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," by T.S. Eliot
"Until the next one, Radgers." The shop lanterns shut off on cue as Frid stepped away from the wall and held the door open.
"Right," Mika said as he walked out into the city's dim dusk brightness. It was his standard response to Frid's standard farewell. The two, like always, headed in opposite directions: Mika northwest, Frid eastward to his home in a bland, middle-class section of Old City. The docks lay west and slightly south. Frid didn't do quite well enough to relocate northward to the newer parts, but he got by.
Dahlu arrived at his apartment just when expected. If he didn't visit her after work, she showed up within five minutes of sevenchime, some forty minutes after he walked through the door. He carefully set the bowl he was holding on the kitchen counter and answered the knock. "You don't look well," she said after they kissed.
"I mean you look... not sick, but--"
"Tired?" he suggested. "I didn't get very much sleep."
"When did you get to bed?"
"Not too much after the usual time. Just didn't sleep very well. I had a rather... unusual night."
"Kind of." (Momm-eeeee! wailed the baby fox.) He headed back toward the kitchen and resumed working with the bowl's contents. "It seems I found the bat yesterday after all."
Dahlu looked blank, then wide-eyed, ready to leap out of the beanbag she had settled in. "You went back to the docks last night?"
"She came here."
"What did you do?" The edge of her voice rose.
He grinned wryly at her. "Had coffee. And talked."
She stood up and clasped her sides with her arms, her tail wildly banging at the air. "You should have called the police!"
"How?" He emptied the contents of the bowl into a square pan, spreading the stuff outward, and started grating cheese over it. "Those of us who pay rent in the real world don't have silent summoning crystals."
"Dahlu, she was paranoid enough about being here as it was. If she thought I was going to cause her trouble, you'd be scrubbing me off the wall now. Besides," he set down the grater, "she wasn't doing anything wrong."
"She killed someone!"
"I meant by being here. And she was right. Nobody would turn her in for killing Jesse, because nobody misses him."
"Evidently he beat one of her friends nearly to death for inadvertently screwing up a different beating he had planned. That's cold." He touched the firing gem on the oven. In a moment, it started glowing as the gas ignited. He held a finger on it until it glowed a medium bright, then opened the door and shoved the pan inside.
He came out of the kitchen and sat down on the floor by the bookshelf, looking up at Dahlu. "So, anyway, there wasn't that much to worry about. Relax."
"Nothing to worry about," she echoed. "She kills people. I'm sorry if that worries me." She folded her arms around and turned away, refusing to acknowledge him until he stood up and rubbed her shoulders. It was a gambit he was used to, though; the response was automatic.
"I can take care of myself," he said softly, his tone halfway between affection and reproach.
"I know," she said, sighing. "But you don't. You're still just barely getting by. Going to the docks isn't going to help. And getting involved with people like that...." She shook her head.
"Going to the docks isn't going to hurt, either, is it? I think I'm getting by just fine."
"But you're just getting by. You're not going anywhere with Frid. You're hardly supporting yourself as it is."
"And unless I get something better, I won't be able to support you, too?" He smiled, but she pulled away.
"That's not what I meant. I'd like to move in with you, yes, but I'd keep working."
Mika grunted noncommittally; Dahlu did work, but less for survival than for something to do with her mornings. Her last "job" had been organizing a posh reception for a charity group; she got it less on merit than family connections.
"Are you staying for dinner?"
She looked surprised by the turn. "I don't know."
"It's tuna casserole."
Dahlu sighed. "That's just what I'm talking about."
"Casserole?" Mika said, surprised.
"No," she snapped, trying to remain sufficiently exasperated to continue. "I mean... Oh, Mika, just look. You're having that because it's all you can afford. It's... bachelor food."
"No, bachelor food is tuna sandwiches. Anything that requires an oven is too much work for a true bachelor. And I happen to like tuna casserole."
She laughed. "All right, you win." When conversation resumed, it had moved on to Dahlu's own day; Mika listened attentively, but had little to comment on. He wasn't sure he had even met some of the people she was gossiping about.
The inevitable question came after they had finished dinner. "When are you going to sell one of your sketches?"
"When I'm good enough." He drummed his fingers on the table. "Trying before then won't do me much good."
"Your sketches are as good as what I've seen out there."
Mika smiled wanly. "I know you think that, love. You'll have to take my word for it."
"But you're going to have to start somewhere."
"Just selling a few pictures isn't going to bring in much money, if you think it's going to let me quit the printing job."
"It'd be a start." Dahlu's tail thumped the chair. "I'm not going to be able to support you if I move in here."
"I'm not going to be able to support you either. I don't see what your point is."
She was silent again, frowning delicately. Mika shook his head and picked up the plates, heading into the kitchen. He started a pot of water brewing for tea; it always seemed to calm Dahlu down, even if it couldn't ease her doubts.
When he set a steaming cup in front of her, he looked at her curiously. "Have you ever been down to the docks?"
"I've passed through."
"Have you ever stopped and looked around?"
"No," she said, taking a sip. "Why?"
"Just for the sake of... seeing what's there."
"Oh. Do you think I should?" Her voice held absolutely no interest in the prospect.
Mika shook his head, taking a sip at his own tea. "No, I suppose not."
Something snapped--tiny, but not insignificant--midway through the week, just as Mika left work.
It had been a bad day, maybe the worst he'd had there so far. The press had broken, spewing ink across Mika's chest. He ignored all the looks as he walked home, cursing Frid for buying a fast, temperamental jet-press over a normal plate machine. As soon as he scrubbed all the ink he could out of his fur, he changed clothes and headed down to Ted's.
Orlonda, Revar's vulpine friend, was nowhere to be seen. The bar was about half-full with unpleasant-looking patrons, although none as nasty as the night he had been followed out by Jesse. Of course, it was still almost three hours to midnight.
Dahlu hadn't mentioned his encounter with the bat again; she had made it clear she didn't want him to associate with "those types." If he continued to, she didn't want to be involved. Well, fine--she didn't have to be. He didn't want the comfort she would give him, and didn't want tacit encouragement to quit his job. He had come all too close that afternoon, and he couldn't afford to.
He sat down at the bar and ordered a beer and one of Ted's taste-free sandwiches, then sulked, almost daring people to come up and make trouble. If anyone noticed the offer, they declined to take him up on it. He finished his meal, then ordered another beer. Then another, nursing it until eightchime sounded. "Midnight," the barkeep grunted over the din. "Finish your drinks and get your butts out."
The cat looked around, surprised. The bar had filled up while he had been sitting there; now it was almost empty. By city law, alcohol was not served between midnight and threechime. Mika paid his tab, threw down a too-large tip and wandered out. This time no one followed.
Picking a direction at random, he headed south along the docks, then cut east into downtown proper. Most of the stores were closed, of course; some diners and "adult entertainment" shops would be open for another hour or two, and there were a few general stores and coffee shops that stayed open 'round the clock. Mika headed toward one of the diners, looked in, and saw nothing interesting but one of the waitresses. He grinned and moved on.
A few minutes later, he was in front of a coffee house; several people he recognized as dock workers, burly humans and overmuscled canine zoomorphs, filled the front. He started to pass by, then caught sight of a lone figure in a back booth. It was nestled between the cushion and the wall, holding a mug in a fiercely taloned hand. The face wasn't visible, but the species was unmistakable.
Do you really want a third encounter with her?
He took a deep breath, arguing with himself.
If you ever want to talk to someone--
She looked up as he approached, her face registering a degree of surprise it obviously wasn't used to reflecting. "You're back," she said flatly.
"Yes, I guess I am." To his relief, the words came easily, with none of the hesitation he had feared.
As he sat down across from her, she didn't quite smile, but set down her cup and leaned forward. "I would have thought you'd have had more than enough of wandering around these parts after midnight."
"I just like the waterfront." He folded his hands in his lap. "And you get your life threatened by such interesting people."
She did smile at that, leaning back against the wall. "You've earned points from everyone else here just by sitting down."
"What do you mean?"
When she pointed at the front of the restaurant, it was not with a finger but a wingtip. "I've worked with some of the people sitting up there over a year. Maybe three of them would have the guts to sit where you are now."
He was fascinated by the wing gesture, but turned in the direction she indicated. Incredibly, a few people were looking back at him nervously, as if talking about his boldness--or foolishness. "You mean after a year they're still scared of you?"
She nodded. "They're polite enough on the job. Too polite, even. But see me after work, when supervisors aren't watching--not a chance."
"Surely they don't think you're going to... eat them."
"Don't you?" Her eyes were as disconcertingly unreadable as ever.
He shook his head. "Not anymore."
After holding her gaze on him a moment longer, she nodded again.
"What do you do?"
She laughed. "I move big, heavy boxes on and off ships. It's exciting stuff."
The waitress, a yong, overendowed black sable, came over to take his order. "Two crullers and a black tea," he said before she got any further than "Good evening, may I--." She scurried back behind the counter.
"You have a black spot on your hand," the bat observed.
Mika growled. "It's ink." He quickly related the story of his day.
"So get a better job."
"It pays well, and I don't mind it. Not most of the time."
She grunted. "Better than being a loader, I suppose. Still, I only have to work a few hours a night to make as much money as you do in a day."
"It pays that much?"
"On the dead shift. Most people don't want to work this late. For me, it's an afternoon job. My mornings--like now--and evenings are free to do whatever I want with."
Revar raised an eyebrow. "Getting curious, are we, kitten? Reading. Writing. Flying. Hunting. Like I said, anything I want. Although I need to pay attention to the hunting part tonight."
The waitress reappeared with his donuts and tea. He took a sip, staring carefully at the crullers. "When's the last time you... ate?"
"A week ago. Waiting this long is very bad; I should feed at least twice a week."
"Why?" She favored him with her mocking grin in reply. "I mean why so much?"
"Just the way bats are put together. We can take more than we need--but we can't take less. The longer I wait, the more I'll drain from whatever I finally do catch. Wait a few days, I'll hurt my prey a bit. Wait a week, and I might send it to the hospital. Wait two weeks, and if I'm still strong enough to catch something--which isn't likely--I might kill it. I don't like to kill people without a good reason."
He looked away, shivering involuntarily. "You can't take animals?"
"This is a city, kitten. Pocket-sized pets don't help us, and there aren't any warm-blooded game animals near here. And derelicts are a lot easier prey. So I end up being an outlaw."
She finished her coffee in silence, then set down the cup with a clank. "Anything you want to talk about besides my feeding habits?"
Mika coughed. "Dahlu's having another party two weeks from now."
"Hurrah. Unity Day. Nobody celebrates that. They use it as an excuse to get drunk." She shook her head in sarcastic disapproval, then glanced at him sideways, eyes glinting. "You feel like doing anything tonight?"
Mika gulped, swallowing a bite of cruller the wrong way. He spluttered for a few seconds, to her obvious enjoyment. "Like what?"
"Don't be so suspicious. If you think being seen with me on the town in public is unfaithful to pastahead, I won't put any pressure on you."
"No. That's not it. And she's not a pastahead, dammit."
"Would she think you were being unfaithful by talking with me now?"
"No," he sighed.
"But she doesn't want you associating with people like me. She'd be upset if she knew you were here." Revar had a knowing, fanged smile. "If she thinks that way, she's a pastahead."
"That's not fair."
"Nope," the bat agreed, standing up. "All right, forget I asked. Maybe you and I don't have enough in common to find anything interesting to do together anyway. Will you at least deign to let me walk you home?"
He glared up at her and bolted down his tea, taking the remaining untouched cruller with him as he dropped money on the table.
"I'm not afraid of being seen with you," he said as they left the downtown area. "Maybe we have more in common than you think."
"Like what? We both have fur?"
Mika set his ears back. "All right, you win. The reason you don't have many friends isn't because you're a bat. It's because you're too fucking hostile to get close to."
"I'm sorry," Revar said after a moment. "It's automatic."
"Are you afraid someone'll hurt you if they get too close?"
She laughed. "Perhaps I'm too careful about choosing my friends, kitten. But then again, I've very rarely made a bad choice."
As they walked on, she continued speaking. "If you're not afraid of being seen with me, you're a rare one."
"The same reason most dockworkers are deathly afraid of being seen with a homosexual. They're afraid people will mistake them for one."
"So you're saying people will mistake me for a vampire bat."
Revar smiled. "No, but you'll be identified as associating with a rogue."
Mika shrugged. "All right, your co-workers will believe I'm a homosexual rogue. I can live with that."
She touched an ink spot with one claw. "How long are you going to live with that?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean the docks aren't my life. And you don't strike as the sort who would make printing his."
The cat flicked his tail in irritation. "If you're implying I should start selling my sketches, I'm not ready yet."
"That's not the question. The question is, are your sketches ready to be sold?"
He glowered at her, but didn't reply.
"Is it better to have scruples or food?"
"You tell me."
"Given what I live on, I can't afford scruples, kitten."
He raised his eyebrows skeptically, then noticed she was looking past him. He turned around. Just off the street, a big, gaunt human in tattered clothing slept against the damp brick wall of a narrow alley.
She broke off from their path, heading toward the man. "I prefer catching drunks, but with any luck he won't wake up until it's too late."
Mika gaped. "Wait--"
"I can't, kitten," she said softly, looking back at him. Then she turned back to the alley, her demeanor changing; her arms moved slightly outward and she dropped to a crouch, her weight shifting forward.
"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. He glanced back up at her. "If there was an easier way to feed, I would. But I am not sorry for doing what I need to do in order to stay alive!"
"It just seems... so...." his voice trailed off, and he shook his head. "Aren't you afraid he'll recognize you later?"
"Yes. Most people on the docks won't care because they're too practical to be moralists. They don't care what I feed on as long as it's not them. But every meal is another risk. And if I get caught, I'm dead."
They had crossed into the Northwestern District, and Mika's building was visible. They walked in silence another minute, then Revar turned toward him. "I shouldn't have let you see that, I suppose."
"It's not your fault," he said, looking away. "I don't blame you for what you are."
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 should hold the lead more loosely. Move from the shoulder, not the wrist."
Mika glanced up in irritation. "This is why I don't draw with an audience."
"I wouldn't be making you do this if you would show me anything else you've drawn." 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. "I wouldn't do this for anyone else, except maybe Dahlu."
"Of course. She gets her way by sex. I get mine by being a scary bitch."
He drew for a few more minutes, then turned away, still sketching.
"Trying to do it from memory?"
Mika grunted. "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. "I don't have any clothes."
"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. "I don't like formal clothes. I wouldn't be wearing any at all if I could get away with it. These don't get in the way when I'm flying or fighting."
"And you enjoy the looks they get you."
"Yes." She grinned. "Half the assholes I work with look like they want to jump me every time 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 (they weren't all that big, but they were impressive). "You wouldn't be as likely to tease big male chauvinists if you didn't know they were already scared of you."
Revar laughed softly. "If they insist on being afraid to come near me, I might as well have a little fun with it. Are 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. Then he quickly amended, "I don't know if I'd call you pretty. Exactly." For the first time, it occurred to him that he might, indeed, call her pretty; he cleared his throat, feeling a little disoriented.
"I was thinking about bat standards, but even so..." She studied it a few minutes more, then moved away, pushing it into his lap. "So finish cleaning it up, ink 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 Pastahead! 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 finally whispered, "That's her?" to Mika. He nodded. "What's she doing here?"
Revar dropped her hand, then folded her wings around her. "I take it I don't get a kiss."
Dahlu looked over at her, fear flickering in her eyes. Revar snorted ungraciously. "What she's doing here is getting sketched. Come on, girl. Are you too frightened to even say hello?"
"That's... that's not it," Dahlu said, her voice trembling a little. "H-hello." She forced a smile. "I just didn't... expect anyone to be here."
"Especially me." Revar watched Dahlu stutter for a second, then laughed, a little sadly, and sighed. "You're too polite to ask me the question that's been bothering you since Mika met me, aren't you?"
"And what do you think that is?"
"If I have any designs on him. The answer is no, either as a lover or as food." Dahlu shivered a little. "And you don't have to worry about me doing anything to you, either."
Dahlu smiled uncertainly, stepping into the room as if she expected the carpet to burst into flames.
"Well," Mika said loudly, causing Dahlu to jump, "now that you've been so cordially introduced, I'll go start dinner."
Revar rose to her feet. "I should be going, then." She glanced at Dahlu. "I'm sorry if I caused you any... anxiety," she said, her tone completely unconvincing.
"What?" Mika said. "No. You were invited."
"Was I?" said Dahlu.
Revar shook her head and flexed her wings, making Dahlu jump again. "I don't want to put a strain on you, kitten. Some other time. Maybe I'll see you later tonight." She stepped outside, closing the door softly behind her.
"She called you 'kitten,'" Dahlu said, sitting down at the table and staring into space.
"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?"
"I don't think it's a term of endearment."
"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 model."
"I suppose so."
"That's all she was here for?"
"A man can be friends with a woman without being her lover."
"I know." She fidgeted again. "So you consider her a friend."
"You've been seeing her at night?"
Mika laughed, feeling exasperated. "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."
"I'm not sure she's... well, that she's good to have as a friend."
"Just because she doesn't have anything in common with you doesn't make her dangerous."
Dahlu's voice rose almost an octave. "Being a murderer does!"
"She doesn't normally kill people. Jesse's gang--"
"You told me that. But she told you that." She let out a long, shuddering breath. "I just don't think... you should be that... close to her."
"Physically, or as a friend?"
Mika looked over at her, then continued preparing the food. "I'm sorry you feel that way," he said curtly.
She went into the kitchen, surprised tinged with hurt on her face. "I'm your lover, Mika. What I think doesn't count?"
"I'm your lover, too. Does that mean I tell you who your friends should be?"
Her lower lip trembled. "That's not what I meant."
"Yes, it is. It's not what you said, but it's what you meant. I'm sorry you two don't get along. But I really think you're less willing to give her a chance than she is to give you one."
Dahlu watched him for a moment longer, then went back to the couch, sitting down and drawing into a little ball.
"I suppose I'm just asking you to trust my judgment," he said shortly.
"How well do you know Revar?" she asked.
He slammed a spoon down on the counter. "I already told you--"
"I don't mean whether you're sleeping with her. You said you weren't--I believe you. I meant, how well do you know her?"
"In some ways, better than people I've known for much longer."
Dahlu stared at him, her lip trembling again, then stood up. "I really don't think I should stay for dinner tonight."
Mika dropped what he was doing and came toward her. "Oh, 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, then nodded, turning away. "I'll see you tomorrow?"
"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 dangerous--yet, in her own way, breathtaking--lithe, winged elf.
"Don't you worry about getting caught doing this?"
"I can't get caught."
"That sounds overconfident."
"No, I mean that I can't afford to be caught. It would kill me." Her tone was serious; he looked at her inquiringly. "All prisoners get the same food, and most prisons can't--or won't--make allowances for bats. Unless it's a simple in-one-day, out-the-next charge, the courts are lucky to take two weeks between the arrest date and the trial."
"And if you went that long without blood, you might really be dead." She nodded, and 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 tonight."
"Did she see the sketch?"
"Yes." He laughed. "Seeing a sketch drawn by her lover as a woman she thinks of as a rival probably didn't make her feel any better."
"Seeing how good it was should have."
"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?"
"I don't know," he muttered. "It's not easy 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.
"No. That's what you have to make a living at," she said. "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."
"You sound like Dahlu."
"Then maybe she's not so much of a pastahead after all, kitten."
"Come on." He didn't try to keep the frustration from his voice. "I can't just drop everything and do what I want."
"You should always do what you want."
"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?"
"Oh, that line. Follow responsibilities instead of your heart." She sighed. "I've been to a church, Mika. It doesn't matter which one; they all teach that morals are at war with emotions. If you want to do what's right, you have to treat emotions like evil tricks sent to confound the righteous.
"If there's anything I've learned in life, it's that those teachings are a load of shit." She trailed one claw in the water, then hit the surface, splashing both of them and sending out waves of ripples. "Answer me this. Is rape your idea of fun?"
"No," he said. "But--"
"What sort of person does enjoy rape?"
"I don't know."
"A normal person?"
"No," she agreed. "So why should you base your morals on assuming the worst about yourself? You can't live your life by making the choices that would be least dangerous if you were a maniac. That's just a slow death. And a pretty damn boring one, too."
He watched the ripples smooth out and disappear. "So what if I don't know what I want?"
"Find out, kitten. That's so obvious it's painful."
"I can't make money by sketching."
She shifted to stare in his eyes, locking her solid black orbs on his face in a way that made him feel like squirming. "Can you make a life by it?"
"You mean be happy?" He looked down, laughing a little. "I've heard this one before. You tell me this: are you happy?"
"Not all the time. But when I get the chance, I take it. Mika, I started with handicaps you'll never understand. Even now, I'm inclined to divide the world into two categories: friends and prey. It doesn't endear me to people. I'm not sure I can make a living in a city like this, or anywhere else. But I still love cities. I've tried living in other places and I know I can't be happy in them. Eventually I'll move away from here. I want to go to Raneadhros. I don't know what I'll do there. But I'll still take happiness over security."
"That's living day to day. What about your future?"
"What about yours? A lot of people can't understand my life. Your fluffball will never understand it. And I know it's likely to be a pretty short life, too; I could die any day. But when I do, I can say that for all the time 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 with that, kitten. Recently I've been pretty happy." She smiled; after a moment, he smiled back, a little sheepishly.
"Thanks. I think."
"No. Thank you," she said softly, looking down. Mika watched her, unsure what to do. 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. "Abusing public property." 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, looking wet and miserable.
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 like a fish. "I'm a pirahna," she said, shaking off.
"You know, being soaked looks very nice on you."
She laughed. "You mean it makes my top indecently exposed."
"Yes." He extended a hand, helping her out of the pool.
Revar coughed and 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.
"I'm afraid so." 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.
"Would you like to come to Dahlu's party?" he said after a moment.
She laughed again. "I don't think she'd approve."
"Well, think about it. 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."
"You keep calling her pastahead."
"That doesn't mean I hate her. I just don't respect her."
He laughed in spite of himself. They walked out of the park hand in hand.