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," by T.S. Eliot
"It is not a stupid holiday. Where's your patriotism?" Dahlu's voice had what Mika thought of as her "dip edge." It was a particular testiness that only manifested itself when she was trying to make a fabulously complicated dip for her fabulously complicated party platters.
"That's a complex question. I could have patriotism for the Empire, or just for Rionar, or both. Or both in different degrees. Or--"
"All right, it's a stupid holiday. Shut up and taste this." She held out a spoon with a small amount of thick, orangish goo at its tip.
Mika paused at his task of meat-slicing, sniffed it suspiciously, and licked it. "What's it supposed to go with?"
"Cold cuts rolled around cheese."
"A bit specialized, isn't it?"
She thumped her foot impatiently. "How does it taste?"
"Good," he admitted. "They'll probably go pretty well together."
"Do you think it should be spicier?"
"A bit hotter."
"Okay." She wrapped up the bowl in wax paper. "Then it's finished."
"Thanks," Mika snorted as she put it back in the icebox. "How many are we expecting?"
"Well, I told you. It's an open party. I've invited, oh, two dozen, but they're welcome to bring their friends."
"Oh. That's good." He resumed slicing.
Dahlu glanced over at him, eyes narrowed. "You're thinking of inviting her, aren't you?"
Mika faltered slightly, then cursed under his breath for letting her see he was afraid of her reaction. "You said you wouldn't have a problem with me seeing her."
"I didn't say I wouldn't have a problem with me seeing her." She sighed and shook her head. "All right. But I don't think she'll like it, even if you convince her to go."
"We're not... her crowd." She shrugged.
"You're scared of how your friends will react to her."
"Shouldn't I be?" Her voice rose a little. "You know more about bats 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.
"I know," Dahlu said icily. "Love, when I tell everyone that dinner is served, half of them will expect her to go for their throat rather than the table."
"But she won't--"
"I believe she'll be on good behavior for you. But what if someone else starts trouble with her? From what little you've told me of her"--she threw a pot into the sink as if for punctuation--"she doesn't seem the type to look the other way at an insult."
"I thought 'our sort' didn't make trouble."
The expression she turned on him was pained and unforgiving. "Remember, it was your idea."
The drojaar 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 sketch of Revar, now pen and ink, toned with gray and brown ink wash. "I like what you've done with the shadows here," the dwarf continued, fingering his beard. "Some of the other ones you've shaded in similar ways are effective as well. Your stippling needs work. But the wash 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 zoomorph 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?"
"Yes," Mika said nervously.
"Interesting. Where did you find her?"
"A dark alley."
The drojaar looked at him, coming as close to smiling as the race seemed capable of. "Well." 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?"
The burly fox grinned as he passed by Mika. He smiled mechanically in return, picturing the fox wearing Dahlu's gooey orange dip.
"That's not nice, 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 have a life now, 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. Scat, the bulldog, had been following her around about an hour ago. He always did, but after being constantly rebuffed politely--and not so politely--for long enough, 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.
Revar was right. The anniversary of the Ranean Empire's founding was a holiday whose traditional celebration consisted of getting smashed. He preferred to think of the party as celebrating his first appearance in a gallery, however small. But, with his characteristic shyness, he had wanted to share that only with a few friends. 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 Mika's one alcoholic weakness, and this variety, produced in Raneadhros, the Empire's capital city-state some two hundred miles to the north, 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 was all in light brown, wearing 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 must 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, seeming unusually self-conscious. "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 quizzically in response, nodding slightly. 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 shook it. "And what were you expecting?"
"Hard to say, really. Someone with a lighter grip." He rubbed his wrist with his other hand, chuckling. "Dahlu's told us a bit about you."
"Most of it's probably not true," she said.
Jack grinned. "Oh, it wasn't bad." 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, if you have it."
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. It wasn't a good question, I suppose. I can't help but be interested, but I shouldn't put 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. "Are you sure you want to ask me that?" she said softly.
After a moment, the mouse nodded, not looking at all sure.
"I can," Revar said. "But if I do, I'll kill them. The only warm-blooded animals in this city are pets. And despite any stories you might have heard, most bats don't like to kill."
"It'd be better to kill a pet than to attack someone in this room," the mouse said.
"Most pet owners would disagree with you."
"Well, can't you just take a little?"
"How much I drink is involuntarily. The longer I go without blood, the more I'll take when I finally can." Revar paused. "Are you really interested in this, or are you just trying to decide whether I'm going to eat 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.
"Attacking isn't automatic for me any more than drinking that wine is for you." Revar's tone was still polite, but it was obvious her patience was almost out.
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, her expression only made people more nervous. She ended up sitting with Mika to her left and Jack to her right, several empty seats on either side beyond them. Dahlu sat across from Mika, with Scat--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.
"Thank you," she murmured, staring at it and picking at some of the items with a claw.
"You don't seem very comfortable."
"I'm not." She leaned back in her chair, looking around at the other guests. "I've never been to anything like this."
"And 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?"
"It smells very good," Revar said. "What I've tried I like. But Mika took more than I'm going to be able to eat."
Dahlu frowned. "You're not hungry?"
She shook her head, nibbling at a fruit roll.
"Already ate?" Scat 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 fixed him with an unblinking stare; he assumed the stance of someone trying very hard not to flinch. "That was uncalled for," she said softly.
He pursed his lips, then shrugged, wolfing down a meat roll. "So were you." Dahlu sucked in her breath sharply; the bulldog smiled, falsely apologetic. "I mean, you weren't really invited. I didn't mean to be insulting."
Revar tensed, her claws digging into her napkin.
"Be careful. This is a game," Mika whispered very softly in Revar's ear and putting a cautioning hand on her arm.
"It's not one I like," she replied, shaking his hand off.
"We were asked to invite friends," Mika said. "She's mine."
Scat 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."
"Perhaps if people like you weren't as quick to call the guard when they saw people like me, such visits wouldn't be so rare," she said quietly.
Scat glanced up at her, his smile dropping a bit. "I'm sure it's nothing personal. People prefer to err on the side of caution."
"Caution against what?"
He leaned back in his chair. "Possibly... dangerous people."
He flashed a look of superior boredom at her, downing another meat roll. "Look. It's very easy to assume that the only reason you'd be here if the cat hadn't invited you was to steal something. Or to pursue someone."
"And it might be wrong," Revar said, her voice rising in volume.
"It might not be." He spread his hands.
Revar sat a moment longer, her eyes locked to his face, then abruptly pushed back from the table and stood. "I don't need to be told I'm a criminal." She turned.
Scat laughed, a bit too loudly. "What else can you call someone who kills people?"
She whirled around again, glaring at him.
"Well, you do," the mouse girl who had been on the couch said timidly. Revar turned 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.
"You're lucky someone's not calling the Guard now," Scat said.
Jack suddenly stood up, dropping his empty plate to the table with a melodramatic clang. "Give it a rest, Scat. And the rest of you. She hasn't bothered anyone here."
"Maybe I should start," Revar growled, walking around the table to stand over Scat's chair. "If you don't like the way I live, that's your business. I don't ask you to. But I'll be damned if I'm going to apologize for it to you, or to anyone else.
"Just look at you." She looked as if she was about to spit on the bulldog. "I came here because I wanted to do something I've never done before, and because Mika wanted me here. And because I wanted to have fun--something you've succeeded in stopping. But this is still just an evening for me. For you it's your whole life, isn't it?"
Scat watched her with a baffled expression. She moved back and looked around the room; conversation had almost stopped at the tables and couches, most of the forty-odd guests focusing on her. "This is it for all of you, isn't it? You don't have anything else to do. You have nice little jobs where you do work you don't like for someone you despise. Or you're perpetual students, working at avoiding all of the real world. And the rest of your life is coming to every glamorous social event your rich friends throw and getting drunk.
"There are people like you on the docks, too. You're not that different from them after all. Except that they don't have anyone to feel superior to, so they're not as insufferable as people like that dog." She ripped off her cloak and flexed her wings, eliciting gasps from the crowd.
Scat stood now; he towered over the bat by more than a foot, outmassing her by almost three times. "You're dangerously arrogant," he said softly.
"You're dangerously fat," she snapped, turning her back on him and starting to walk toward the door. He 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," a woman said. It might have even been the mouse girl, but it didn't matter. He ignored it.
"That wrist of yours looks pretty fragile, the way the wing connects." He 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 Scat's arm. He yanked it out of the cat's reach; Revar winced, snarling.
"I don't like being lectured by people like you. Five years from now, I'll be closer to the top. You'll be lying dead in a gutter somewhere. And if you press people like us too far, you might not make it that long."
"Speak for yourself," Jack said, stepping toward them. "Let go of her wing." He reached for Scat's shoulders.
"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, swinging her free arm lightly toward Scat.
"Don't try--" The bulldog was 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.
"How about a trade, society man," she said softly. "My wing for your future sex life."
He stared down at her. "You let go first," he gritted after a moment.
She shook her head, smiling a little. "I don't trust you to let go."
"And why the hell should I trust you?"
"Because if we both break what we're holding, my wing will heal."
Scat held on a moment longer, trembling a little, then released her wing.
"Good man," she said, giving 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 think I should call this an evening. Or, by my schedule, early morning. Do you mind if I take this plate?"
Dahlu shook her head, wide-eyed.
"I will return it. After all, I wouldn't want you to think I was a thief. Thank you for a most interesting, if not entirely pleasant, new experience."
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.
She laughed. "I'm sorry I'm near here now. No offense to the rest of the guests." She glanced over at the shivering mouse. "That is, if there's anyone here I haven't offended already. Good evening." She stepped through the door, closing it softly behind her.
Nobody spoke for several seconds. Then the room exploded into conversation. Several people went over to Scat, 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.
"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.
Dahlu looked angry enough to throw the plate she was holding at him, so Mika stepped back out of range. "You don't see it at all, do you?" she screamed.
He shook his head negatively. She had already admitted it wasn't Revar's fault, but that appeared to be immaterial. It was somehow Revar's fault anyway, and by association Mika's as well.
"She was inviting trouble just by being here. She knew it, and you knew it when you invited her."
"You're saying she should have stayed in her place. That's what Scat said, too."
"Don't compare me to him," she snapped, slamming the plate into the sink.
"You're the one who said it." He thrust his hands into his pockets.
"You're holding her responsible for not fitting into your world view," he persisted. "You're pretending it's entirely her fault for not knowing her place in society. That makes Scat completely blameless."
Dahlu stomped her foot. "He is not completely blameless. It's as much that... that idiot's fault as it is hers."
"The only way you can believe that any of it was Revar's fault is to agree with Scat! Do you or don't you?"
"Oh, damn you," she said, rubbing her forehead. "Mika, she killed my party." Her voice became small and hurt.
Mika snorted. "Most people went right back to normal after she left. She was the only one whose evening was damaged--except for Scat. And I can't believe you have more sympathy for him than for her."
"Are you sure?"
She remained silent, ears flattening.
"You just don't want to admit the possibility that I'm right, do you?"
"No, I don't!" she hissed. "Why did you have to find her in the first place?" She stormed out of the kitchen. By the time Mika followed her, she was sitting on the couch, legs drawn up, sniffling quietly.
"I don't think she wanted this to happen," he said softly.
"I know what she wanted," she muttered, looking down at the carpet. "She wanted you. And you wanted her."
Dahlu sunk back into the couch, closing her eyes. "She has you wrapped around one of her cute little fangs. Don't tell me you don't see it."
"I'm not interested in her that way, Dahlu. I've--"
"Maybe you aren't. Not yet. But how long do you think it will take?"
Mika sat down beside her, reaching out an arm. "You know you're just as pretty as she is. Prettier."
She smiled wanly at him. "When you first met her, you told me you didn't think she was pretty at all." He started to protest, but she shook her head. "No. I'm pretty, but I'm not exotic. She's both.
"You've been attracted to danger since you started going down to the docks, Mika. And... I don't know. I don't know why you started going down there 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." She sighed. "Except that you're attracted to danger, and she's the most dangerous thing you know."
"Cut it out," Mika said, taking her arm and pulling her toward her 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; they were challenging. He dropped his first. "She is."
"Does that matter?"
She nodded. "Yes, I think it does."
"But I love you," he said simply, as if it were an explanation for everything.
"Stop seeing her," she said softly. Her eyes were desperate.
He stroked her hair away from her eyes, feeling a growing sense of loss he couldn't quite put into words. After a moment with nothing spoken, 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.
He sat down on the ground, his back against the fountain's side, and looked up at the stars. The place seemed to have acquired a special magic for him; 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. But it was hard to think about anything at all.
According to the drojaar at the gallery, several people had expressed interest in his pictures. And, as he had predicted, most were other gallery owners. None had offered to buy either at the drojaar's set price. Mika had thought he had greatly overvalued them, but the dwarf had dourly insisted that they were priced too low, "even for Rionar." Evidently it still wasn't low enough for purchasers, though.
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, and thought it was unusual for you to be out trespassing on your own. Anything wrong?"
He smiled bitterly. "It's not unusual for me anymore. I must be hanging out with the wrong crowd."
"Princess is on your back about me," she guessed.
He tilted his head back to look up at her. "Yes. And no." She started rubbing his neck lightly; he stiffened at first, then forced himself to relax. "She doesn't want me to keep seeing you."
"We already knew that."
"No, it's more than that." He leaned forward, and she moved her hand onto his shoulder, matching it with her other one. The leading edge of her wings brushed up and down his forearms as she moved, sending pleasant but vaguely unsettling whispers up his spine. "She accused me of being attracted to you."
She rubbed a little harder, and he started purring softly under her touch. "Are you?"
"It sounds like she's accusing me of trying to steal you from her," replied Revar.
"And are you?"
She laughed. "I used to think along those lines, many years ago. I've since learned that we choose our partners. We don't kidnap them. You might say that you'd have to want to be stolen for that to happen."
"I think she's worried about that, too."
Revar smiled, but said nothing. She kept rubbing, moving down his chest.
"I'm not selling any art, either," he said suddenly. "I'm trying. But I'm not succeeding."
"It's only been a week," she admonished.
"He says I might have to try in some bigger cities."
"You could come with me to Raneadhros."
He pulled away, twisting around to face her. "You're leaving?"
"Relax," 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."
"But with you, it could be tomorrow." Mika fought to keep his voice even.
"If I go," she said softly, "you'll know where to find me."
Mika remained silent for a few more minutes, his purr gradually fading. Then he stood up, walking away from the fountain toward the manicured grass nearby.
"Now what?" Revar called.
"I'm losing her," he said.
She studied him for a few seconds. "You love her?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"An honest one. But you do love her. I can see that."
"You sound disappointed," he said, looking over at the bat.
Revar shrugged, smiling her most enigmatic smile.
"I don't want to lose her over you."
"You want to stop seeing me?"
"No," he said, dropping down on the grass. "I don't want to make a choice. I shouldn't have to make a choice."
She sat down beside him, wings open, arms stretched out behind her. "Are you worried she's right?"
"Right about what?"
"That we might become lovers." She looked down, chuckling. "A vampire bat and a starving artist kitten. We would make a very strange couple indeed."
He smiled. Then something seemed to well up from inside, and without warning, he was crying. "I'm trying--and I don't know what else to do...." His voice trailed off into an unwilling sob.
Somehow Revar's arm's were 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 and much warmer than he had imagined, almost hot, but oddly 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 put a claw on the tip of his nose and pushed him away, almost regretfully. "If we do that, it'll be the end of you and Dahlu. You know that."
"Yes," he said, looking down.
"I still think she's a pastahead," she said gently, "but she's your pastahead. And even if I don't like it, I know she loves you. You have to either end your relationship with her, or fix it."
"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."
"But we're already something more," Mika said, huddling against her.
"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. 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 "multiple partner relationships," it wasn't an option. Even if he could do it, Dahlu never could.
But he knew the bat would be happy if their relationship stayed at the same level it was now--an non-physical intimacy that he and Dahlu had never really shared. And he would be happy with that, too. But his feline love would never be happy with being "just friends." So he would have to convince her that he and Revar would remain that way.
And, perhaps, convince himself.
A fine attorney you'd make, he thought bitterly. It's difficult to make your case when you're not sure you believe it.
We would make a very strange couple indeed....
Two human Guardsmen, dressed in their near-immaculate red uniforms, nodded politely at they ran past Mika at top speed. "Good day to you, too," the cat said perplexedly.
He didn't start running, too, until he realized they were heading to the same house he was.
As he reached Dahlu's door, another Guard appeared behind him, also politely nodding as he pushed Mika aside and raced through the doorway. "What in the hell?" Mika snapped.
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 run past the Guard. "Stop!"
She looked over at him, fangs bared. "I--" She glared back up at Dahlu. "She tricked me!" Her voice was a howl of anguish.
Dahlu shook her head frantically, pawing at Revar's arm. "No," she choked.
"Put down the cat, ma'am," one of the Guard said politely, raising his sword.
"What are you talking about?" Mika said to Revar, ignoring the human completely.
"I'd appreciate you standing out of the way in case someone gets hurt, sir," the Guard behind him said.
"She's not going to hurt anyone," Mika snapped. "Put her down," he said to Revar.
"I...." Revar swallowed. "This wasn't what was supposed to happen. I came over to talk and she... called them." She backed away from the Guard, still holding the helpless cat like a toy.
"She didn't, ma'am," the Guard closest to her said. "Put the cat down now."
"What's going on?" Mika said.
"We may have assault charges pending on this suspect," one of the other Guards replied. "Not to mention taking a hostage."
"Please," Dahlu gasped.
Revar stared up at her a moment longer; then, to Mika's shock, a tear rolled down the bat's cheek. She set Dahlu 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. She screamed shrilly and threw him into the air; he sailed over the couch and landed 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. "Don't let them take me--"
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.
"Let's move quickly," one of the Guard said. Two of them lifted Revar to her feet, as gently as they could given her struggling. 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?"
"No," she said after a moment. "It's your fault she grabbed me."
The Guard cleared his throat, looking dourly surprised, and turned away. "Good day, then."
"She's not pressing charges!" Mika said angrily. "Why are you taking her?"
"Sir, we followed her here because we have a pending assault charge on a bat who fits her description. We are authorized to bring her in for identification purposes. If she's not the one we're looking for, we will let her go." The Guard 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.
Mika watched numbly, wondering if Dahlu would have been treated the same way if she matched a suspect's description. He doubted it.
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 called the Guard?"
"You're saying they just watch the entrance streets here to see if the riffraff wanders in?" His voice rose.
"For known riffraff, yes," she said tightly. "The pending charges are probably from Scat, and that assault happened right here." She sighed. "She didn't believe me, either. That's why she grabbed me."
Mika ran his hands through his mane. "What was she here for?"
"To return the plate." She laughed bitterly. "She was right. She isn't a thief."
Then she looked up at him. "She was here to talk about you. And about us. She didn't get a chance to say much before they showed up. But she wanted to convince me that you're just friends." She smiled slightly. "I think she wants me to like her. Because you like her, and because she doesn't want me to see her as a threat. Without you I think the only way she'd ever see me is as a late night snack."
"You know it's true."
He did. "Do you still think of her as a threat?"
"In a way," she said very softly, "I do like her. Even after having been picked up like a doll. She's very charismatic. And, yes," she sighed, "I think she's more of a threat to me now than ever."
Mika walked to the door. "Are you coming down to the station?"
"If you're asking me to pay her bail, I can't do it."
Just before he left, he turned, not quite looking at her. "If you could, would you?"
Her voice was barely a whisper. "I hope so. I really do hope so."
"She doesn't... do what you need. And she doesn't see it. I just wanted to get her to see a little more of you." Revar spoke to him from the other side of a mesh screen. She was no longer bound, but five Guardsmen stood watch over her.
"You wanted to help me by getting yourself killed?"
The bat sniffled. Nothing looked more pathetic than a helpless predator, Mika decided. "I thought she had called them somehow. I'm sorry." She started to growl. "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, but didn't speak.
"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 chilled him.
Mika waited in the station lobby another ten hours, through the rest of the night, drinking coffee and sharing donuts with a talkative ferret Guard until Revar's case was reviewed.
As they had known, the assault charges had been filed by Scat. "I was there," he told the officer. "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, cut him off. "You may speak in her behalf at the trail, Mr. Radgers. However, charges have been filed and 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.
"Considering the circumstances in which the defendent was arrested--namely, in the process of committing another assault, regardless of whether or not charged were filed--I cannot, in good conscience, allow her to go free with minimum bail. Therefore, bail is set at two thousand vars."
Mika's heart dropped. That was more than he made in two months; he had, at most, three hundred on hand. Even if Dahlu could be convinced to loan him money, she would have to borrow it from her parents. They would not be fond of the idea of paying bail for someone who assaulted their own daughter. And they were probably friends with Scat's parents.
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 trail date is the 26th, one hour past threechime." He wrote the date down on a card and handed it to Mika. "If you wish to appear in the defendant's behalf at the trial, please be on time."
Feeling cheated, Mika walked out of the station. It was only the third of the month. That meant more than three weeks in jail for Revar. And if she had been right earlier, three weeks on normal prison food.
I can't afford to 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.