbell went off again, and he opened it as a reflex action, barely noticing the strangers who stepped through. He nodded perfunctorily and went back to the kitchen to refill his mead. The honey wine was one of Mika’s weaknesses, and this variety, produced up in Achoren, a remote and somewhat forbidding northern country in the Empire, was particularly good.
He wasn’t even aware of opening the door the next time the bell sounded. When it finally clicked who had just stepped through, he nearly dropped his glass.
Revar wore all light brown, and sported a skirt–of sorts–for the first time since Mika had known her. Her entire top, from where the skirt ended well below her midriff, was comprised of two narrow vertical strips of cloth, running straight up her sides under her breasts, across them and up to her shoulders, tying in a knot behind her neck. The cleavage she had seemed all the more impressive in the arrangement. The skirt itself barely covered her thighs, although by her standards it might as well have been a full-length evening gown. Two strips in front, matching the top, hung down almost to her knees, and two wider strips in back hung to just below her thighs. Over it all was a long, dark brown cloak, swooping close to the ground; as she moved, it swung enough to reveal her sides, the dress hiding almost nothing from that angle. Although he had seen her wearing less, the effect was still heart-stopping.
The conversation of those closest to the door stopped as she began to attract notice. She looked around and smiled at Mika. “Well, kitten, I made it.”
“You look… beautiful,” he managed.
“Thank you,” she said, her smile widening. “You look pretty handsome yourself.” She stepped past him, not noticing (or ignoring) the blush he felt sure was visible through his fur.
“You’re Revar?” Jack, the fox, was the first one from the nearby group to speak.
The bat raised her eyebrows in response, nodding once. “I am.”
Several people gasped audibly, passing comments about her night-black eyes in stage whispers between themselves, but Jack merely stuck out his hand. “You’re not what I expected.”
She regarded his hand with faint surprise, then grinned, showing just the tips of her teeth. “What were you expecting?”
“Hard to say, really. Maybe someone with a lighter grip.” He rubbed his wrist with his other hand, chuckling. “Dahlu and Mika have both talked about you.”
“Ah, most of it’s probably not true,” she said.
Jack laughed. “I’d hope not. It was complimentary. Mostly.” A few people nearby tittered nervously. Conversation around them picked up again, Revar being the new topic of choice.
“Would you like anything to drink?” Mika said.
“Ale, dark. Please.” Her grin showed a little strain. “Strong.”
“Right. Coming up.”
He headed off to the kitchen, bumping into Dahlu on the way. “Is that–?” she said, glancing toward the knot of people clustered around Jack and Revar.
“It is. So far Jack’s the only one who’s been bold enough to speak to her.”
She nodded. “Speaking is fine,” she said cryptically, heading back toward the patio.
When he returned with Revar’s drink, the bat had been guided to a couch. Jack was still the only one speaking to her, although a small mouse girl Mika didn’t recognize had found enough nerve to sit on the couch, too–albeit pressed into the cushions on the far end. He handed the drink to Revar and smiled at the mouse, who was so nervous she didn’t notice.
“Yes, it does,” the bat was saying, looking mildly trapped. “There’s not a whole lot I can do about it, either.”
Jack raised his hands in apology. “I’m sorry. I can’t help but be interested, but I don’t want to keep you on the spot.”
Revar looked somewhat relieved and took a large swallow of ale.
“Why don’t you go after animals?” the mouse said suddenly, her voice timid.
The bat turned toward her too quickly; the little rodent squeaked, her eyes widening, and shrank back into the pillows.
“Don’t hurt her,” a woman nearby said anxiously.
Revar glanced toward the voice. Mika didn’t think anyone else noticed the momentary clenched fist she made as she turned back to the mouse. “You sure you want to get into this conversation?” she said softly.
After a moment, the mouse nodded, not looking at all sure.
“Okay. Truth is, I can,” Revar said. “But only for a little while. And if I go after something small, I’ll kill it. The only thing I can find in a city here would be little wild critters, and pets. That wouldn’t make people real happy with me. Despite the stories you might have heard, most bats–including me–don’t like to kill things.”
“Well.” The mouse fidgeted, not looking like she’d expected that answer. “I understand. but still, it’d be better to kill a pet than to attack someone, wouldn’t it?”
Revar snorted. “Ask somebody who owns a pet.”
“Right. But… can’t you just take a little?”
“No. I can’t help what I take. The longer I go without blood, the more I need when I finally get it.” Revar paused, and tilted her head, grinning enough to show most of her fangs this time. “So look. You really interested in all this, or are you just trying to guess if I’m going to bite you?”
The mouse’s blush was quite visible through her white fur. She slunk down in her pillows further, setting her wine glass on the floor. “If you were hungry, could you stop yourself?” she said.
“Yeah, I could. And I’m here for a party, and hoping to maybe make a few friends.” Her tone made it clear she wasn’t putting stock in that. “I’m just trying to meet you, not eat you.”
Before any other questions could be asked, Dahlu announced dinner. The bat’s sigh of relief was almost comical.
As the guests poured into the dining room, one of Dahlu’s predictions came true. Most of the guests edged away from the bat at the mention of food. When she realized what was going on, the glower she acquired couldn’t have made anyone less nervous. She ended up with Mika to her left and Jack to her right, one empty seat to Jack’s other side. Dahlu sat across from Mika, with Skit–apparently not having given up his fruitless romancing for the evening–sitting on her left, opposite Revar.
The dinner was buffet-style. Revar sat by herself while the others went to fill their plates. Mika returned with two, setting one heaping with food in front of her.
“Thanks.” She sighed and picked at some of the items with a claw.
“I think it’ll make people less nervous if you eat normal food,” he murmured.
“I think it’ll make people less nervous if I leave,” she grunted back.
“Come on.” He squeezed her shoulder lightly. “Don’t be uncomfortable.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re used to things like this. I’ve never been in a house like this before.”
“Maybe it’s too pretty for me.” She laughed, sounding more nervous than Mika had imagined her ever being.
When Dahlu noticed the bat wasn’t eating, she became solicitous. “Don’t you like it?”
“No, no, everything I’ve tried is great,” Revar said. “Mika just took more than I’m going to be able to eat.”
“Already ate?” Skit said, looking up from his plate at the bat. He took a sip of wine. “Anyone I know?” A few people nearby dared to laugh.
Revar gave him a return smile that showed no humor but a lot of teeth.
“Just a joke,” he muttered, looking like he’d decided to scowl to avoid a flinch.
“I think I’m on pretty good behavior,” she said. “Maybe you could join in too, huh?”
He pursed his lips, then shrugged, wolfing down a meat roll. “Come on, expect a little ribbing. You’re more an attraction than a guest.” Dahlu sucked in her breath sharply; the dog smiled, falsely apologetic. “I mean, you weren’t really invited.”
Revar tensed, her claws digging into her napkin.
“We were asked to invite friends,” Mika said. “She’s mine.”
Dahlu, thankfully, chimed in. “And that makes her as much of a guest as any of the rest of you.”
Skit waved the explanation aside with a carrot stick. “Nice of you,” he said cheerfully. “I suppose she hasn’t been in a neighborhood like this before. A chance to see how the other half lives and all that.”
“Maybe,” Revar said, looking directly at him. “I’m sure most of your half is well-bred enough not to react like I’m gonna either drink their blood, or even worse, give them a bad case of poor by being around, right?”
Skit’s smile dropped. “Nothing personal. We’re just cautious.”
“About dangerous people. Are you saying you’re not one?”
“Not unless provoked.”
“Well, if you weren’t invited here,” he downed another meat roll, “we’d probably assume you were here to be dangerous, wouldn’t we?”
“If you were kind of a jerk, yeah,” Revar said, her voice rising in volume.
“Better safe than sorry.” He spread his hands.
Revar sat a moment longer, her eyes locked to his face, then shook her head. “I’m sorry, Mika. I can’t do this.” She pushed back from the table and stood. “The part where I get called a criminal is my exit line.”
Skit laughed with exaggerated humor. “All right, I’m sorry. What do you call someone who attacks people for food?”
She took a deep breath, looking like she was trying to steady herself.
“Well, you do,” the mouse girl who had been on the couch said timidly. Revar whirled on her with an expression that read I could suck you dry in five minutes. The mouse sank back in her chair, looking like she wanted to slide under the table.
Jack suddenly stood up, dropping his empty plate to the table with a melodramatic clang. “Give it a rest, Skit. And the rest of you aren’t any better. She’s been extraordinarily patient with us–honestly not treating her very well. She hasn’t bothered a single one of us.”
Revar’s expression was still seething, and she ignored imploring glances from both Mika and Dahlu as she stalked around the table toward Skit. “Yeah, maybe I should start,” she growled. “Look, if you don’t like how I live or where I live or anything else, fine. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna apologize for it to you.
I’m here for just one reason. A friend asked me to come. I guess I was hoping my stereotypes about you all were as wrong as your stereotypes about me. And I guess they aren’t. Because even though you’ve fucked up this evening for me, it’s still just one evening. For you it’s your whole life, ain’t it?”
Skit, still seated, watched her with narrowed eyes. She moved back and looked around the room; conversation had stopped, most of the thirty-odd guests focusing on her. “For all of you, isn’t it? Parties and money and no working at jobs you hate. All being social and getting pleasantly drunk and goin’ home to your butlers. I bet you have a butler.” She jabbed a claw at Skit, then ripped off her cloak and flexed her wings, eliciting a few gasps.
Skit pushed back from the table and rose to his feet; he towered over the bat by more than a foot, outmassing her by almost three times. “You’re dangerously arrogant.”
“You’re dangerously asshole,” she snapped, turning her back on him and starting to walk toward the door. Skit grabbed her by one arm, spinning her back to face him. She glared up with unfeigned hatred.
Mika jumped to his feet, hurrying toward them. “Let go of her!”
“I’m not going to do anything to her.”
“Then let go of my arm.” Revar was hissing.
“Unless,” he continued, “she comes back when she isn’t invited.” He wrenched her arm backward and she hissed more sharply.
“Stop it!” Jack said, moving toward them as well.
“That wrist of yours looks pretty fragile, the way the wing connects.” Skit slid his hand up her arm, wrapping his fingers around the joint, and squeezed hard. She yelped.
“If you break her wings she won’t be able to fly,” Mika said, reaching toward Skit’s arm. He yanked it out of the cat’s reach; Revar winced, snarling.
“Skit,” Dahlu said warningly, also standing up.
“I don’t like being lectured by people like you,” the dog said, still staring down at Revar. “Five years from now, I’ll be running a company. If you’re lucky, you’ll be working for someone me. If you’re not lucky, you’ll be lying dead in a gutter somewhere. And if you don’t lose that attitude, that might happen sooner rather than later.”
Mika growled. “Let. Go. Of. Her.”
“I don’t know if I want her to fly out of here,” he said, squeezing a little more. Revar’s eyes widened as she hissed again. Then they narrowed, and she brought her shoulder forward, jabbing her free arm toward Skit.
“Don’t try–” The dog cut off with a choke, stiffening. Her other hand was now between his legs, claws dug into his pants in a graphically disturbing fashion. He started to pull at her wing; she flexed the hand slightly and he cried out, then stood stock-still.
“Trade, society boy. My wing for your future sex life.”
“You let go first,” he gritted after a moment.
“No, you first. See, if I could trust you not to be an asshole, we wouldn’t both be standing here. If you want to walk away without me breaking what I’m holding, you prove you trust me more.”
Skit held on a moment longer, trembling a little, then released her wing.
“Not so hard, was it?” She gave him a little squeeze as she let go. He yowled and doubled over.
Revar picked up her plate and headed toward the door. “I am hungry now,” she said to Dahlu, who had been watching the proceedings with a horrified expression. “But I’m pretty sure I should call this an evening. Or, by my schedule, early morning. Do you mind if I take this plate? I promise I’ll return it.”
Dahlu shook her head. “You can. But you don’t–you don’t have to–”
“I do,” Revar said, smiling almost sadly. “And Dahlu?”
The cat nodded fractionally, eyes on the bat.
“Thanks for trying.”
By the time Revar reached the door, the bulldog had recovered enough breath to look up at her, eyes filled with hatred. “If you come anywhere near here again, you will be sorry.” It carried the weight of a promise.
“No offense to the rest of you, but I’m pretty sorry I’m near here now,” she sighed. “You all have fun.” She stepped through the door and closed it softly behind her.
Nobody spoke for several seconds. Then the room exploded into conversation. Several people went over to Skit, some to murmur sympathetic platitudes, some to berate him. The mouse suggested he file assault charges with the Guard.
Dahlu looked at Mika mournfully, not quite an I told you so expression but close enough to be uncomfortable, then whirled into the kitchen.
“I like her,” Jack announced, to no one in particular. Mika glanced back at Dahlu, then ran out the door after Revar. She was already gone.
“I can’t believe you don’t see this.” Dahlu looked so angry she might well throw the plate she currently held at him. Mika stepped back out of range.
He shook his head negatively. “I’m sorry. I don’t. None of it was Revar’s fault. I don’t see how she could have ‘handled it better.’”
“She was inviting trouble just by being here.”
“Oh. So you’re saying she should have stayed in her place?”
“Do not compare me to Skit,” she snapped, slamming the plate into the sink.
“You’re the one who said it.”
“No, you’re the one who twisted my words that way.” She growled. “Don’t think I don’t hold him just as responsible.”
“But she’s only responsible for not fitting in,” he persisted.
Dahlu stomped her foot. “She’s responsible for rising to his bait!”
“That makes it his fault!”
“Oh, damn you,” she said, rubbing her forehead. “Mika, she killed my party.” Her voice became small and hurt.
Mika sighed. “Most people went right back to normal after she left. You saw that. She was the only one whose evening was damaged–except for Skit.”
“Oh, except for him.” She rolled her eyes. “Do you know how connected he is? Not just his family, him personally.”
“I don’t really care. I don’t have any sympathy for him and I don’t see why you do.”
“I told you I don’t,” she hissed. She tensed up, vibrating, then seemed to explode. “Why did you have to find her in the first place?” She stormed out of the kitchen.
Mika drew back, stunned. Whatever he’d expected her to say, that wasn’t it. By the time he collected himself and followed her, she’d taken a seat on the couch, legs drawn up, sniffling quietly.
“You know she didn’t want this to happen,” he said softly.
“I know she wanted you, Mika.” Dahlu sank back into the couch, closing her eyes. “And you wanted her. Want her.”
“What? I told you, it’s not–”
“I know what you told me.” Her voice was tired, strangely… defeated. “But I watched the way you are with her, and I know the way you are with me. I see what you don’t. Or what you won’t. You just don’t want to admit it to yourself.”
Mika sat down beside her, reaching out an arm. “You know you’re just as pretty as she is. Prettier.”
She opened her eyes and smiled wanly at him. “When you first met her, you told me you didn’t think she was pretty at all.”
“I…” He trailed off.
Dahlu sighed. “I don’t know why you started going down to the docks at all. I don’t know why you want to be friends with someone who tried to kill you. It doesn’t make any sense to me. But as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been attracted to danger. And she’s the most dangerous thing you know.”
“It’s not like that,” Mika said, taking her arm and pulling her toward his lap; she didn’t resist, but didn’t respond to the hug. “You know that’s not true.”
“What’s not true? That she’s attractive?”
He looked her in her eyes for a moment; the sadness in them had been joined by a challenge, an accusation. He dropped his first. “She is.”
“Does that matter?”
She nodded. “Yes, it does. It really does.”
“But I love you,” he said simply, as if it were an explanation for everything.
“Then you’ve got to stop seeing her.” Her eyes were desperate. “I thought it would work. I thought I was all right with this. But I can’t be.”
Mika stroked her hair away from her eyes, feeling his throat constrict. “It was just one party,” he whispered. “Everything is fine. Things are going to be fine.”
Dahlu put her head against his chest and started to cry.
The dragon was still jawless, its spout having deteriorated over the week since its disfigurement into a sick spray almost completely missing the pool. The water was low enough to see the bottom even in the partial moonlight, hundreds of tarnished coins glinting barely just out of Mika’s reach.
The lock on the gate had been replaced. Lacking Revar’s strength, he had broken in conventionally, climbing over the twelve-foot wall with a hook and rope, now stored in his pack.
Mika sat down on the ground, his back against the fountain’s side, and looked up at the stars. He had hoped to come here and think about Dahlu, about what he might say to her–about what they might be able to do. The place had felt like it had special magic when he and Revar had been here. But now it was hard to think about anything at all.
Both his paintings, the L’rovri at the gallery had told him, had sold–the waterfront image to a local collector, and the portrait of Revar to a gallery owner in Raneadhros. Mika had thought his agent had greatly overvalued them, but he had dourly insisted they were too low, “even for Rionar,” and felt vindicated. But he’d again reiterated that to do better Mika would need to show his work in Raneadhros–and that Mika could, definitely, do better.
He should be happy, he knew. He was. But it was a happiness he kept at a distance. It threw another choice he didn’t want to face onto the mounting pile of them he already had.
After some length of time passed, he didn’t hear a noise behind him as much as feel a familiar presence. Revar sat down on the edge of the fountain beside him. “The snake’s pretty screwed up, isn’t it?” she said, studying the dragon.
Her smile faded with Mika’s silence. She tapped him on the shoulder with a claw. “I was flying overhead, saw you here. Kinda unusual for you to be out trespassing on your own. Anything wrong?”
“It’s not unusual for me anymore. I must be hanging out with the wrong crowd.”
She smiled a little. “Sexfluff still on your back about me?” The smile faded quickly again, though. “I should go and apologize. Or something. Hell, I shouldn’t have…” She trailed off and sighed.
He tilted his head back to look up at her. “It’s not that. Well, it is, but it’s more.” He took a deep breath. “Dahlu doesn’t want me to keep seeing you.”
She started rubbing his neck lightly; he stiffened at first, then forced himself to relax. “We already knew that,” she said with a wry grin. “I don’t think she’s ever gonna believe I’m not gonna eat you.”
He leaned forward and she moved her hand onto his shoulder. The leading edge of that wing brushed up and down his forearm as she moved, sending pleasant but vaguely unsettling whispers up his spine. “That’s… not what I mean.”
She paused. “She’s afraid I’m stealing you from her, huh?”
“Yes,” he sighed. “She is.”
She nodded, lifting her hand away. “Can’t say I’m surprised.” Tilting her head, her black eyes locked onto his. “So what now?”
“I don’t know.”
“You want me to disappear for a while, I can.” She looked down. “Or for more than a while. I understand.”
He shook his head. “No. I’m not going to choose between you two like that.”
She remained silent for a long time. “If you don’t choose,” she said at length, “I think that’s kinda making a choice, isn’t it?”
Mika closed his eyes. “I don’t know.”
Revar moved closer again, returning her hand to his shoulder, but said nothing.
“I sold my paintings,” he said suddenly.
“That’s wonderful!” She nearly leapt up. “Why are we sitting around here moping?”
“I–” He laughed after a moment, shaking his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s a lot I don’t know right now. He–my gallery owner–is pretty much pushing me to get into bigger galleries. Not here. Raneadhros.”
“So go there.”
“Dahlu’s here. You’re here.”
“And we’d both tell you to get your fuzzy ass to Raneadhros and you know it. Hell, I’d come with you, but that wouldn’t exactly set Dahlu’s mind at ease about the stealing thing.”
He twisted around to face her. “You’d want to move there?”
“I told you that before,” she said, forcing him back to his original position. “It’s okay, kitten. I’ve been thinking about leaving for a year now. It might be another year before I do.”
Mika sighed, finding his voice uneven when he spoke. “But with you, it could be tomorrow.”
“If I go I’ll let you know where to find me.”
Mika remained silent for a few more seconds, then stood up, walking away from the fountain toward the manicured grass nearby.
She sighed heavily, folding her wings about herself. “Mika. I gotta ask. Do you really love her?”
“What? Yes. What kind of question is that?”
“An honest one. Because the next question is whether you want to be stolen. You say you don’t wanna stop seeing me, but if you don’t, you’re gonna stop seeing her. It’s only a matter of when.”
“Three Mothers,” he said, dropping down on the grass with a sigh.
She got up and sat down beside him, wings open now, arms stretched out beside her. “So that’s the question.”
He looked at her.
“Do you want to be stolen?”
He looked away. “I don’t know,” he said very softly.
“You’re real damn hard to pin down.” She looked up at the sky, chuckling. “A vampire bat and a struggling artist kitten. We make a hell of a strange couple, you know.”
He smiled. Then something welled up from inside and burst out. Without warning, he was crying. “I’m trying–I’m trying to figure it out. I am. I don’t know what to do.” His voice trailed off into an unwilling sob.
Revar’s arm’s moved around him; he leaned against her, his hands on her shoulders and his cheek against her chest, the top of his head nestled under her chin. She stroked his mane softly with one hand, her wings wrapped around him. They were soft, warmer than he had imagined, almost hot, yet very comforting.
“All we can ever do is try, kitten,” she whispered. “Try and hope.”
He looked up at her, her face less than an inch from his own, and stroked her arm, trembling. “I’m not a kitten,” he said very softly, moving closer still.
She pursed her lips, then opened them slightly, her mouth moving to a hair’s breadth from his own. Then she took a deep breath and put a claw on the tip of his nose, pushing him away. “No,” she whispered, a little hoarsely. “Not yet. We can’t.”
“I know,” he whispered, looking down.
“You gotta either end things with her, or try and fix them.”
“Even if it means losing you?”
Revar stroked his mane, letting her claws trail lightly down his shirt to the base of his tail. “I won’t fight her over you. But maybe we can convince her that a man and a woman can just be friends, you know?”
He swallowed, and looked into her pitch black eyes. “I think we’re already something more.”
“Maybe we are,” she agreed, almost sadly.
“Hold me?” he said at last. She wrapped her wings around him again and buried her face in his mane.
The sun was setting as Mika walked up the street after work toward Dahlu’s home. He wasn’t sure what he would say, but he knew that Revar was right. He wanted to keep both of them as friends–or lovers? No. Whether or not the bat believed in polyamorous relationships it wasn’t an option. Even if he could do it–and he wasn’t sure of that–Dahlu never could.
He knew–or at least hoped–the bat would be happy if their relationship stayed at the same level it was now. Even without sex, they had an intimacy that Dahlu and he had never quite shared. He would have to convince his feline lover that he and Revar would be able to keep things at that “just friends” level.
The only problem with the argument, he thought bitterly, is that he wasn’t sure he believed it himself. It’d be difficult to make the case with much conviction.
We would make a hell of a strange couple…
As he wrestled with that in his head, two human Guardsmen ran past Mika at top speed. Their uniforms were, as usual, immaculate, but seemed finer than what he was used to seeing. They must have come from the station in this neighborhood. Unusual to see them in such a hurry here…
As they turned onto the walk up toward Dahlu’s front door, Mika broke into a run himself.
As he reached Dahlu’s door, another Guard appeared behind him, mumbling an apology as he shoved Mika aside and raced through the doorway. “What in the hell?” Mika gasped aloud.
The living room was, for Dahlu, a shambles. All the couch pillows were on the floor, and a good china plate lay overturned in their midst. Dahlu herself was suspended in the air, her neck firmly in the grip of one of Revar’s taloned hands. The bat was staring, wild-eyed and panicked, at the two guards already present. Both had swords drawn.
“Revar!” Mika yelled, trying to push his way past the Guard.
She looked over at him, fangs bared. “I–” She glared back up at Dahlu. “You bitch!” Her voice was a howl of anguish.
Dahlu shook her head frantically, pawing at Revar’s arm. “It’s not what you think,” she choked.
“Let go of the Melifen, ma’am,” one of the Guards said firmly, raising his sword.
“Three Mothers, what are you doing?” Mika said to Revar, ignoring the human completely. “Put her down!”
“I’d appreciate you standing out of the way in case someone gets hurt, sir,” the Guard behind him said.
Mika whirled on him. “She’s not going to hurt anyone.” He turned back to Revar. “Are you?” His tone stuck somewhere between commanding and imploring.
“I….” Revar swallowed. “No. I’m not. I won’t. I came over to talk. Just talk. She called them!” She backed away from the Guardsmen, still holding Dahlu up in the air as if she were a rag doll.
“Please,” Dahlu gasped. “I didn’t call them. I didn’t. I wouldn’t.”
Revar stared up at her, breathing raggedly, her expression changing from one of anger and confusion to one of anguish. She set the cat down gently.
As soon as Dahlu was on her feet, all three Guards moved toward Revar. She crouched down, then leaped up, trying to clear them. One grabbed her legs, and she crashed to the floor. One Guard produced a pair of handcuffs and tried to figure out how to put them on her as the other two held her down. Her legs weren’t strong enough to break free from the grip the two had on them, but when the one with the handcuffs leaned over her, she found a steel grip on his shoulders. Screaming shrilly, she shoved him backward with such force that he bounced off the couch and rolled to sprawl at Mika’s feet.
The cat stepped over him and raced to Revar’s side. “Stop it!” he yelled, not sure whether he was talking to her or to them.
“Mika–” she gasped.
The two Guards holding her rolled her onto her back. The third one crawled over to her and slipped a cuff on her wrist before getting slammed into the couch by the back of her hand. All three of them working together held her long enough for the other wrist to be cuffed. When she was finally shackled, she stared at the chain, then pulled on it experimentally. Then she pulled with all her strength. There was an unsettling crack, but the chain held. She started to wail.
“She’s more dangerous than we’d thought,” one of the Guards said. “Move quickly.” They nodded, and two of them hauled Revar to her feet. The third one–the one who Revar had bounced across the room–walked over to Dahlu, rubbing his back with one hand and moving with a pronounced limp. “Do you want to press charges, ma’am?”
She ran a hand through her disheveled hair. “No,” she said after a moment. “No. You saw what happened. She grabbed me when you three came in.”
The Guard cleared his throat, looking dourly surprised. “That doesn’t change the fact that she assaulted you, ma’am.”
She waved a hand tiredly. “I’m not pressing charges. Let her go. Please.”
“We told you we were here to take her in when we came to the door,” one of the other Guards snapped, adding in a petulant tone, “Ma’am.”
“What?” Mika burst out. “What the hell for?”
“We have an assault charge pending on a bat who fits her description. We’d only intended to detain her for identification, but even if your friend refuses to press charges for the assault we witnessed, she’s also assaulted us.” He spoke with difficulty; when he was close enough to hold Revar still, he was within range of her teeth, and the other Guardsmen were doing their best to keep each other’s throats from being ripped out. “And she’d better not injure any of us further,” he added pointedly.
“A charge from–” He clenched his fists. “This is fucking nonsense!”
The first Guardsman held the door for his companions. “With all respect, that’s not the way it looks to us, sir.”
Revar’s eyes connected with Mika’s, seeming to ask a question he didn’t understand. Then she was gone.
He turned toward Dahlu, who was sitting on the floor, facing away from him. “You didn’t call the Guard.”
“No.” She buried her face in her hands. “She didn’t believe me, either. But you know as well as I do it has to be Skit. And that assault happened here. They must have been watching the neighborhood’s entrance to see if she returned.”
Mika ran his hand through his mane. “Three Mothers. What was she even here for?”
“To return the plate. Which Skit might have even remembered.” She took a deep breath. “And to talk about… us.”
He stared. “You and her? You and me?”
Dahlu shrugged. “I don’t know what she was going to say. Maybe that she’d never see you again, maybe that you and she were just friends, maybe that she was running off with you.” She sighed. “But I think… I think she wants me to like her. She still did, after all this. Well. Not after all this.”
He let out his own breath, then shook his head. “I’ve got to get down to the station. I don’t suppose you’re interested in coming.”
She lifted her brows, but didn’t look at him. “What exactly could I do? You’re not hoping I’m going to pay her bail, are you?”
He hadn’t even thought about bail. Shit. He wavered a moment, then shook his head. “I wouldn’t ask you to do that.”
She nodded, very slightly, and didn’t say anything. He wasn’t sure how to take that response.
“I’ll be back when I can.”
Her voice was barely a whisper. “I know.”
“I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.” Revar sighed on the other side of the mesh screen they spoke through. While she was no longer bound, five Guards stood watch over her. “I thought–I don’t think she sees in you what I do. If you’re so damned insistent you’re gonna stay with her, she needs to. That’s all.”
“You getting killed isn’t going to help.”
The bat sniffled. Nothing looked more pathetic than a helpless predator. “I thought she had called them. Somehow. That was stupid. I know. I’m sorry.” She closed her eyes. “If I get out of here I’ll show that damned dog what assault really means.”
“You’ll get out. I’ll get you out. As soon as I can.”
Revar smiled a little. “I can tough it out a few days.”
“Time’s up, sir,” the guard on his side of the screen said. Mika pressed one hand against the screen; she touched it briefly with her own, then allowed the Guard to lead her away with a quietness that, for her, was disquieting.
Mika waited in the station lobby another ten hours, through the rest of the night, drinking coffee and sharing pastries with a talkative ferret Guard. Revar’s case was reviewed promptly in the morning by the records officer–quite possibly because of Mika’s presence.
The assault charges had, as they’d known, been filed by Skit. The dog was hustled into the station to identify Revar. He didn’t glance in Mika’s direction once during the few minutes he was there.
Mika made an appeal directly to the records officer during the brief hearing. “I was there. She didn’t assault him. He grabbed her. She reacted in self-defense. And she didn’t hurt any more than his pride.”
The officer, an elderly, bespectacled skunk, looked sympathetic, but sighed. “You may speak in her behalf at the trial, Mr. Radgers. But charges have been duly filed, a positive identification has been made, and under Ranean Law all felonies must go to trial unless the plaintiff chooses to waive that right and settle out of court. Mr. Hozrin has made it clear this is not his choice. Miss Desmera can choose to present your counter-argument at her trial, and if the facts are as you’ve given them, I certainly hope you do. If the evidence is against Mr. Hozrin, not only will he be the one going to trial next, he’ll have extra charges due to his false accusation.
“But we’re talking about this case now, and setting the trial conditions based on these facts. Given not only the charges but the circumstances under which the defendant was arrested, and that the defendant is a literal flight risk, she’ll be remanded without bail.”
Mika’s heart dropped.
“Let’s try to expedite this as best we can.” The officer turned to the side of his desk and flipped through a calendar. “Given the large backload of cases presently in this district, the earliest I can set the trial date is the 26th, one hour past threechime.” He looked to Mika. “If you wish to appear in the defendant’s behalf at the trial, contact the Guard office in a week to make arrangements with the attorney assigned to her behalf.”
Dejected, Mika walked out of the station. It was only the third of the month. True, he’d heard of cases lately taking months to get to trial, and this would only be three weeks–
–three weeks, for Revar, in jail–
I can’t get caught. It’d kill me.
Mika stopped outside the station, feeling the sun’s heat on his fur but growing very cold inside, and closed his eyes.