The stoat's eyes keep flicking back and forth between my face and Marn's as he speaks. It's well before noon and I now completely loathe my schedule.
"Well, I could give you the name of the officer who was handling this investigation ten years ago, but it won't really help matters." Barden walks to his desk as he speaks.
I feel a headache coming on. "He might know something that's not in your precious reports. Being retired doesn't make you lose your memory."
"No, but being dead does," he says, sitting down and steepling his hands on the desk. "Tinnor passed away three years after he left the Guard. Died in his sleep. Quite peaceful, really.
"But we hadn't heard of this 'George' person until now." He shifts his gaze to Marn. "Can you tell us anything more about him?"
The fox shrugs and shakes his head. "I've just heard the name."
"But Wortham knows more about him."
He shrugs again.
"You're not all that cooperative."
"He's not all that bright," I say.
Barden drums on the desk, his whiskers twitching slightly. "At least he was smart enough to come here. Beldis, if we're going to protect you, you're going to need to give us your full cooperation. What I'm about to ask will stretch that to the limit. Are you prepared?"
He nods hesitantly.
"All right. Miss Desmera may not have found what we were looking for directly, but you might be just as good. Because you can take us to Wortham."
Marn's eyes widen. "I... I don't...." He gulps. "There'll be guards there. A half-dozen or more."
Barden smiles and presses a button on his desk; a glowing pink dot, the size of a marble, materializes in the air in front of him. "Send me the first two available DMUs, right now," he tells it. The point zips toward the ceiling, then races down a corridor.
"DMUs?" Marn says.
"Dangerous Mission Units," I say. "They're the competent ones."
He turns back to Beldis. "How many did guards did you say there'd be?"
"Six. Maybe seven or eight."
As if on cue, two Guardsmen come out of the corridor the ball had entered. And two more. And two more. And.... I wait until all of them jog up to Barden's desk, then count them. Twenty-four.
"I don't think that will be a problem," Barden says, standing up. "Shall we be off?"
It is a scant thirteen minutes later and we are standing behind a warehouse within sight of the dock whose collapse involved me in this operation. I worry about John. I think the priest will be back today. Perhaps he can give John the comfort I am unable to. He knows how to ease the pain. All I can do is try to destroy what causes it.
You're a fairly angry young woman.
Barden leads Marn to the rear, where I stand (let the professionals handle it, Miss).
One of the guards kicks the door open. Two-by-two, we rush through, Barden standing by the doorframe, screaming "Move! Move!" and charging in after us.
By the time I see the three pirates "guarding" this room, all big, burly wolves, they're all down. None of them are dead, just knocked out. I admire the DMU training.
"Fan out!" Barden screams. There are two doors out of the room; twelve Guardsmen go through each one. I wonder how they learned to split evenly like that without taking the time to count? In training: "If you come to two doors and somebody screams 'fan out,' then: you take the left door, you take the right door, you take the left door, you take...."
Barden charges after one group; I walk after the other. Marn stands in the center of the room, looking lost. I grab his hand and pull him after me. "No time to gape. If somebody sees you not trying to kill us--"
"They'll know who squealed that much sooner." He follows me sluggishly.
"What, being a pirate was so much fun you'll miss it?" I get behind him and push: no way he's going to get a chance at my back again. Not yet.
The hallway leads to a lot of doors. They're all being smashed open by Guardsmen. Barden comes into the hall behind us, saying something.
Wortham comes out of one of the closed doors, holding a gun.
I've never seen a gun before. Firearms are illegal in Ranea, period. If you have a gun and you're not an offworld military goon with the required stack of clearance forms, you're in deep trouble.
And trading firearms is a capital offense.
"Stay back," Wortham yells.
Twelve Guards, swords drawn, start moving toward him. He wheels the gun around to face all of them.
Does a gun have twelve bullets?
He lowers the gun, then laughs. "You don't have any business here."
Barden steps forward. "On the contrary. We're here to arrest you, Mr. Wortham."
"On what charges?"
"Fencing stolen property. Extortion."
"Where are your papers? I don't see any papers."
"And," one of the DMU men says as he sheathes his sword, "we have you cold on possession of an illegal weapon."
Wortham looks at the gun in his hand.
"Very stupid," I say. "You don't run out to meet strangers with a gun. Use a crossbow."
He looks at me, shocked, then laughs. "Your word against mine?"
Marn clears his throat and steps forward. He says nothing. He just looks at Wortham sadly.
His former boss stares, then curses under his breath, walking toward the fox. "You?"
"We can have a nice talk here, or a nice talk at the station," Barden says, leaning against a wall.
Wortham just looks at him.
"I'd like to talk you," Barden continues, "about a woman named Marilyn Brown."
The human's expression glazes over, and he sits down on the floor. A Guardsman comes toward him and relieves him of his weapon. "I'm not talking," he says softly. "I'd rather do time than be killed." He looks up at Marn as he says this; the fox closes his eyes and shudders. "And you won't find the records in time." He grins. "There are people out there looking now."
"You know where they are?"
"I have a good idea." He grins again.
Clattering comes from the far end of the corridor, and the other twelve DMU men run in. "The area is secure, sir," the leader says.
"Well, well," the stoat grins. "Looks like you're the only pirate here left capable of standing."
"I'm not talking," Wortham repeats.
"You might get a much lighter sentence. And if you talk enough to put away the people above you, you won't have to worry about retribution. There won't be a pirate ring to take revenge."
"Until they get out."
"They won't get out," Barden says.
Wortham sighs. "I'm not talking."
"All right. I suppose we'll have to find a way to convince you otherwise." The stoat looks dramatically ominous as he says this.
"Article twenty-eight, paragraph four of the Ranean Guard charter forbids someone in the service of the Empire from torturing a prisoner, regardless of the information he may know," Wortham says.
"Very good." He turns to a Guardsman. "In light of Mr. Wortham's great command of law, what would you suggest we do, Jonal?"
"Around-the-clock interrogation is not forbidden by the Charter, sir."
"Possibly. But we may need what he knows now. How about you, Osmath?"
"Search all the records onsite, sir."
"Bureaucratic, but useful. Take five men with you and go into Wortham's office. Tear it apart. And what would you do, Miss Desmera?"
Me? "I think you know what I'd do."
"Share it with us. For the record."
I cross my arms. "Hold him down and start removing his skin inch by inch with my claws until he changes his mind."
Barden shakes his head. "Sounds awfully nasty."
"Would you enjoy that, Mr. Wortham?"
Actually, he looks quite pale. His voice is weaker as he repeats, "Article twenty-eight, paragraph four of...."
"I know, I know." Barden waves it aside. Then he looks thoughtful, raises a finger. "Saren."
"Yes, sir," a Guardsman barks.
"Are civilians ever bound by Guard charter?"
"So if a civilian assisting the Guard did something that... didn't quite meet its standards, it wouldn't constitute a violation."
"It won't work," Wortham says, smiling with a false brightness. "The Charter forbids you to allow a crime in progress to continue. A bunch of Guards standing around watching a prisoner being tortured would be violating that just as much as if they did it themselves."
"You're absolutely right," Barden says, nodding his little pointed muzzle. Then he walks back toward the entrance room. "Men!" he yells. "Retire to the common room!"
All of them start filing toward the door.
"Beldis, you bring up the rear. And," he smiles benevolently at Wortham, "close the door behind you, please."
Wortham bolts for the door, reaching it just as Marn shuts it. The sound of tumblers turning comes from the lock. Then Barden's muffled voice: "Gentlemen. Has searching turned up a pack of cards, perchance?"
Oh, Barden, I underestimated you. When push comes to shove, you can be a bastard with the best of them. I like that in a civil servant.
I walk leisurely toward Wortham, who turns around very slowly. His face has turned paper-white.
As I expected, he tries to run past me. I catch his face with a raised hand, digging the claws in just a little. He doesn't scream, but he makes a gagging noise.
I lower him to the ground in a sitting position, then drop to his lap, my knees to either side of his chest, and rip off his shirt. He tries to throw me off, but I have the leverage; I hold him in place with one hand on his shoulder, pressing him back against the wall.
"Now then." I realize I no longer have to concentrate at looking particularly menacing; over the past week it has become my standard expression. I lay one clawtip on his sternum, tap it a few times, then prick him. He sucks in his breath. I draw the claw down to the end of his breastbone; a thin, ugly line of blood appears in its path.
He looks down at my face, gulping.
"Let's talk about George," I say softly, slicing another line of the same length an inch to the left of the first one, then drawing a third line between them.
He licks his lips, trembling, but still grins. "You're not going to be able to go through with this."
Maybe he's right. But maybe he isn't. I dig my claw down into the short line and hear him bite down on the scream as I wiggle the tiniest flap of skin loose.
Wortham starts hyperventilating. I stick the claw in further, wiggle a bit more, get another half-scream, work a little more skin loose. "Give me another minute and this little flap will be big enough to get my fingers around, and then I can just pull. It'll hurt a little more, though. Or a lot more." I lean close to his ear for a second. "Ever wondered what a banana feels like when it's being peeled?"
He is a tough one. He doesn't start screaming until I really do start pulling.
Two minutes after that he breaks. "The lighthouse keeper!" he yells.
"John?" I keep pulling.
"You're not making any sense."
"He was the lighthouse keeper. Before the fucking bear. Stop."
"So you're telling me Marilyn Brown's fence was the lighthouse operator ten years ago."
I stop pulling. "Look, only an inch off." Wortham is trying, unsuccessfully, not to cry. "Where's George now?"
"Dead. He died before I was in the organization. Oh, fuck." He stares down at the bloody patch on his chest.
"So why's everyone after these records?"
"Brown... she wasn't really a pirate. She was, but she was blackmailed into it."
"How do you know all this?"
He shrugs. "Just heard it."
"That's a poor answer."
He licks his lips. "Don't start pulling again."
"Oh, I'll leave that strip alone. I promise." I take his chin in my hand and yank his face down to my muzzle, my nose touching the spot between his eyes. "If you screw me now, I'll start on your left cheek."
"She... was a pirate. Long ago. Thirty years ago. A gang member. But she left, she ran away. They found her again and blackmailed her."
"Just her past. She didn't want it to come out." He manages a sarcastic smile. "'Pirate' isn't a good reference on a job application."
"Unless you're in government." I think. "Wait a minute." I grab him again. "You said there were people looking for the records now. What do you mean?"
He smiles, almost victoriously. "The fox isn't the only person I have under me. One way or another, it's gonna end today."
I shake him. "Who has the records?"
"There's only one person alive who she could have given them to."
"John doesn't have them! He didn't know she was a pirate!"
"Either they sank with Brown, or she gave them to somebody before she died. Who do you think that somebody's going to be?"
You stupid bastard. I smash his face into the wall, then get up and knock on the door. "We need to go now!" I yell.
The turtle is back.
We are running as a group to the lighthouse. Rather, they are running; I am preparing to fly. The turtle appears from a side alley, apparently just passing through.
"Did you find Michael?" he says, apparently oblivious to the sight of twenty DMU men charging down a street, a detachment of four walking behind with a bound prisoner. I told Barden to bring Wortham with us. I don't know if he will. A prisoner is a liability.
But I want him there so I can kill him if anything happens to John.
"He's right up there," I snap, pointing at the stoat as I crouch down.
Turtle looks where I point. "No, he's not a stoat. I'm sure he's not a stoat." He blinks. "Where are you going?"
I grab him by the neck and pull his face toward me, causing the first truly startled expression I've seen on his face to appear. "Because if I don't get there now, a friend of mine may die! Got that?"
He blinks and stutters a bit. I don't wait for the answer. The flight will only take a minute.
Thirty seconds. Twenty. The lighthouse is in sight, and I think the door is open. Oh, John....
The ground hits me too hard, but I run inside before I've recovered, panting and gasping. "John!"
I am too late.
The room has been destroyed. None of the furniture remains intact; papers and shredded pillows, splinters of wood, litter the room. John is splayed against one wall, breathing raggedly. His beautiful uniform is a tattered, bloody mess, and he bleeds from a nasty head injury.
I'm by his side, rolling him over. His eyes are glassy, but there is recognition in them. "R..." he starts to say. "Revar." He coughs, and a trickle of blood comes out his mouth.
"It'll be okay," I whisper, knowing it won't be.
"Don't... have records," he wheezes.
"Couldn't just... leave old man alone." He closes his eyes.
I take his hand and squeeze it. "John, listen to me. This is important. Marilyn was blackmailed."
"She didn't want to be a pirate. She was blackmailed. She had... done some bad things before she met you, and I think she was afraid that the pirates would tell you if she didn't help them."
A tear runs down his face. "Could have... told me," he gets out. "Oh, Marilyn."
There is no way I can move him, get him to a doctor. Suddenly there is a noise at the door, and Turtle zips inside.
"How'd you get here this fast?" I say without looking up.
"Caffeine," he says. He looks down at John. "Uh--"
"Do you know any doctors who could get here fast?"
"Yes." He disappears, almost a blur, as soon as the syllable hits the air.
I sit there, holding John's hand. He strokes mine gently with his other hand. "Been a good friend," he whispers. "Thank you."
"I wish I had been here a half-hour ago."
"Couldn't know." He goes into a wracking coughing fit; I lean down, partly covering him with a wing, and he smiles.
But I should have known, John.
At some point before I move again, the Guard arrives. "Get a doctor," Barden immediately barks at one of his men.
"I already sent for one," I say softly.
"Did they get the records?"
"John doesn't have them."
I sigh and straighten up. "Check the walls."
Barden looks at me, then nods at his men. They immediately fan out, knocking against the walls.
"What..." John mumbles.
"Shhh," I whisper, stroking his head. "Wortham guessed wrong. He got the location right, but not the person."
"Nothing, sir," a Guardsman says.
"What are you getting at?" the stoat demands.
"Check the stairs, the floors. Anything," I say to the Guardsman. In another minute, Guards are removing each step on the staircase and knocking against the floors.
I look up at Barden. "Marilyn wouldn't have given the list to John because she didn't want to risk him looking at it. She gave it to someone else."
"Sir!" a Guard yells. "This stair is a latch!"
"Pull it," he says, his eyes on me.
There is a click from underneath the staircase, and a crack appears in the wall underneath it.
"Marilyn couldn't have gotten all those names by herself; she wasn't high enough in the organization. She had to have help from George--the man who ran the fencing operation from this lighthouse ten years ago."
I shake my head. "Why George was helping? We'll never know. Corpses never share secrets. Maybe he just wanted out, too."
The records are in the little room, of course, along with George's private cache of stolen property and weapons. The Guard who finds the small book hands it to Barden, who flips through it.
"George?" John whispers weakly. His body is shaken by a new cough.
"Look at this," the stoat says, showing me a page of the book.
It has a single name on it, with a date ten years old and a time. "What is it?"
"The name of the officer who was investigating the pirates then. Marilyn Brown was going to be an informant."
I flip back through the book. "She missed that meeting, didn't she?"
"Looks like it. That investigation never went anywhere. There were a few anonymous tips, but nothing ever happened with them."
Suddenly a name leaps out at me from one page. The name is: Cayne Wortham. He said he wasn't a pirate back then--
I start shaking. "John," I say, "how did Marilyn die?"
"Accident," he says. "She was out alone... boat capsized."
Or it looked that way.... Should I tell him?
"She was going to go to the Guard, John," I say softly. "She was a good woman after all."
After a moment, he smiles, nodding. He squeezes my hand, then relaxes limply.
Turtle reappears a half-minute later, leading a bemused-looking female human by one hand.
"My God," she says, running toward John. "Get the stretcher in--"
"You don't need it." I bend over and kiss John's battered forehead. "He already left."
I shut his eyes, stand up and walk out of the lighthouse.
The party of Guards watching Wortham stand just off the point. I can hear the stoat following me, but it doesn't matter. A lot of people seem to be following me. It doesn't matter. I walk up and stand before Wortham.
"You killed Marilyn," I say without preamble. "And George."
The prisoner looks at me, his hands bound in front of him, and shrugs.
I rip his shirt off. A Guard puts a restraining hand on my shoulder; I ignore it.
My voice stays level. "This is for his wife." I grab the loose flap of skin and rip down. He screams and tries to double over.
I extend my hand, palm upward, claws out. "This is for John." A quick move and my hand is buried in his gut up to the wrist. It comes free with an awful noise, and Wortham falls to his knees, making only a faint moaning noise.
One of the Guardsman retches. Two more grab me as blood starts to spatter from the wound and Wortham falls face down, a dark pool quickly spreading across the ground.
"What should we do, sir?" a Guard asks as Barden approaches me.
He stares at the dying man, then clears his throat. "He was trying to escape, wasn't he?"
After a moment, the Guard nods and turns away. The two who are holding my arms release me.
The priest is walking toward us. Where'd he come from? No matter. Everyone is here now, come to see the bat who heroically dispatched a bound prisoner. Oh, God....
"John's dead," I say simply. "I guess I wasn't there for him enough." I turn to face Barden. "I'm leaving now." I start walking toward the city.
Soon I realize that the priest and Turtle are following me.
"Shouldn't you be tending the dead?"
"I'm tending the living," the otter says. "If they want it."
"Marilyn wasn't a pirate by choice," I tell him. "They blackmailed her. She was going to turn them in, all of them, I suppose. Now that they have the records the ring might be finished.
"So John dies knowing his wife's name is cleared. If you believe in an afterlife, it's a happy ending."
"And what do you believe?"
"I could have saved him. If I hadn't been so busy being a one-woman army. I should have spent the night with him. I shouldn't have gone after Wortham in the first place." Suddenly I am crying.
The priest reaches up to wipe away a tear; I knock his arm away, nearly throwing him onto the ground.
"Are you afraid of crying?" he asks softly.
"I've never done that before."
"Really... torture someone. I threatened to take off his face piece by piece. And I would have done it." I have become very cold. I stop in the middle of the street and wrap my wings around myself. "I don't want to be like this."
I realize I am crying harder now. "It's hard enough knowing everyone thinks of you as a monster. Now I'm really becoming one."
The otter puts his hand on my back and rubs gently. Suddenly we are hugging each other.
"Of course!" Turtle shrieks.
I look over at him, but he is already gone, a blur moving down the street.
"Do you want me to take you somewhere?" the priest says.
"I want to go to a bar."
"Drinking might not be a good idea for you right now."
"I want company," I sigh.
He nods. "All right. My church is right up here, though; we should stop and clean you up." He looks down at himself; his robes are now stained with Wortham's blood, too. "And me."
The priest is still here, at least four hours after we came back to the Wyvern's Den. I am on my fifth lemonade.
I have told him about my life in Rionar, about Mika, about the drunken state I spent my first week in Raneadhros in, about more things than I've shared with my closest friends. Then the desperate need to talk passed, and we sat and sipped our drinks.
Breaking a silence that has stretched since the last time my glass was refilled, he says, "I think you're afraid that you don't care."
"I've never cared about much. It's not in my nature."
"Oh, but you did. You cared about Mika. And before that, you cared about Jemara. And through it all, you cared about life.
"I remember the story you told me yesterday. If you were as uncaring as you'd like me to believe, you wouldn't be able to remember that little boy's face.
"I've met people who have lost the ability to truly care. At best they've replaced caring with covetousness; they care about their money, or their power, or people they've accumulated as status symbols. All of them were every bit as monstrous as you see yourself to be right now."
"I can't imagine even the coldest businessman casually ripping someone's gut open in front of a squadron of Guardsmen."
"Not literally, no."
You're so maddeningly--friendly. "Doesn't that bother you?"
"Yes, of course it does. But you're better than some of those cold businessmen. You see what's happening to you and you don't like it."
He leans forward. "And the irony is, you're completely, utterly wrong."
I stare at him, feeling slightly numb.
"The way you described meeting your Mika. You were killing someone, and in just as nasty a fashion. Why? Because you cared about the person he had wronged. And that's the same reason you killed, and even tortured, that prisoner today. Your only problem is that you care so much about your friends, you're willing to kill for them. Even if I'm bound to condemn your actions, I wish more people in the world had your motivations."
I sit back in the booth. "Then why did doing those things make me feel this way?"
"I'm no psychologist. My best guess is that you care so much about Mika, you're losing the ability to care about yourself. You don't have anything to believe in. And, if you'll forgive the expression, that truly is a sin."
"I suppose you'd tell me the church could help."
He smiles. "It could."
"I always have something to believe in."
"You've never met any monsters with faith?"
He shakes his head. "I've met a fair number who attend services. But it's not the same thing at all." He slides out of the booth. "You know where to find me if you need to talk. I'm about two hours late for an hour-long prayer meeting right now, though."
"Thank you," I force myself to say. He smiles briefly, then reaches down and hugs me before scampering out of the pub.
It is another drink later, this one a coffee (I am still debating whether or not to have any alcohol), when Turtle bounces up to me yet again.
"See, Murr was in here the other night, like four days ago," he begins, "and she was telling me about a guy staying with Wezip. Well, actually two guys staying with Wezip. Did I mention it wasn't Michael at all? But you know that already. You know, I'm really glad you're in here right now!" He nods approvingly.
I backtrack over what he just said a few times, trying to decide on the correct response. Then I look him in the eye and very solemnly say, "What the fuck?"
"Murr's a friend of mine. That doesn't really matter. The point is, everything I was trying to tell you was second- or third-hand. I just put it together with you because you're the only new bat in town I know, and then when I found out the right name was Revar, everything made sense."
"Tell me in five words or less."
The reptile blinks, and mumbles under his breath, "One two three four..." Then he says, loudly, "He's standing right over there." He looks happy. "Five words."
"Oh, just come on." He grabs my hand and yanks me out of the seat. "The name wasn't Michael, it was Mika. That rings a bell, doesn't it?"
But.... I look down at Turtle, feeling a tingly shudder. "No. I killed him."
"Really?" He drops my hand, looking confused, then waves a finger in the air. "This is the heart of the problem, see. But don't take my word for it." He pushes me toward the bar, pointing at a stool. A fox sits there, talking with someone who has his back toward me. A... spotted tabby cat?
"He's awfully active for a corpse, wouldn't you say?" Turtle looks absurdly pleased with himself and pushes me closer. "Hey!" he yells at the fox. "She was here after all, hiding in the corner!"
The fox stands up, and the cat turns around--
You can't be--
Turtle is suddenly supporting me from behind. Then, in an instant, Mika is pulling me upright. I am gaping at him stupidly, mouth open. He is trembling in the same way he did when I was dying in his arms a lifetime ago.
And when he was dying in mine.
Then we are in each other's arms.
Now we move to a booth, still holding on to one another. Part of me is conscious of the people staring and grinning at us. A different part wonders if perhaps I should believe in miracles after all.
When I am sitting and staring at him, it finally comes out. "How... are you still alive? I k-k..." The word sticks.
He pulls my head against his shoulder, making soothing noises as if I was a little girl. "You didn't," he says softly. "Almost." Mika continues briefly with the story of his rescue, his decision to leave Rionar. And Dahlu.
Through it I am thinking: can you forgive me? But the question doesn't need to be asked. You are here with me. I stay pressed against him.
"I've been looking for you for days," he is saying. "We got here five days ago. Donthen, the bartender, said you were in there the night before that, but you weren't anywhere to be found. Where have you been?"
I rub my eyes. "Was that the night the dock collapsed?"
He blinks. "Yes, I heard about that. Were you...?" He doesn't finish the sentence, just stares at me.
"Turtle," I call to the reptile--he is standing nearby listening. We are evidently the afternoon's entertainment. "Could you get me a drink?"
"What do you want?"
For telling the story of John and the lighthouse, so soon after living it? "Bourbon. Straight."
I finish the story and my second bourbon at the same time. "Ifeel like... a demoness." Oh, kitten, how can you still like me now that I've become this way?
Mika strokes my leg gently; we are still holding one another, his warmth nourishing me fr more richly than mere blood could ever do. "I wish I had found you sooner." He kisses me softly on the cheek.
"The good guys came out ahead. Except for John." I laugh bitterly.
"I don't know what to tell you, love. You can't blame yourself for only being mortal."
"No." I close my eyes and lean back into the booth's cushions. "Have I always been this way?"
"The most important lesson I learned from you was to have faith in yourself. You still have faith in what you can do. You just need to regain faith in what you are."
"And what is that?"
He puts his arm around my neck and hugs me to him. "I believe the phrase you used was 'scary bitch.'"
I laugh. "That's not very comforting."
"You like being a scary bitch. You told me so yourself."
I try not to laugh this time, not entirely successfully. "That's not fair."
"That reminds me. There's something I've been waiting to do for weeks."
He smiles mischievously, then suddenly pulls me into his lap . Before I can react, he bites me on the neck.
"Ow!" But it doesn't hurt, not exactly. He isn't drawing blood. In fact, it's kind of... erotic.
When he lets go, he pulls back and stares at me, nose-to-nose, smiling.
"You're supposed to subdue your prey first," I say. "Otherwise she might be able to take advantage of you."
"Show me that this evening." He kisses me, not so lightly, on the end of my muzzle, his tongue briefly touching one fang before withdrawing. "But we need to go somewhere right now."
I blink, feeling a little woozy from the intimacy we had never dared before. "Where?"
"An eye doctor's." He gets up from the table, extending his hand to me. "Do you still feel like a monster?"
"Part of me does."
"How does the other part feel?"
I ignore his hand and pull him down to me, enfolding him with my wings. "Alive."
The weasel who is examining me has just had me close one eye, then the other, and describe a color chart. Now he is examining my eyes with some sort of lens.
"What you have," he announces, "is a condition called protanopia."
"Essentially, your eyes see color by breaking them up into three basic colors: red, blue and green. Protanopia is a visual defect in the part of the eye that senses red. You're an interesting case; I've never seen someone who developed protanopia as a result of an accident before."
"So what happens now?"
"In two or three days, maybe even by tomorrow, your left eye will be seeing perfectly again. No treatment necessary."
"When will my right one return to normal?"
He shakes his head. "It won't."
The doctor sighs. "I'm sorry, Miss Desmera."
"There's nothing you can do?" Mika says.
"I'm afraid there's nothing anyone can do. The kind of healing magic that can work on that small a scale is phenomenally difficult. It's far harder than, say, reparing a defective kidney. And that's not a cake walk to begin with.
"And beyond that, magic can't replace dead cells with live ones. Essentially, the light bleached all the red pigment from your eyes to a point where it burnt away the part that can make more. Your right eye will simply never see things in true colors again."
"Wonderful." I feel absurdly crippled.
"Well, in the long run it could be far worse. Honestly, it's surprising that you don't have complete permanent blindness in one or both of your eyes. The fact that only one of them has any permanent damage at all is nothing short of a miracle."
He pats me condescendingly on the shoulder and moves off.
"You never told me your last name," Mika says as we get up.
I smile a little. "It never seemed important. I still don't know yours, kitten."
Finally we are back in my hostel room. Mika has told me he is staying with the fox I met briefly, Wezip, a friend of Jack's. I sit down on the bed and he sits next to me, pulling my head toward his shoulder and purring softly.
He smiles. "You have very pretty eyes."
"I have pretty scary eyes." But I love the compliment.
"All right, I admit it!" He pulls me down on the bed beside him. "I find scary things attractive." As he speaks, he starts stroking my thigh with his claws, nuzzling my neck. And making it very difficult for me to pay attention to his words. "I like sharp claws and fangs."
I smile and return his stroke, but hesitantly. Why am I suddenly nervous? I don't think I have moved, but I am clutching Mika to me desperately. "I love you so much...."
He holds me awkwardly, wrapped tightly in my wings, just placing his hands on my waist. "I love you, too." He presses his cheek to my own. I am beginning to cry.
Mika gently disengages himself from me, then wraps me in his arms, holding me tightly, pressing my head against his warm, soft chest. Oh, love. I am crying much harder now, feeling my tears being trapped in his fur and held against my cheek.
"It's all right," he says, gently laying me out on the bed, still holding me. His touch calms me, stripping away something that has been entangling me since I recovered that night to find him dying beside me. It isn't all gone, not yet. Not for a while. But now, for the first time, I believe it will be.
"You saved my life again," I whisper, closing my water-filled eyes.
Mika continues to rub me. As I relax he moves closer. I begin to feel a little nervous again, but it is a different kind of tension. Opening my eyes, I smile at him; his face is very close to mine, moving closer--touching my cheek. "I've waited a long time for this," I say softly. "Just lying here with you...."
"I remember when we almost kissed in the park that night." He smiles. "You stopped me then." He leans over me, placing his hand on the other side of my head, and touches his nose to mine.
"I'm not stopping you now."
"No, you're not," he says, smiling gently. I can hear his heart beating very loudly; he is just as nervous as I am as our mouths meet, once, again-- He licks all the way around my muzzle, running his tongue over my teeth.
I begin to feel kind of warm and silly. "Stop that," I say, giggling.
"Or--" Very good question, that. I don't catch myself in time to stop another giggle.
"Now, how are you going to keep up the bitch image if you giggle?" Mika admonishes. He slides his hand under my dress's shoulder strap. "If you're not careful, people might start thinking you're nice."
"I'm not nice," I protest.
Mika gently pulls the dress to one side. "You are. You're one of the nicest people I've ever met."
I grab his neck mock-threateningly. "You better not let it get out, dammit."
He smiles and sticks his tongue out, then moves his hand down to cup my breast in his palm. The warm and silly feeling is turning into a hot and prickly one. He rubs a little. Mmmm. His finger traces a circle around the nipple. "Or what?" he repeats.
"Or I'll be forced to have my way with you."
"Oh." He smiles and pulls the other shoulder strap off, then bends down and touches his tongue to the second nipple, moving his hand down my thigh and under what little of my dress is still on. Oh, don't stop that. "Is there anything I can do to guarantee you'll have your way with me?"
I circle a wing around him and breathe into his ear. "You're doing a good job now."
He removes his hand from my leg, reaching down to the snap on his pants.
"Put that back there," I command. I reach around him with both hands and rip his shirt off, then his pants, and throw the pieces to the side. Then I reach to his underpants. I rip them off as well, making sure I stay in contact with him as long as possible. He shudders a bit as my hands move.
"But now I don't have any clothes. I won't be able to leave tonight," he says.
I shake my head in mock disappointment. "I'll just have to keep you up all night."
He rolls over, pushing me prone and burying his face in my breasts, gently pulling off the rest of my dress. "I'm supposed to be the aggressive one," I protest.
Mika chuckles, then begins doing amazing things with his hands. As he plays with me, the heat throughout me intensifying, I pull him up my body and cocoon him tightly within my wings. "Urmf!" he says, pausing momentarily.
"Don't stop now," I command.
"And what'll you do if I do stop?" he responds, rubbing his stomach between my thighs and bringing his hands around to oh!
I pull him further up my body, nibbling on his ear and doing the same things with my claws he is doing with his fingers. He gasps. "Considering I'm five times stronger than you," I murmur, "I'd say I could do anything I want to."
"Good point." He proceeds to ohhh!
As we explore each other's bodies we begin to move. The fire within me grows. Can you feel it? Of course--you are its source.
We roll over, shift. Your body is there just for me. My body becomes defined by what you are doing with it.
What is happening--what I am feeling--scares me more than the very first time I made love. And thrills me more deeply.
I moan, gasping, at what your fingers do, stroke and touch to see if I can arouse you further as you pant and shudder under me. "Please," you say, eyes shut, almost howling.
Not... yet... do that a little harder. Oh! yes--
As I straddle you--holding myself above your thighs--ready to take you and be taken by you--
"Ohh, kitten..." I gasp/hiss. You smile, panting and purring as loud as thunder, then grip me and pull me down slowly. I close my eyes, just feeling--everything--as our bodies become one.
"How did the opening go?"
"Fine," I said. "Almost too fine. One of the paintings went for well over a thousand."
"You could make that your real job," Revar said, smirking.
I looked around the living room, at all the canvases. "It almost already is."
"So what do you have planned for this weekend?" she suddenly said.
"What do you have in mind?"
She opened her wings and flexed them, a sight that always sent a little thrill up my spine. "I don't know. I'm just... bored."
"You have the weekend off, too, don't you?"
"Well, yes, as a matter of fact I do."
"So what do you want to do?"
I brushed past her, stroking a wingtip. "Let me get my things."
"I've already packed them." She held up a bag. "Have you ever made love on top of a mountain?"
"We'll cause an avalanche."
"Oh, come on." She grabbed my hand and pulled me irresistably toward the door.
"I'm serious," I protested. "Every time we stay in a hotel we break local noise ordinances."
"Better than breaking locals." She pushed me out into the apartment's hallway and locked the door behind us.
"And that's another thing. I don't think the mayor of the last town appreciated it when you invited him for dinner."
"I thought it made perfect sense, love. He makes his living by bleeding the public...."