(published in Fort Freak)
Kavitha eased her way out of her daughter’s room, closing the door quietly behind her. It had taken longer than usual to get her toddler down; Isai had insisted on telling her a long, incomprehensible story about Daddy and dragons. When Michael got home from the station, Kavitha would have to ask him if he’d said something to Isai. In Jokertown, it was entirely plausible that Michael had encountered real dragons in the course of his detective duties — or at least something close enough to pass for real. He was going to have to stop reading his daughter police reports; Isai was getting old enough to understand them. And even though the child appeared to be fearless, some of the things Michael dealt with on a day-to-day basis terrified even Kavitha; Isai didn’t need to hear all the gritty details of Daddy’s job. Not yet. Isai might be an ace, with fearsome shapeshifting abilities, but she was also only two-and-a-half years old. Michael was just going to have to learn how to make stories up. Appropriate stories.
Kavitha was startled out of her newfound determination by a knocking on the door. Not loud, but somehow frantic. Who in the world…? They didn’t get a lot of visitors. Kavitha took a few quick steps down the hall to the apartment door, and peered through the little circle of glass. Her eyes widened as she took in the brown-skinned woman on the other side of the door, her face covered in blood and darkening bruises, her arm bent at an angle that was just wrong. Kavitha hesitated a moment, mindful of the child sleeping in the other room — but this woman was small and soft and broken. Kavitha couldn’t just leave her standing in the hallway. It wasn’t as if Kavitha weren’t able to defend Isai, if the need arose — in theory, anyway. Michael kept urging her to practice using her powers as a weapon, but she hated weapons. Ironic, considering her boyfriend carried one every day.
Kavitha opened the door, managing to smile at the woman on the other side.
The woman said softly, “I’m sorry to bother you. Is Michael here?”
Kavitha raised an eyebrow. “You know Michael?”
She hesitated. “It’s been a while. My name is Minal — he probably wouldn’t have mentioned me. But we were…friends, once upon a time.”
The way she said friends made it clear that they’d been more than friends. The woman was wearing an oversized T-shirt and a pair of jeans, nothing glamorous. The bloodstains didn’t help, or the glorious black eye. But Minal was still undeniably sexy. Smooth brown skin, waves of wild midnight hair falling down her back. Hair longer than Kavitha’s, and Michael did love long hair; every time Kavitha said something about cutting hers, he had to visibly bite his tongue to keep from begging her not to. Minal’s body was curvy, generously gifted with both tits and ass. Neither of which Kavitha had much of, which was a good thing for a dancer, but not so great when your boyfriend’s ex showed up at the door.
She said curtly, “Michael’s at work.” Kavitha saw the panic rise in the woman’s eyes, and repented of her harshness. Even if he was dragging his feet about actually proposing, she and Michael were solid — they had a child together, for gods’ sakes. She could afford to be more gracious than this. “But you can wait for him inside, if you want.”
Minal swallowed hard. “Yes, please. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Kavitha stepped aside and let the woman slip inside. It was strange — even with a bloodied face and terror in her eyes, there was a palpable heat rising from the woman, some sort of sexual signal, like pheromones. Kavitha didn’t think it was just in her head — something about Minal seemed to whisper sex, just under the surface. God, Michael must have loved her.
Kavitha closed the door, and then studied the woman with cool eyes. “That shoulder looks dislocated.”
Minal shrugged, and then winced. “It is. Not the first time.”
“May I?” Kavitha asked, gesturing to the shoulder. Minal nodded, and Kavitha reached out to probe the injury with light, gentle fingers. “It looks like an anterior dislocation, luckily, and I don’t think there’s any additional fracturing, though I can’t be sure. You should go to the hospital, get that fixed.”
Minal shook her head. “No hospital. I can’t.”
“A clinic? A doctor?”
“No, no. I just — I just need to talk to Michael.”
“But you have to be in terrible pain.” There would have been endorphins at first, blocking the pain, but they’d have worn off by now. Kavitha hesitated, then said reluctantly, “If you want, I can try to fix it.”
“Are you a doctor?” Minal asked hopefully.
She shook her head, not without regret. “No — a dancer. But I spent four years in med school before dropping out to dance professionally. I can try to fix it, if you want. It’ll hurt a lot, and I can’t guarantee it’ll work. And I have a kid who just fell asleep, so no screaming. I don’t want her to see…this.” Kavitha gestured at Minal’s entire body, her battered face.
Minal nodded. “I understand. I have a high pain threshold — I can take it.” She smiled wryly. “I can take a lot of abuse.”
Kavitha didn’t want to think about what that simple statement meant, the history it implied. Instead, she said lightly. “Someone sure wanted to test that today, huh? Okay, brace yourself.” If she was going to do this, fast and smooth was the only way to go.
She reviewed the procedure in her head, just once, and then reached out to take hold of Minal’s arm. Upper arm in resting position, check. Bend elbow at ninety-degree angle, check, ignoring the flash of rising pain in Minal’s eyes. Rotate arm and shoulder inward, towards the chest, to make an ‘L’ shape. And now, a quick, deep breath for nerve and luck, and slowly, steadily, rotate arm and shoulder out. Kavitha couldn’t ignore the pain that blanched Minal’s brown face, but she kept going anyway. Seventy, eighty, ninety degrees out and there, there, she could feel it in her hands, the shoulder coaxed back into its joint, back home again with a sudden pop. And there it was, the immediate relief from pain making Minal’s face ten years younger and surprisingly beautiful, glowing as it turned up towards her in warm gratitude. So beautiful that Kavitha caught her breath, suddenly knowing that she was in deep, deep trouble.
All this time, worrying about Michael, and how he’d react to Minal. She’d been so stupid.
Minal tried not to wince away as Michael’s girlfriend bent down and dabbed at her face with a wet paper towel. The woman’s fingers were very careful and gentle, but it still hurt. They were on the last stages of clean-up; Kavitha had already strapped her arm into an immobilizing sling and applied antibiotic cream to the open cuts. She’d even stitched up the deepest of them, the one right above Minal’s cheek, where the Demon Prince’s ring had cut her when his fist slammed into her face — no, no. Don’t think about that, don’t think about any of it. Time enough for that when Michael came home. Kavitha had filled him in, tersely, when he’d called. He’d be here as soon as his shift was over. For now, Minal would just try to relax and enjoy the beautiful girl whose lips were so close to hers, so close that she could have just reached up and kissed them, hardly needing to move at all. Michael had certainly picked a pretty one, slender and graceful; Kavitha smelled nice too, like sandalwood. Minal was happy for him. Really.
She asked, trying to make the words casual, “So, you and Michael have a kid? I always thought he’d make a good father; he seemed the daddy type. Have you been married long?” It couldn’t be that long; it had only been four years since Michael had worked the vice squad. He’d started out being protective of Minal, then dating her. She’d broken it off when he’d started talking about moving in together. Michael had claimed that he’d be okay with it if she kept working, but it just hadn’t seemed wise to get serious with a cop. Minal had been eighteen when they met, not quite nineteen when they broke it off. Michael had seemed like a good guy for settling down with, but she hadn’t been ready to settle down, not with the virus setting her blood to boiling. No one guy, or girl, could be enough for her back then, and the job had seemed a perfect fit. She was awfully popular, so the money was good. Really good. She could fit Michael’s entire apartment into her living room. Not that that made up for it all, in the end.
“We’re not married,” Kavitha said simply. She finished with Minal’s face, and sat back on her heels to consider her handiwork. Minal was sitting on a low futon, and Kavitha was still only a few inches away. If it weren’t for this stupid shoulder, Minal could just reach out and pull Kavitha down onto the couch, onto her. That would be a fun scene for Michael to walk in on! But with the shoulder, any such attempt would likely be disastrous.
So they weren’t married. Minal wondered what that meant. She was tempted to apologize for her assumption, but thought that would probably make things worse. Michael was probably just being a typical guy, afraid of commitment. You’d think he was smart enough to figure out that having a kid together was the ultimate commitment. One way or another, he was tied to this woman for life.
Kavitha asked, “So, you two used to date?”
Minal wasn’t sure how much to say. Best to downplay it, probably. If this girl got jealous and threw her out, she’d be back in real trouble. She didn’t know where else to go. “Four years ago, for a bit.”
Kavitha nodded, looking thoughtful. “That was just before we hooked up. I didn’t plan on getting serious with a cop, but I picked him up in a bar, we had a great one-night-stand, and then, three weeks later, I called him and told him I was pregnant. Contraceptive failure, dammit.” She hesitated, and then continued. “I was going to abort, but chickened out the last moment. And then Michael got all noble when I got too big to dance and was having trouble making rent. So we moved in together, and then we had a baby, and as it turned out, eventually we fell in love.”
Minal felt an odd stab of jealousy, which stung much worse than any of the cuts on her face. Weird, when she’d been the one who didn’t want kids, didn’t want a boring, bourgeois life. “So it all worked out for the best. That’s nice.”
Kavitha said soberly, “We got lucky. When the baby and I caught the virus, I thought he was going to leave. But Michael stuck around, despite not knowing how it’d all turn out. I think that’s when I started to fall for him.”
Minal was startled, and again, jealous. “You look…normal.”
Kavitha shrugged. “It only manifests when I dance, and it’s under my control.”
“Must be nice.” Minal couldn’t keep the bitterness entirely out of her voice.
Kavitha raised an eyebrow. “You look normal too.”
“If I took my shirt off, you’d see different.”
Kavitha smiled and said lightly, “Well, don’t go trying to take your shirt off now! With that sling, you probably should keep that shirt on for a day or two. Give the inflammation a chance to subside. And go easy on it after that — it’s going to take a long time to really heal.”
It was odd — Kavitha was telling her to keep her clothes on, but something about her body language was off. She was sitting a little too close, leaning in. Her breath was a little too fast. If she’d been one of her clients, Minal would have said that she was begging for it. Minal decided to take a chance. What the hell.
“Are you sure you want me to keep my shirt on?” It was her best hooker voice, the come-and-get-me huskiness low and dark.
She couldn’t be certain, with Kavitha’s light-brown skin, but Minal was pretty sure that was a blush. Kavitha ducked her head down, but not before Minal caught the smile on her face. “For now,” she said, softly. And then she was springing to her feet, graceful as a gazelle. “I think I hear Isai waking up. I’ll be right back.”
Minal hadn’t heard anything, but she bit her tongue and kept her peace, wishing that she hadn’t said anything. Stupid. She didn’t need complications right now. What she needed was safe haven, and if she were smart, she wouldn’t do or say anything to jeopardize that. Even if Michael’s girlfriend did have beautifully long legs and a limber body. A dancer. In all Minal’s years as a working girl, she’d never slept with a dancer. Minal squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, digging her long, red fingernails into her palms. This wasn’t going to be easy.
Michael felt thrown off balance even before he opened his apartment door. The place smelled wrong. It smelled…good. Like something delectable was cooking. Which was impossible, since Kavitha was a terrible cook. Michael could grill a decent steak, roast a chicken, steam some veggies. Nothing fancy, but decent; his mother had made sure of that. Kavitha burned rice. And pasta. And water — or at least she let it boil off until it was entirely gone and the pot scorched beyond all redemption. So he knew that his girlfriend wasn’t responsible for the complex blend of scents seeping out from under his front door. A savoury blend of meat and spices and maybe something sweet — oranges? He’d come home braced for trouble, but suddenly all he could think about was how hungry he was. He took a deep, delicious, breath, and opened the door.
“Michael, we can’t let this girl get away. Taste this!” Kavitha was bent over the stove, stirring something in a large pot.
“Daddy, daddy, daddy!” Isai ran across the apartment and hurled herself at him, half shifting mid leap, so that for a brief moment he was enfolded in wings — and then she was herself again, naked and squirming.
“Little girl, you know you’re not supposed to shift without asking first. How many times have I told you?”
“Sorry, daddy!” she proclaimed cheerfully, not sounding sorry at all. And then she was off, babbling a long story about ducks and chickens and oranges and limes and too much pepper and sneezing and how she got to play with the water and Aunty Minal said that she was very pretty and she was a pretty princess, wasn’t she, and mommy did cooking! The last delivered in a tone of absolute astonishment.
“Your mother cooked this?” Michael asked, raising an incredulous eyebrow.
Kavitha shook her head, laughing. “I did some chopping and stirring, but under strict supervision. This is all Minal’s work. And you still haven’t tasted anything.”
“In a minute, I promise. Where is Minal, anyway?”
“Here, Michael.” She stepped out of the hallway shadows, and even though he was happy with Kavitha, very happy, almost-ready-to-propose happy, Michael was hit once again by the sheer sex of Minal, tightening his groin, sending his thoughts spinning off in a dozen directions. That’s why she was so good at her job, of course. The wild card had left her a curse, but also a gift. If you chose to take it that way.
“It’s good to see you again,” he managed to say. And then he took a step closer to Kavitha, still holding Isai in his arms, a domestic talisman. He bent to taste the spoon his girlfriend held out to him. Some sort of pan-Asian duck stew, sweet and hot and mind-numbingly delicious. Just like Minal. “That’s — nice.”
“Michael!” Kavitha scolded him, smiling. “Damning with faint praise, and you know she doesn’t deserve it.”
“I’m sorry. This is all a lot to take in. And I think it’s this little girl’s bedtime, isn’t it?”
“Overdue,” her mother admitted. “Good night, princess,” she said, bending to drop a kiss on Isai’s forehead.
“I want Aunty Minal to put me to bed!”
Kavitha asked, “Are you sure, princess?”
“Yes! Yes yes yes!”
Kavitha turned to the other woman. “Minal, if it’s all right with you? She doesn’t need much — just a trip to the potty, pyjamas, a story and a song.”
“That sounds lovely,” Minal said, coming forward to scoop the little girl into her good arm, coming disturbingly close to Michael as she did so. “Just what the doctor ordered, at the end of a very long day.”
Michael said softly, “I’m going to want to hear about that day when you’re done.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “Why don’t you eat your dinner first? I’ll be back soon.” And then she was turning, walking away down the hall carrying his daughter. Looking oddly comfortable doing so, even despite the awkward sling. It was funny — he’d never thought of Minal as the maternal type. Although he supposed that wasn’t surprising, given the circumstances under which they’d met.
He turned back to his girlfriend. “We have to talk.”
Kavitha handed him a plate laden with rice and duck stew. “We’ll talk while you eat. I think I’ve gotten most of her story out of her, though she won’t tell me exactly who beat her up. And I have an idea to run by you.”
Minal sang softly to the little girl, a Tamil version of “Are You Sleeping” that her dad had sung to her. She hadn’t thought of her dad in quite a while; her card had turned when she was fourteen, and he’d been completely unable to handle what it had done to her. He’d basically kicked her out of their apartment, and with her mother dead for over a decade, there hadn’t been any reason to try to stay. She’d hitchhiked her way up to New York, and ended up in Jokertown. Went hungry for a while, when she couldn’t get any real jobs, and then, when hunger and her own sex drive got too much for her, she’d started turning tricks. Still, it hadn’t been so bad. She’d become a hooker, sure, but a high-class one. No drugs, no pimp — she’d been lucky enough to meet some other girls who invited her to join their co-op, so essentially, she worked for herself. And if she got beat up occasionally, she made damn sure the client paid for the privilege in advance. She even got to be friends with some of her clients — like poor Joe Twitch.
He’d been so scared, when he showed up at her door last night. Not her real door — she kept her apartment safely separate from the house she rented along with some other working girls. It was a nice house, with a bouncer within easy call and panic buttons built into the headboard of the beds. A safe place. Maybe that’s why Joe seemed to relax when he stepped in the door, or maybe that was just her, the pheromones she couldn’t help emitting any time she got aroused. She got aroused so easily, since the virus. It was a nuisance a lot of the time, but the clients liked it. Especially Joe — he was so quick, at everything. He really appreciated that she was ready and willing at pretty much a moment’s notice. With Joe, a few steps across the room and he was pulling down her skirt, turning her around, bending her over. Sliding one hand under her shirt, across the tiny nipples that spread across her torso, the wild card’s gift and curse. Just the brush of his hand sending her arching back, pressing against him, wet and ready. And then he was dropping his pants, sliding into her — one, two, three and he was done, but that was okay, because by then, she’d usually come too. The easiest of her clients, and sweet too — one of the ones who liked to cuddle afterwards.
She’d actually fallen asleep next to him, something she rarely did, but it had been a long day, followed by a long night. One of the other girls was sick, so she’d pulled a double shift; Joe was her sixth client. When she woke up, it was to find him almost in tears. What’s the matter? she’d asked. But he’d just shaken his head. Said, never mind — better if you don’t know any details. I’m going up against someone, someone big. But I can take him. I’ve got the four-one-one on him; he owes me, and I own him. He’s going to pay up. He’s going to pay plenty for what he had burned, or he’s gonna be the one burning, burning in hell. As soon as I get that money, I’ll come back here and pay you first, sweetheart, I swear — at which point, the conversation took a sharp turn, because even if Joe was a regular, extending credit was not normally a part of this business, and he should have known better. He worked at a house himself, although granted, a much lower-rent version. Joe had apologized so profusely, and seemed so freaked out, that in the end, Minal sighed and let him leave without Jimbo marking him up any. Just this once.
And then she’d gone back to sleep, and woke up to find herself paying for her mercy. A stranger stood at the door to her room, his face and arms covered in angry red blisters, some of the popped open and weeping. His body wrapped in black and silver leather. Another man was standing much closer to the bed, dressed in pinstriped pants and a white undershirt, his head wreathed in a crown of jagged horns. Demon Princes, from the garb — Minal had just enough time to figure that out, and then the horned man was grabbing her arm, hauling her up to her knees in the bed, slapping her across the face, back and forth, rhythmically, demanding to know what she knew. C’mon, bitch. We know he was here. What did Joe tell you? What do you know? And she was trying to tell him nothing, but he didn’t even give her a chance to catch her breath, much less say anything. And his partner saying, Hey, hurry up, someone’s coming, and then, thank the gods, there was Jimbo, all nine feet of him ducking down into the room, flailing with all four of his extra-long arms, slamming the door guy into the floor.
The sight of Jimbo must have made the horned guy holding her go a little crazy, because that was when he punched Minal in the face, hard, before he dragged her off the bed with a sharp yank, dislocating her shoulder in the process. He held her naked in front of him like a living shield as he backed away from Jimbo, pulled her back across the room until he reached the open window, and then he shoved her away, to the floor, and he was gone, out the window. But she didn’t know when he’d come back, and as it turned out, Jimbo had hit the other guy a little too hard, and he wasn’t going to be answering any questions for anyone. Minal knew his friends would be coming back, with reinforcements. If the Demon Princes were after her, her safe place wasn’t safe anymore.
So here she was, and now the kid was asleep. One side benefit of her card turning had been that she healed a little faster than normal; the throbbing of her face and shoulder had already calmed down. She wouldn’t be up for serious acrobatics anytime soon, but she was closer to healed than a nat would be. No more excuse for lingering in this quiet sanctuary — it was time to go out and face the music.
Michael shook his head at the end of Minal’s dry recitation of events. She’d covered everything from the moment Joe walked in her door to Jimbo telling her the second Demon Prince was dead. Michael frowned. “I can’t figure out what this was about. Joe was blackmailing someone, going to meet them for the payoff — listen, did he have a gun on him when he left you?”
Minal shook her head. “Joe never carried a gun.”
“And is there any chance any of this was drug-related?”
She said, “I don’t think so — Joe didn’t use, and he never sold drugs.”
Michael’s frown deepened. Hell, this was getting ugly. “What about the dead guy? You called that one in?”
Minal nodded. “Yes, of course. We run a respectable house.”
He said slowly, thinking out loud, “Jimbo will do okay; it was self-defense, and you said they broke down your front door?” She nodded. Michael paused, then said reluctantly, “I don’t think you should go back there.”
Minal squeezed her eyes closed for a second, then opened them again. “I was hoping you could arrest me? Keep me safe in the cells until you figure out what’s going on?”
Michael shook his head. “I don’t know what the hell is going on. All that talk about burning in hell — maybe Father Squid is involved in whatever this is? I’ll have to talk to Leo, see if he has any idea what this is all about. But I don’t know that the station is the best place for you.” He paused, before continuing on, not sure how she would take the news. She’d been pretty stable, back in the day, but it had been four years since they’d been together, and four years on the street could be hard on a working girl. “Here’s the thing — Joe is dead. And there are two decorated cops testifying that he carried a gun and sold drugs. He was found with a gun in his hand and drugs in his pocket. If your testimony doesn’t match up with what the cops are saying — it might not go so well for you.”
Minal’s face went still, all the life draining out of her. For a frightening moment, she looked like an old woman. Then she swallowed and asked, “But shouldn’t I go in? Testify? Isn’t that the right thing to do?”
He hated to say it, but it was the truth. “Your testimony against theirs isn’t worth shit. It wouldn’t change anything.” Michael hesitated a moment, and then said, “Kavitha thinks you should stay with us for a while.” He wasn’t sure this was the smartest idea in the world — but what else could they do? He wasn’t about to just throw an ex-girlfriend out into the cold. He just hoped Kavitha knew what she was getting into, because while he wasn’t normally the cheating type, there was only so much a man could reasonably be expected to take. Even scared and injured, Minal sitting there was an open invitation to sin.
Minal turned to the woman sitting next to her on the small red loveseat. Kavitha had been silent all through the recitation, but her warm body beside Minal’s had somehow felt supportive, had helped Minal get through all the gory details. “Are you sure?” She couldn’t stay — could she? Honestly, she really didn’t know where else to go. Minal wasn’t even sure why she’d come here — the memory of someone who’d once been nice to her. She hadn’t expected a girlfriend and a kid; she hadn’t expected Michael to turn so domestic. Minal didn’t belong in this cozy familial scene, but even the thought of leaving it left a tightness in her throat. “I won’t be in the way?”
Kavitha smiled. “I know the apartment is small, but we can squeeze you in. You’re great with Isai — if you don’t mind doing a little babysitting, then I could use some extra practice time at the studio. I have a show coming up, and I’m underprepared.”
Minal shook her head, bewildered. “No, of course I don’t mind. I’m happy to cook too, and clean — this is so nice of you.” Was this really happening?
Kavitha shook her head. “Oh, no. It’s not all that nice. See, I have ulterior motives…” Her face flushed, and her voice trailed off.
Minal had seen that look too many times not to know what it meant. Desire. And if she were honest with herself, that desire was definitely returned. What would happen if I…? It might be wiser not to answer that question — but wisdom had never been Minal’s strong point. Passion, on the other hand… It had been a really long day. She was entitled to a reward for surviving it.
She leaned forward and very gently touched her lips to Kavitha’s. Kavitha froze for a second — and then was kissing her back. Minal closed her eyes again, this time an involuntary reaction to the shock of electricity running through her. It was just a kiss, the merest brush of lips against lips. Just a kiss, but all her nipples were tingling, a wave of heat racing across her torso. If it weren’t for the sling holding her arm rigidly still, she’d have slid forward and pulled Kavitha against her. Well, the sling and Michael. What the hell did he think of his ex kissing his girlfriend?
Minal pulled back and opened her eyes to see Michael staring at them both, looking as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to his head. Utterly stunned. Minal opened her mouth — and then realized she didn’t know what to say.
Kavitha spoke up then, with only a hint of apology in her voice. “We probably should have checked that with you first.” She was looking at Michael as she said the words, but her hand slid blindly across the couch to touch Minal’s. Minal curled her fingers around Kavitha’s.
Michael shook his head, his eyes wide. “No, no. That’s okay.” He hesitated, then said firmly, “But Minal — you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to do anything sexual in order to sleep on our couch for a few days. That offer had no strings attached.”
Kavitha looked horrified. She said quickly, “Oh god, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I forgot about your…” she trailed off, clearly embarrassed.
“…my profession?” Minal found herself smiling. “The fact that you actually forgot that I’m a whore — that’s the nicest thing anyone’s done for me in a long time.” She squeezed Kavitha’s hand reassuringly. “Don’t worry — I didn’t kiss you out of any sense of obligation. I kissed you because I wanted to kiss you.” She grinned. “And if Michael’s okay with it, I’d very much like to kiss you again.” She took a deep pleasure in the way Kavitha bit her lip at her words.
Kavitha started to lean towards her, and then paused, turning back to Michael. “Are you okay with that?”
Michael grinned. “Anytime you want to go kissing hot girls, it’s okay with me.” He hesitated, then added, “Well, maybe not just any hot girl. Not without checking with me first. But this one…” Michael now looked completely bewildered. “Umm…am I allowed to kiss her too? I have no idea what the rules are here.”
Kavitha laughed then, shaking her head and setting her long braid bouncing. Minal found herself wondering what her hair would look like if she set it free. “I don’t know what the rules are either.” Kavitha hesitated. “And — I’m not sure what I think about you kissing her. But it’d be pretty hypocritical not to let you try it, I think. If it’s okay with Minal.”
“Is it okay with Minal?” Michael asked, softly.
Minal wasn’t sure what exactly she had done to deserve such a confusing day — but she didn’t want to stop now. She didn’t know if it was the wild card urging her on, or just the memory of Michael’s strong hands on her body. But she leaned forward as he came up out of his chair, dropping to one knee in front of the couch. Their lips met in a kiss that was first tentative, then sure. Memory blazing a trail and yes, that was how it was, how it used to be. Michael’s breath cinnamon-sweet, his mouth hot and urgent against hers, and it seemed like forever until they finally disengaged.
Michael turned to Kavitha then, a query in his raised eyebrow. She was biting her lip, and for a moment, Minal couldn’t read her. Was that jealousy, anger in her eyes? Was she about to throw Minal out on her ass?
And then Kavitha was against her, pressing her back against the couch, heedless of the injuries to shoulder and face, and Minal probably should tell her to be careful, but if there was any pain remaining, it was lost in the heat of Kavitha’s mouth ravaging her own, Kavitha’s hands, digging into her ass, pulling Minal’s hips up to grind against her own. One knee sliding between Minal’s legs, urging them apart, and Minal was suddenly sure that this wasn’t Kavitha’s first time with a woman. This girl had done this before. And now Michael was sinking to his knees beside the couch, his hand tangling in her hair, pulling her head back, so that as Kavitha started to slide down Minal’s body, her teeth tracing a sharp, wet trail along her neck and collarbone, Michael’s mouth came down onto hers again, and she moaned helplessly in response.
Minal’s last thought, before she sank more deeply into the couch and gave herself up to pleasure, was that she had chosen the perfect sanctuary after all.
Kavitha was having a hard time concentrating at the studio — her body was an assortment of random aches. She wasn’t sure she could even count all the bruises she’d accumulated in the past weeks. The three of them had done a pretty good job wrecking the living room that first night, even though they’d been trying to not wake the kid. It was a good thing Isai was a sound sleeper. And two months later, the sex was still just as much fun, just as crazy. There was something about Minal that made every inhibition drop away — even thinking about her now was enough to start a flush of heat racing through Kavitha’s body, from cheeks to thighs to toes. She shook her head, trying to clear it. Minal was watching the kid, was giving her Kavitha gift of a few precious hours to work; she needed to take advantage of that. Life didn’t stop just because you met an incredibly hot girl and got her to join you and your boyfriend in bed. On the couch and the floor, to be accurate, but eventually, the bed too. Over and over and over again. But now it was work time — she had to work, dammit. Kavitha had a show coming up in two days! She couldn’t keep thinking about sex — or if she was going to, then she had to channel it into her work.
Kavitha stared at the posters for the next show, wondering if she should have changed the design. Her stage name, Natya, stretched across the top in a funky South Asian-style font — she was a little tired of playing up the ethnic angle in the promotion for her shows. Although it was appropriate, given the content of the work. This whole next set of shows were focused on the ongoing war in Sri Lanka, the misery of so many of her distant relatives. So maybe it wasn’t so bad to emphasize that connection; it might help draw in people who already had an interest in the problems of her tiny home island. And even if it just brought in white guys who had a thing for exotic brown girls — well, they could be educated too. She wasn’t above using her body and art to sell her agenda. Not after the horrors she’d seen, long ago and far away.
Lately, the war had been more and more on her mind. Kavitha was having the nightmares again, waking up in a cold sweat with the memories of men stumbling across the street, screaming, with tires around their necks, wreathed in flames. Women thrown up against the sides of buildings, their saris torn. She kept seeing the same little girl, walking through rubble and smoke, her forehead trickling blood. Too much blood. When they’d first come to America as refugees, Kavitha had had the nightmares every night. They’d eventually faded away, but the last few days they’d come back, with a vengeance. Maybe it was Minal’s presence in their home, the fading cuts and bruises on her face a reminder. The marks were almost gone now, but sudden noises still made her look startled, terrified. It made Kavitha want to find the men who had hurt her. But what would she do if she did find them?
Sometimes Kavitha wished she could go back home, do something to stop the war. There had been peace for years, but recently the fighting had broken out again, tearing her poor country apart. A new guerrilla group proclaiming the righteousness of the Tamil cause, a new prime minister, eager to win votes with a hard-line stance against the rebels. She’d even written out a letter to her uncle, who was prominent in the government there, offering to help — but she’d never sent it. Even with her powers, what could one ace do against an entire guerilla force out in the jungle — or against an entire government-supported army? Hell, not only did she not know how to fight, she wasn’t even sure which side she’d be fighting on. Better to stay here, keep her powers directed towards the dance. Michael kept saying that she should at least try to learn how to use the power to defend herself, but the thought of deliberately injuring someone else was abhorrent to her. She’d wanted to be a doctor, dammit — she’d only given that up because dance called her too strongly. And now, Kavitha thought she was doing good work here. Raising awareness, helping to build a peace movement.
Every once in a while, though, she just wanted to hit someone, especially when she heard some of the stories Minal told. In the middle of the night, when hours of sex had made them all exhausted and drowsy, barriers came down and they shared old stories. Minal told them some of the things she’d gone through, her voice remarkably calm and matter-of-fact. Kavitha couldn’t take them so calmly; she wanted to cradle Minal in her arms, protect her from all the bad things that had happened to her — but it was too late for that. If she couldn’t save Minal, sometimes Kavitha wished that she could visit a little righteous retribution on the people who had hurt her. Maybe hitting someone would make the nightmares go away.
But there was no one to hit. She took a deep, deliberate breath, and settled in to working instead.
“Son, do you seriously think that you aren’t going to be at our dinner table for Thanksgiving?”
Michael bit back a sharp retort, reminding himself to be patient with the old man across the desk. His father leaned heavily on a mop, a bucket of dirty water at his feet. Wisps of white hair fluttered in the breeze from the creaking station fan, the last remnants of a once-glorious ‘fro. Joe Stevens had been a janitor at the station for forty years, and he wasn’t about to start calling his son “Detective,” even if he was secretly proud of how far his only child had come. Michael had asked him to call him by his title in front of the men, more than once, and his father just laughed. It didn’t help that his partner had known Joe since before Michael was born, and laughed right along with his dad. Leo chimed in now,
“Yeah, Michael. What are you thinking, not going to your parents’ for Thanksgiving dinner? If I had a mom who cooked braised short ribs like yours, I’d be there every night.”
“Stay out of it, Leo.” His partner shrugged, and bent his horned head back over the pile of papers on his desk, pretending not to listen. The truth was, with Leo so close to retirement, there wasn’t much else for him to do but eavesdrop, especially with the station so dead; nothing was happening around here this week. Everybody was gearing up for the holidays, even the bad guys.
He tried again. “Dad, I promised Kavitha that we could have Thanksgiving at our place this year. She really wants to try making a turkey. Don’t you think it’d be nice for Isai to have Thanksgiving at home with her parents? You know how difficult it is to manage her at your place.” His parents’ apartment was tiny and full of stuff– every time Isai shifted, she knocked something over.
The old man shook his head. “The child should spend time with her grandparents; you hide her away too much, as if you’re ashamed of her. Michael, you know damn well that this is one fight that you are going to lose. Your mother has been cooking for days.”
“Dad, she isn’t going to make us eat two Thanksgiving dinners again, is she?” Michael had thought he’d complained enough last time to get them off that hook — for all the years he was growing up, his mom had insisted on making a full American Thanksgiving for them to eat at midday — turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, the works. And then, about six hours later, a Korean feast — ba bim bop, barbecued pork, kimchi and more. Even with Kavitha joining them for the meal, it was way too much food for four people, but his mom looked so hurt if he didn’t eat some of everything that he couldn’t bear to let her down. He got a wicked stomachache, every time. Yet another reason not to celebrate at his parents’ place this year. Besides, it would be so crowded in his parents’ tiny apartment, four adults with an active toddler who sometimes became a flying active toddler.
His father shook his head. “No, I talked her out of the double dinner; it’ll be just the one meal. But she’s making Southern food for me, Korean food for her, American for you, and something Sri Lankan for your…girlfriend.” His dad hesitated before that last word — his parents still weren’t pleased that Michael hadn’t married Kavitha, especially now that they had a kid. His mom prayed about it in church every Sunday morning. That was one reason why he didn’t want to bring Kavitha to their apartment; Kavitha didn’t need to deal with the pointed comments. He was sure she’d like to get married, and Michael wanted to marry her, he did. At least he thought he did, most of the time. He just wasn’t sure. The thought of being tied down to just one woman, for the rest of his life — that wasn’t an easy thing to wrap your mind around. Especially with Minal in their house. Especially that.
Back to the problem at hand. “Dad, that’s crazy.” Four different cuisines — there would be enough food to feed an army. Tasty, delectable food — even the Sri Lankan food that his mother had never made before was sure to be delicious. But still.
“Bring me back a doggy bag,” Leo interjected.
“Shut up, Leo.” Michael ran his fingers over his shaved-bald head, almost wishing he had grown out his hair into a big old ‘fro like his dad’s, just so he could tear it out.
His father shrugged. “Crazy or not, that’s what she’s doing, and the meal is half-cooked already, so you had better just adjust your mind to the facts, boy. Unless you want to break your mother’s heart.”
Michael sputtered, “I’ve been telling her that we’re not coming this year. I’ve told her and told her.” Admittedly, not to her face. But he’d left messages on the home phone, when he knew his mom would be working at the laundromat. Messages he knew she’d heard, but apparently, heard wasn’t the same as accepted or agreed.
“So?” His father gazed at him expectantly.
“Dammit.” Michael sighed, giving in.
“I knew you’d come around, son.” His father beamed, flashing two straight rows of white teeth. He straightened up, picking up the mop and dunking it back in the bucket. “If you’re worried about managing the kid at our house, why don’t you bring along that nanny of yours too? Your mother will be happy to have another person eating her food. And tell Kavitha to bring a few pies for dessert, okay? If she buys them at the store, I won’t be the one to tell your mother. Why you’d pick a girl who can’t cook, I will never know…” His father trailed off, muttering, as he pushed the bucket down the dank hallway. No matter how much time his father spent scrubbing, somehow the place never looked clean.
Michael bit his lip and pulled out his cell to call Kavitha, heading towards one of the conference rooms as he dialed. This wasn’t going to go well. The only consolation he had was that family drama might help distract him from what a mess things were at work. It was getting harder to keep from saying something about the Joe Twitch case, as more and more of the force got involved in hunting for IBT, his supposed accomplice. If only Michael knew exactly what to say, and who it was safe to say it to. He trusted his partner with his life — but could he trust Leo with what Minal knew? Michael would have sworn that Angel Grady, one of the two cops involved in the Twitch incident, was a straight shooter. So maybe Minal was just wrong about the gun and the drugs? If not, if she was right about Joe, then exposing Grady and Lu Long as liars could put her in real danger.
Last night, after Minal had fallen asleep, Michael had heard Kavitha whisper “I love you.” She could have been speaking to him, but he was pretty sure the words had been for Minal. Which made everything complicated; he knew his girlfriend well enough to know that she wouldn’t take love lightly. She couldn’t. Michael wasn’t sure exactly what he felt for Minal — he didn’t really want to think about it. Mostly, he’d been enjoying the hell out of the sex and just hoping the women kept on thinking this was a good idea. He didn’t want that to end, and he also didn’t want Minal to get hurt. The thought of Minal getting hurt made his throat tight and his stomach churn. Was that love? He had no idea.
For now, Michael was keeping his mouth shut and his eyes open. He had enough to worry about; he didn’t need to go looking for more trouble.
Just as she finished her warm-ups and was about to settle seriously into working, her cell rang. Kavitha bit back a curse and reached for the phone, checking to see whom it was. Michael. Dammit. She answered, hoping at least this would be something quick.
His voice on the phone, “Hey, sweetheart.”
That wasn’t good. Michael wasn’t the endearment type. “What’s wrong?” If he messed up this day any further…
Luckily, he knew her well enough not to screw around with her. “We’re going to my parents’ for Thanksgiving.”
“Michael, you promised me.” Kavitha’s head was already throbbing and they weren’t two minutes into this conversation.
“I couldn’t do it to my mother. I just couldn’t.” He paused and then offered weakly, “My dad said I could invite the nanny too.”
Kavitha felt irritation flare up in her. “You are kidding me. Do you seriously expect Minal to pretend to just be the nanny for an entire Thanksgiving dinner? And you expect me to pretend it too? With your parents sitting there in their holiday best, asking me when we’re going to finally get married?”
Michael protested weakly, “They wouldn’t — ”
She cut him off. “Of course they will. They ask every damn time they see us. What are you going to tell them this time?”
“I’ll tell them we’re not ready…”
“And do you have a plan for what you’re going to tell them when their granddaughter calls the nanny mommy?” Mostly Isai called Minal aunty, but every once in a while in the last few days, she was mommy instead. Kavitha was always mama — Isai hadn’t forgotten her, but she was adapting to her new family structure. At first, Kavitha had felt a little twinge, seeing how close Isai and Minal were — but really, it was to be expected, since Minal was the one at home with her most days. Mostly, it was a relief having Minal there, mommy-ing. She was more patient and better suited to full-time mothering than Kavitha ever had been. Their lives had all gotten so much better since Minal had moved in that Kavitha had started fantasizing about what their life would look like if Minal just stayed. It looked really good to her — if Michael didn’t fuck it up. “Michael, tell me you’re not going to do this.”
Silence on the other end of the phone, silence that lingered and grew until it was hanging, a dark cloud between them. She could almost see it, hovering in the air like one of her fields.
Kavitha sighed, and tried to soften her tone. “Michael, love. Why don’t you tell them? I told my parents that we were seeing someone else.” Admittedly, that had been maybe a little premature — Kavitha hadn’t even told Minal that she loved her yet. But she was going to; she was just waiting for the right moment. She’d been wanting to say it for weeks. And in the meantime, Kavitha didn’t want her parents hearing mangled rumors from somebody else. It was amazing how quickly the Sri Lankan gossip network could spread news, and all it would take would be some relative or acquaintance seeing Kavitha and Minal holding hands as they walked in the park. “Tell them and get it over with. Just talk to them.”
Michael laughed, bitterness clear down the phone line. “You told your brother, who then sent an e-mail to your parents. It’s not the same.”
She snapped, “I’d talk to my parents if they were willing to talk to me.” Kavitha knew what she was asking him to risk, after all. Her parents hadn’t spoken to her in two years — not since Isai was born, and they realized Michael wasn’t just going to go away. Kavitha had hoped that a grandchild would improve the situation, but somehow, Isai’s birth had just hardened her parents’ position. They’d refused to even see their granddaughter. “Your parents won’t cut you off. You’re their only child, and they aren’t as…old-fashioned as mine.” Racist was perhaps the more accurate word.
Her parents had already been pretty mad at her about all the med school money she’d wasted by dropping out. She’d promised to pay them back, but realistically, that was going to take a while. And then they’d almost had heart attacks when Kavitha had told them that she was moving in with a half-black, half-Korean man. Worse, one who pretty much looked black. You’d think that all the men and women Kavitha had slept with up till then would have broken them down, but apparently black was still the final color barrier. It hadn’t helped that Michael was a cop. Adding Minal to the situation couldn’t make the situation with her parents any worse, she was pretty sure. And if it did — oh well. Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, right? Kavitha would pick love over filial duty any day. “Didn’t your folks defy their families to pick each other? They’ll be fine with this.”
Michael snapped, “That’s easy for you to say!”
Easy? Did he really think this was easy on her? Sometimes she wondered why she even wanted to marry Michael anyway — did he know her at all? Her head was pounding and her heart ached. This had to end; it would tear them apart otherwise. Kavitha took a deep breath and then said, her voice shaking, “Look, I’ll go to your parents’ on Thursday if you want. But I’m not going to lie to them, not if Minal is sitting right there in the room. And I’m not going to leave her sitting at home alone on Thanksgiving. So you have two options. We can cancel and stay home, or we can all go and you can tell them the truth.”
“Kavitha — ”
She shook her head. “I have to work, Michael. And you have a decision to make.” Kavitha hung up the phone and closed her eyes.
Time to channel this anger into the dance. Kavitha stretched her slender body in her black dancer’s leotard. She arched her back, leaning right, forward, left, back. Up to relevé, down to plié. Her neck: forward, left, back, side, letting her long braid swing freely down her back. Her ribcage shifted, following the same pattern. And reverse. She linked the fingers of her two hands together, stretched them out in front of her. Then Kavitha allowed her right hand to form an abhinaya in the shape of a flower, and called on her powers to awaken. She could feel the kundalini, the coiled and sleeping serpent energies lying at the base of her spine, arouse and ascend her body, flowing from back to arm to wrist to hand. As the energies reached the tip of her fingers, the power flowed out, creating a great, glowing, golden flower in the air. Beautiful.
Kavitha still couldn’t believe how lucky she’d been when her card turned. She’d been a starving dancer for years, and then a slightly better fed one once she’d moved in with Michael. She was a good dancer — but New York was full of good dancers, desperate for their big break, or even for a small one. It was her power that made her dance special, and since she’d started incorporating the kundalini fields into her work, that power had finally started to get her a little bit of fame. Kavitha still performed in tiny venues that seated a few hundred at most. But now many of her shows were sold out, and if her audience continued to grow…well, Isai wouldn’t have to go to community college. If Kavitha managed to send her daughter to Harvard, well, that would show her parents, wouldn’t it? And that wasn’t going to happen unless she focused on her work.
She snapped her fingers, and the flower exploded into a rainbow of tiny fragments, scattering across the stage and then fading away. If Kavitha wanted them to last longer, she’d need to build up the power with her dance, feeding more charge into the fields. She’d warmed up enough now — she was ready. She could feel the energy built up inside her, aching to get out. She’d been channelling it into sex for days, but she couldn’t afford that indulgence anymore. Now, she needed to dance, needed to pound the floor with her feet — if she didn’t get some of this power out, she felt like she was going to explode. She flung her arms out, and the energy poured out in a bright shimmering blaze, surrounding her. Surrounding Natya — that’s who she was now, the living embodiment of an ancient dance. Thousands of years of art, funneling down to this one moment. With one sharp hand movement after another, Natya built a series of glittering crimson bridges across the stage, arching higher and higher. Then, taking a deep breath, she flung her body across them, and began to dance.
“Isai, come down from there!” Minal reached up, but Isai was just out of her reach — the child had shifted to garuda form, flown to the top of the cabinets, and then shifted back. It was her newest trick, and was not easy to deal with. So far, Minal had been able to handle everything the kid threw at her, and she was already ridiculously fond of the little monster, but this was just unacceptable.
“Isai, if you don’t come down right now, Aunty Minal will get very mad!”
“Aunty get mad?”
“That’s right, Aunty will get mad!”
“Aunty Minal not mad. Aunty happy!” The child chortled, safe from retribution on her perch, knowing that she was causing trouble. Isai put her hands up in front of her face and then peeked out, a game she’d been playing for years, her parents said, but one she never seemed to get tired of. “I see you, Aunty! I see you!”
Minal tried to keep a stern look on her face, but she couldn’t help grinning a little — the kid was just so cute. “I see you too, little monkey.” More of a bird than a monkey, of course — in garuda form, Isai’s wings were stunning. The eagle beak was pretty sharp too. Kavitha and Michael were lucky that Isai loved her parents enough that she’d never tried pecking them or beating her wings at them. When shifted into her largest form, garuda-Isai had a twelve-foot wingspan; barely big enough to fit into their apartment, and plenty big enough to knock her parents down.
Michael kept muttering that he ought to start commuting to work on his daughter’s back, but Minal was pretty sure he wasn’t serious. Isai would love to give her dad a ride, of course, but who could trust a two-year-old to fly them anywhere? It’d just take a single bright shiny distraction, and Isai would shift back into her own form, possibly high up in the air, which would be no fun for anyone. Her parents didn’t think she’d stay human if she were plummeting to her death — but they couldn’t know for certain, which was why she was strictly forbidden to shift without close supervision, and never outside. Which forbidding normally did oh, so much good when it came to things like not drawing on the walls in pen, and not digging the soil out of all the plants’ pots. Still, they had to try, and as a good babysitter, Minal had to try too. And now it was time to shift tactics and try begging. “Come down, baby, please?”
Isai giggled again, shifted for just long enough to coast down, and then shifted back, landing, a warm, naked bundle, in Minal’s arms. The child’s clothes always dropped away with the shift, and then she was naked until they got her dressed again. Un-diapered too, which was risky, but right at this moment, Minal was willing to take a small risk. The warmth of the toddler snuggled against her was soothing. Isai wrapped her arms around Minal’s neck and whispered, “I love you, aunty.” Minal whispered back, “I love you too, baby.” A dangerous thing to say out loud, but it was true. She was dangerously close to being in love with the child’s parents too, though she hadn’t had the nerve to say so. What would she do when Michael and Kavitha got tired of her invading their nuclear family? Even if it were safe to go back to work, her old life seemed empty by comparison.
Minal stroked Isai’s hair as she walked her over to the changing table. Practiced hands fastened a diaper, and then struggled to slide wriggling arms and legs into a T-shirt and pants. “Hold still, baby, please. Aunty’s arm is still ouchie.” The doctor Kavitha had dragged her to had said that given the extent of the damage, a nat would probably have needed a year before the arm was fully healed. Minal was way ahead of that schedule, but it was definitely still mending. Still, she managed pretty well. Isai settled down long enough for Minal get that last leg into her pants. Hmm…they were almost out of diapers. Michael was the one coming home first — Minal pulled out her cell and punched in his number. He answered on the second ring.
“Hey, Michael. You need to stop at the drugstore on your way home.” But before he could say anything, there was a knock at the door. “Wait — hang on. Kavitha must have forgotten her keys again…” Isai was squirming in her arms, getting ready to shift again. Minal tried to juggle the phone, the child, and the doorknob all at once, distracted by a stab of pain as Isai’s flailing leg jabbed at her bad arm. “Hold on…” Her hand was on the knob, turning it.
“No, Minal, don’t — ” But someone was already shoving the door open, with enough force to break the safety chain right off the wood frame, and suddenly there were men inside, one man she knew, a man she had hoped to never see again. He grabbed her, and the other man pulled Isai from her, the child screaming. Minal only had time to shout, “Nicor, no!” before he casually swatted the side of her head with something hard. And the world went dark.
“Leo!” Michael had been hiding out in one of the back rooms for his phone call, an automatic move to protect his privacy. Now he was cursing the length of the hallway as he raced back down it, calling to his partner. He’d tried calling Minal back, but no one had answered. It just rang and rang and rang. What the fuck was going on? “Leo!!!”
His partner came around the desk and grabbed his shoulder. “Calm the fuck down. What’s wrong with you?”
Michael’s voice broke. “Something’s wrong with my kid. Someone broke into our place. I heard her screaming.” Oh god, oh god, oh god. He couldn’t think straight. There was a procedure for this, wasn’t there? Fuck procedure — he just wanted someone to tell him what to do. Before he ripped someone’s throat out with his bare hands.
“Come on.” Leo was checking his gun, grabbing his coat. “Let’s go.”
Go. Yes. That’s what he needed to do. Maybe if he got home fast enough, he could do something. Figure out what had happened. He was a detective, wasn’t he? He knew how to figure these things out. If he could just think. If he could think loud enough to drown out the sound of his little girl’s screams, which echoed in his ears, getting louder with every step.
Leo grabbed his arm and dragged him out, ignoring the queries from others in the station. They slammed through the front door, out into the blistering cold and the dark and the snow. His daughter was out there in that. And he didn’t even know if she had her coat.
Minal came to with the sound of Isai sobbing in her ears, the child curled hard against her chest. Her head was throbbing and she had to swallow to keep from hurling. She blinked her eyes, wincing. It took her a second to realize that they were in the backseat of a car, some beat-up old thing. There were no handles on the insides of the doors. No way out.
“Hey, she’s awake,” the thug sitting next to her said to the man up front. The thug looked mostly normal, except for the sharp bird’s beak he had instead of a nose. He wore the characteristic black and silver leather of the Demon Princes.
“Get her to shut the kid up, then,” Nicor snapped back, without turning his head. Water was dripping down his hair as usual, drenching his clothes and the seat of the car beneath him. It’d be running down his face too, a constant, cold stream, as if he were standing under a rain shower. Water sliding over his abnormally wide nose, and the flared gills along his neck. But she couldn’t actually see Nicor’s face — he was keeping his eyes on the road. They were hurtling through the city much faster than was safe, weaving in and out of traffic. Where the hell was he taking them?
“Shhh, shhh, baby.” Minal had already been trying to calm Isai down, but when Nicor said that, she almost stopped, she was so pissed off. What the hell was he thinking? But with Isai to protect, she couldn’t afford to piss off a Demon Prince, especially a scary dangerous ace. Minal bit her lips and kept stroking the child’s hair.
These idiots hadn’t even gotten her shoes on before leaving — Isai was just wearing a t-shirt and pants. Didn’t they notice that it was fucking freezing outside? There was snow on the ground, dammit. Who brought a kid outside like this?
Minal’s clothes were even worse; she’d been feeling sick enough she hadn’t bothered dressing today, so she was just in a battered white T-shirt and a pair of red silk pyjama shorts. No pants, no sweater, no coat, no shoes. Her arms and legs exposed to the cold, and to the eyes of the goon a few inches away. Her nipples were hidden under the T-shirt, but just barely. And from the way he was staring at her torso, this guy knew exactly what was under her shirt. Minal hugged Isai closer, feeling her heart jackhammering in her chest. “Shhh, baby, shh. Everything’s going to be fine,” she whispered.
“Hey, Nicor,” the bird-beak asked, never taking his eyes off her, “Is it true what they say about this one?”
Nicor laughed — a low, bitter laugh with no actual humor in it. “Raum, everything you’ve heard is true, and more.”
Raum started reaching out a hand towards Minal, and she cringed away, back against the cold metal of the car door. The sensation was almost too much to bear, the cold icing through the tendrils on her back, through the thin material of her shirt. Still, it was better than his hands on her, his hands that were sharply pointed at the fingertips, like claws. Before he could touch her, Nicor snapped out, “Hands off!”
“But Nicor…” Raum started whining.
“Forget it. He said no touching. Not yet.”
Raum slumped back in his seat, glaring sullenly at her. He muttered, “I don’t answer to you, you know. I’m not going to answer to anyone for long. I am the fucking Lord of Crows, and I am going to be moving up in this organization.”
Nicor shook his head, and said, “You ain’t moved up yet.”
Raum looked even angrier, but he kept his claws to himself, thank the gods.
Minal finally got up the nerve to say something then. If they weren’t supposed to touch her, maybe they wouldn’t hurt her or Isai. Not yet. She had no faith that they’d stay safe once they got wherever they were going, so she had to ask while they were still in this car under Nicor’s control, had to use this chance as best as she could.
She softened her voice, asked as nicely as she could. “Nicor? What’s going on? I thought you and I, we’d left things okay between us.” Nicor had been a regular client. He’d always left a decent tip when he could afford it, and he’d never roughed her up. It wasn’t exactly fun fucking him most of the time — all that cold water sort of killed the mood, even if she turned the heat up high in the room. Not to mention its tending to wash away any lubrication. But it wasn’t all bad — when he felt like it, Nicor could use his power over water to give her pleasure, send the ocean surging through her, which he’d had no obligation to do. He’d been one of the nice ones, and she’d liked him.
Nicor shook his head, still eyes on the road. “I can’t talk about it, babe. I got orders.”
Minal swallowed. “Nicor. She’s just a kid. If they want me, why don’t you have someone take her home. Her parents will be home soon, and her dad’s a cop. You don’t want to grab a cop’s kid.” Kavitha and Michael would never forgive her if she let Isai get hurt. She’d never forgive herself.
“No dice, chica. They said to bring you, and anyone with you. The kid was with you, so she’s along for the ride.”
Nicor glanced at her then in the rear view mirror, finally meeting her eyes for a brief second. Minal shivered when she saw what was in his eyes. Pity.
She opened her mouth to ask him to let them go, one more time, but he cut her off. “No more talking. We’re almost there.”
The apartment door was wide open, but aside from that, nothing was missing — nothing was even disturbed. It might be hard for a stranger to tell, given the toddler toys and books scattered across the apartment, but that was just the normal chaos; Michael was used to editing that out of his view. He couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on. Who would break in here and not even steal anything?
“Why would someone take her? She’s just a baby! If they had just taken Minal…” Michael ground out the words, pacing frenziedly back and forth across the small living room. If he could just think.
“They destroyed your door.” Leo said. He stood erect in the doorway, more alert than Michael had seen him in months. Much good it was doing them. “Minal’s the sitter?” Leo asked.
Michael hesitated — but he had to tell the Leo the truth. He had to trust Leo — he needed him. “She’s — more than a sitter.”
“Oh?” Leo asked, an eyebrow lifted.
“We’re involved,” he admitted.
Leo shook his head. “Sleeping with the nanny, huh? Better not let Kavitha find out. If I had a hot girlfriend, I don’t think I’d risk it for some fun on the side with the nanny.”
Michael didn’t know what to say, how to explain. “It’s more complicated than that. Look, I’ll explain it all later. That’s not important now.” He couldn’t think about Minal right now, couldn’t picture last night, the three of them in their big bed. They’d all been tired, but they’d managed a quickie, a tangle of arms and legs and soft whimpers, with Minal whispering periodically, “Don’t wake the baby!” Eventually they’d settled down to sleep, with Kavitha in the middle — she was always cold at night. And Minal got too sensitized sometimes; she needed to be able to roll away, to get a little space to let her extra nipples settle down after lovemaking… “What’s important is that the Demon Princes are after her. She said a name on the phone. Nicor.”
Leo frowned. “Hell.”
“Exactly.” Michael started pacing now, planning. “They’re probably at McGurk’s. We should call it in, get a squad out there… We have to move, Leo. We might not have much time.”
Leo was already heading out the door. “Let’s go.”
Natya was resting when the phone rang, two hours into her practice. If she’d been in the middle of a dance, she would have let it ring, but she didn’t have that excuse now. She sighed and walked over to pick up the phone.
His voice on the phone was rough and low. “I have bad news. Isai and Minal have been kidnapped.”
“What?” He couldn’t be serious.
“They were taken from our apartment. But we think we know who took them, the Demon Princes. We’re going to get a squad and go get them from McGurk’s.”
Her chest was pounding. All she could see was the little girl from her dreams, with blood running down her face — but now her face was Isai’s. “McGurk’s Suicide Hall? Why there?”
“That’s the gang headquarters. They’ll be holding them there.”
“You can’t go in there with guns blazing. What if someone shoots one of them by mistake?” She’d seen too much gunfire in the war. Terrible, random.
Michael said, “We know how to handle this. We’re trained for it. Just sit tight. Or better yet — come to the station. I can’t be sure someone won’t come after you too.”
She was on her feet, shaking, feeling the power starting to build again, just with that small motion. “If you think I’m going to just sit there while someone’s hurting my little girl — and I’m half a city closer than you are. I can be there in five minutes.”
He was shouting now. “Don’t be an idiot! You don’t know anything about fighting.”
“I know a hell of a lot more than you do, Michael.” She’d never told him what she’d seen in the war, what she’d done. He thought she was an innocent, but there was already blood on her hands. “And I’m going to go get my girl and make sure she’s safe. Now.”
“Kavitha, no. Do you hear me? I said no!”
“It’s Natya. And I’m going. Get there as soon as you can.”
Minal stumbled as Nicor shoved her into the hall, still clutching Isai to her chest with both arms. Her injured arm was aching, but she didn’t dare let the little girl go; Isai was sobbing quietly, gasping between her tears. If Minal put her down, she didn’t know what Isai would do.
There were maybe a dozen men in the main lobby, nobody she recognized, a sea of black leather and grotesque appearances. One particularly freaky guy had three heads. No sign of the one with the crown of horns, the one who’d dislocated her shoulder. Nicor walked up to one of them and asked, “Is he here?” The man jerked his head towards the hallway. “In back. He’s meeting someone right now, so just keep her here. Keep her quiet.”
Nicor came back to her side, water streaming down his face faster than she’d ever seen it — maybe that meant something? Maybe he was scared, or sad. He said quietly, “Look, just sit down, okay? With any luck, it’ll all be over soon.” He didn’t say how it would be over, but Minal could see it in his eyes. At this point, the best she could hope for was that it would be quick. And that they wouldn’t hurt the kid.
Minal bit her tongue and slid into a chair. It was a gorgeous velvet, very plush, but dirty. Typical. She’d seen way too many rooms like this, back in the day. Part of why she took so much pleasure in cleaning Michael and Kavitha’s apartment, even knowing that Isai would make it a disaster area half an hour later. Her skin crawled as she sat down, and Isai didn’t seem to like it either.
“Aunty Minal? Want to go home!”
“I know, baby. Shh….”
“Want mama! Want daddy!” Her voice was rising, and the men were glancing over at them now.
“Quiet, Isai. Quiet down, little girl.” The poor child was shaking in her arms; she was probably freezing. Minal was on the verge of demanding Nicor’s coat, at least, when she realized, terror rising in her throat, that Isai wasn’t just shaking. She was shifting, growing. Changing.
“No, baby. No, no, no…”
But it was too late. Isai was just too panicked, and with a loud cry, the child exploded out of her arms, blazing into her largest garuda shape, larger than Minal had ever seen her. Wings at least a dozen feet wide, a naked girl-child body and an eagle’s head above, tipped back, shrieking its fear and rage. Isai pushed off for the ceiling, her talons raking bloody furrows in Minal’s body as she went. And Minal howled herself, clutching after the child, seeing the panicked men raising their guns to take aim.
Michael turned to Leo, his face ashen as he put away his phone. “Natya’s heading to McGurk’s. I couldn’t talk her out of it.”
Leo kept driving with one hand, hanging up his own phone with the other. “K-10 confirms that your kid’s at McGurk’s — some dogs saw her dragged inside. A short human female was carrying her, which I’m guessing is Minal. The dogs said the pup smelled scared, but they didn’t smell any blood. Captain Chavvah says we can pull whomever we need for this. Dr. Dildo and Rodriquez, Beastie and Chey will all beat us there. Dildo and Beastie will take down some walls if they have to. Puff and Angel are coming in too, ditto Wingman, but they’re ten minutes away. We’ll be there in five.”
“Natya’s going to beat us there. Gods, Leo. She’s a goddamned pacifist — what the hell is she doing running into the middle of a firefight?”
“She’s not exactly powerless, from what I saw at her last show. Natya ought to be able to take care of herself.”
“She doesn’t know how to fight. She can’t even watch action movies or fucking hospital TV shows — she gets too upset when she sees the blood. She’s a fucking civilian.”
Leo shook his head. “Michael, they’ve got her kid. She’s going to fight faster and harder than anyone else. I’ve seen moms do some crazy shit, protecting their kids.”
Michael tried to swallow down the panic in his throat. He’d known he loved her — he just hadn’t known how much. And now there was Minal too… He was so furious and scared that he couldn’t think straight. He ground out the words, “Just drive faster.” He knew Leo was going as fast as the battered patrol car could manage, but Michael leaned forward anyway, as if he could make the car beat Natya there by sheer force of will.
Natya had a plan. She had a whole calm, sensible plan that she’d carefully worked out as she raced the several blocks to McGurk’s, the power building in her with every step that pounded into the pavement. She would throw a field around Minal and Isai first, something to protect them. Then another, around each of the men. However many men there were. She could do it; she’d built dozens of kundalini spheres in her performances. Usually she didn’t bother to make them solid, but she was pretty sure she could do it, if she built up enough power first. And the power was there, plenty of it, fueled by the movement of her body running through the city streets.
She just had to keep going, keep it up. She could do this. She could go in, build the spheres, contain them all until the cops came. It was a perfect, peaceful solution, and no one would get hurt. It was a great plan, and it went right out the window the moment she burst into McGurk’s and saw the guns lifting up, raising to the ceiling, taking aim at her little girl.
Her peaceful intentions shattered. She flung one arm out, and a blazing crimson wave of force sprung out with it, throwing three men against a wall, knocking them out. Maybe she hurt some of them, maybe killed them. Natya couldn’t care less. She couldn’t do the same on the other side of the room, not with Minal in the center of that group. Natya took two quick steps towards them instead, as the guns swivelled down towards her, and then she leaped into the middle of the crowd, grabbing Minal and pulling her close.
Natya spun into a pirouette, dragging Minal with her. A gold cyclone rose around them, the force of the winds sending the two men left staggering away, their guns falling. Minal pulled away, long enough to hold her arms up to the ceiling, where Isai flew, directly above. Before Natya could do anything more, Isai was shifting back and falling into them, a small naked bundle, screaming, “Mama mama mama!!!” She ignored Minal’s outstretched arms and slammed into Natya, the force of the fall knocking them both to the floor.
As soon as Natya stopped moving, all of her fields died, leaving them, for a moment, defenseless.
Minal shouted, “No, Nicor!” He was raising his arms, and she knew what came next — and here it was, a tide of water rising out of nowhere, knocking her off her feet, sending Natya and Isai under. “Nicor, please!” He could drown them all, she knew — he’d chosen his Demon name for his ace ability, named for a demon of old who could raise the waters and call down tempests. It would exhaust him quickly, and the more water he raised, the sicker he’d be afterwards, his own body drowning as well. The last time he’d raised a wall of water for the Princes, he’d been out for weeks with pneumonia; he’d nearly died. And maybe Nicor was remembering that now, or maybe he was remembering the nights they’d shared. Maybe he wasn’t quite as indifferent to her fate as he’d acted in the car, because the waters were already receding, dropping down, down, until Natya and Isai were coughing on a sodden red carpet — but alive, alive.
But now it was Raum’s turn. Raum, a man who had ambitions. Raum, Lord of Crows. Raum threw his head back, shrieking a loud caw, caw into the night. And the crows answered, first a few, then dozens of them, hurtling in through the inner doors. How long had his crows been nesting in McGurk’s? Just as Natya started struggling to her feet, a wall of crows hurled into her, beating their wings and pecking, pecking, surrounding her. She flung her arms up to protect her eyes, her face, but that left the rest of her body vulnerable, protected only by a thin layer of clothing, soon shredded. She was bleeding. And little Isai was shrieking, swinging her arms wildly at the crows, but they ignored her, all of them under Raum’s direction concentrating their attack on Natya. And Raum was rising up into the air — what Minal had thought was a black trench coat turned out to be black feathered wings folded against his back. Now they were open, raising him up, and he was swooping up high, directing the battle from above.
Minal had never felt so helpless in her life. What the hell could she do against crows? She could hear sirens blaring now, the megaphone of cops demanding that those inside surrender, that they come out with their hands up. Nicor was on her, grabbing her uninjured arm and trying to drag her away. To what she didn’t know — maybe he was trying to get her to safety, or maybe he was just going to deliver her to his boss. He was stronger than she was, but she was a hell of a lot angrier than him, and with a quick jerk Minal yanked her arm out of his grip. Then she grabbed a massive metal pot from a nearby column with both her hands, ignoring the scream of pain from her still-healing shoulder, and slammed it into his head, knocking him to the ground. That felt good.
Kavitha was bleeding, bleeding — covered in blood from a thousand tiny cuts, and it was her nightmare all over again. She was a child, covered in blood. Blood dripping down her face from a thrown stone that had cut her forehead. Blood on her body from a stranger who had staggered into her in the rioting crowd. Blood on her parents, struggling to pull her through the chaos, to get her and her siblings to some kind of safety. And she had seen the man raising a gun to point it at her mother. She had bent down, grabbed a stone, and with the strength and surety trained into her from childhood cricket games with her brothers, Kavitha had hurled the stone straight at the man’s head. And he’d cried out, and stepped back, lost his footing and fell down in the crowd. Maybe he’d gotten up again — it was possible. Her parents had pulled her away, into the safety of a neighbor’s house. Maybe the man had gotten up, walked away. Or maybe he’d stayed down, been trampled by the crowd. In that crowd, on that day, either was equally possible.
And here she was again — but of course, she wasn’t. Kavitha shook her head, trying to clear it. Just that motion sent a bit of the kundalini energy pulsing through her, and that cleared her thoughts even more. She wasn’t in the chaos of a civil war, with thousands of civilians and soldiers rioting on the streets — she was in a fight with a few overgrown bullies, greedy men who were just in it for the money. And she wasn’t a terrified child anymore — she was a grown woman, and more than that, a mother. A mother with her own child in danger, and that thought was enough to set her feet to thumping, her arms to moving in the precise motions of the dance. The snake dance, to combat birds.
Heedless of the beaks and wings that still tore at her, Natya steadily called the power, raising it from her core, pulsing it up and up until finally it spilled out in a cascade of coruscating fields of light. Pushing out, out, until the birds were forced away, until they fled, cawing wildly, to their master who flew high above. Now her eyes were open again, and there was the front door, splintering into dust. There was a massive creature — a bear? — running into the room, followed by a good handful of cops, and yes, there was Michael among them, relief and fury mixed equally on his face. Most importantly, now she could see Isai, transformed again into garuda form, and as far as Natya could tell, unharmed — but just as Natya reached out to gather her daughter into her arms, Isai shrieked her rage and hurled herself up into the sky. Chasing the birds that had hurt her mommy.
Michael stormed in to find the fight almost over. Four men were down already, and Minal and Kavitha were still standing, although Minal’s face was crumpled in pain, and Kavitha’s clothes were bloody rags. No more men on the ground, but the last of the battle was taking place up in the air. His eyes went up and his gun followed, tracking the flight of the crow-man who swooped above, surrounded by a crowd of birds. And there — there was his little girl, screaming her toddler rage louder than he’d ever heard before, her eagle head snapping at the crows that buffeted her body. There was nothing to shoot — the crow-man was half hidden behind Isai’s body, and the crows were too small to aim at. He’d never regretted being normal before, but now he would have suffered the agonies of the virus a thousand times over if it would have just left him with one power, something that he could use.
The other cops were equally helpless — there was nothing left for Dr. Dildo to vibrate, and Beastie wasn’t nearly tall enough to reach the action. Michael was reduced to shouting to his daughter, “Isai! Isai, come down here right this minute!” But she wasn’t normally inclined to listen, and she paid even less attention now. “Isai!!”
And then Natya was beside him, flinging her arms out, building a great gold staircase out of thin air. She was dancing furiously, whipping her body around like a serpent, and he knew that she couldn’t keep that up for much longer. But he didn’t need long. Gods bless them, the other cops followed as he raced up the staircase, up and up and up the steps built of dance and dreams. Trusting his judgement, as he trusted Natya to keep him safe, keep them all safe. Up two stories through a crowd of crows and then he was at Isai, he was grabbing her, heedless of wings and talons, pulling her into his arms, and then she was shifting back, clinging to him naked and weeping. “Daddy daddy daddy! The bad birds hurt mommy!”
“I know, sweetie, I know,” he whispered. “It’s going to be okay.” And around him the others stood on the final upper landing, their guns out, pointed steadily at the crow-man. Leo was the one who got him cuffed and herded him down the steps — which was just as well, since if it had been up to Michael in that moment, he would have blown the bastard’s brains out right there. Instead, he held his daughter close until she was safely down on the ground. When the last cop made it to the floor, Natya stopped dancing and collapsed into his arms. Somehow, he managed to hold them both. And then Minal walked over, and, not caring what the other guys thought, he pulled her into the embrace too. His girls were safe, all of them. He would never let them get hurt again.
“So that’s it? It’s over?” Minal couldn’t quite believe it, even though it had been a full twenty-four hours since that hellish time at McGurk’s, and they were all feeling better. It turned out that when she slept with someone for a long time, holding them close, some of her healing powers extended to them as well. She’d never cuddled someone for long enough to find that out before — it was a nice bonus to her powers. It made up for some of the downsides. They’d all stayed in bed together until hunger finally drove them out — Minal had made towering piles of pancakes and eggs, and Isai had devoured so many that she’d collapsed, falling asleep on the dining room floor. Michael had carried her to bed, and then come back to curl up with them on the loveseat. Minal was snuggled into Kavitha’s arms, but managed to shift back a few inches — enough for Michael to squeeze into the little space, though he had to wrap his arms around them to manage it. Oh, the tragedy.
Michael shook his head. “We can’t know for certain, of course. All of the upper level Demon Princes had cleared out by the time we showed up. But word at the station and on the street is that they’re not interested in you anymore — they seem to have decided that you’re not really a threat to them.”
Minal shrugged. “Well, they’re right about that. Joe didn’t tell me anything useful.”
Michael frowned. “We can’t be sure that it was the kidnapping was even connected to Joe Twitch, although I admit, that seems the most likely. I’ll keep looking.”
“But they’re not after me now?” Minal kept her focus on the important part.
Michael said, “No. It looks like you’re safe. You can even go back home.”
“Oh.” Minal had known this was coming, of course, had known that her life here was too good to last. “Sure. Of course.” She started untangling herself, suddenly too unsettled to keep sitting on the little red loveseat. “I can pack up my things. Maybe I can wait and say goodbye to the kid in the morning? Or — no, maybe it’s better if I just go tonight. Easier on her, not to have to say goodbye.” Easier on herself too. It was going to hurt, not seeing that kid again.
Kavitha pulled her back down. “Hey! He said you can go back home. Not that you have to.”
Minal froze, and said tentatively, “It’s not like I have any better choices.” Did she? What was Kavitha implying?
Kavitha wrapped her arms around Minal and dropped a kiss on her ear, sending a shiver through her. “You could stay here. With us.”
“Seriously?” Minal turned her head to Michael — he would be the tough sell, she knew. Kavitha was a softy.
Michael smiled too, lighting up his face. “Seriously. Move in with us. Please. Kavitha and I talked about it last night while you were sleeping. We like you, Minal. We like you a lot.”
Minal swallowed, fighting back surprising tears. “I like you too. Both of you. All of you.” It was too soon to be saying the word love out loud, she was pretty sure. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t think it. She was happier with these three than she’d ever been in her life. Even if the quarters were a little cramped… “Hey, I have an idea. Are you guys terribly attached to this apartment? For sentimental reasons or something?”
“No, not really,” Michael said.
Kavitha said, “It’s just what we could afford.”
Minal hesitated, then offered shyly, “Why don’t you move in with me? I have a three-bedroom condo, and I put a lot down. Everything I’d saved from the first few years of hooking — my dad did teach me how to save, even if he didn’t teach me anything else. The mortgage payments shouldn’t be any more than what you’re paying right now for rent. And it’s twice the size of this place. Way more room than I needed, really; I had been thinking about getting a cat.” She smiled. “But this is better.”
Michael raised an eyebrow. “If we’re paying the mortgage, then does that mean you’re going to quit hooking?”
Minal nodded. “If you guys don’t mind me sponging off you for a while. Or at least I’d cut way back on it, just keep a few select clients. Safe clients. I could keep babysitting Isai, give Kavitha more time to dance. And — ” she paused, feeling stupid even saying it. But then she went on, encouraged by the smiles on their faces. “Maybe I could go back to school.”
Kavitha grinned. “That would be great! For what?”
Minal said hesitantly, “Don’t laugh, but I always wanted to become a chef, open my own restaurant. I kept thinking of going back to school, but hooking was easier, and the money was so good.” She shrugged. “But the life’s getting too dangerous. I think I might want to make an investment in my future. Find a career more suited to family life.” Minal stopped, wondering if she’d presumed too much, scared them off.
Michael grinned. “So you mean your cooking is going to get even more delicious? Excellent.”
“I’d be happy not to share you with anyone else,” Kavitha added. “For a while, anyway.”
Minal relaxed into the red loveseat. It was battered, but she was determined to find a space for it in her condo. It was good luck. “Then I guess you guys are coming home with me.”
Michael took a deep breath and said, “And tomorrow, you’re coming to Thanksgiving with me. With us. I’d like you to meet my parents.”
“Seriously?” Minal asked. That was an even bigger step than moving in together.
Michael shrugged, smiling. “What the hell. Maybe I’ll invite Leo to join us too. We’ll make a real family Thanksgiving this year. If you ladies can take on the Demon Princes — and win! — I think I can manage two aging parents.”
Kavitha grinned, and reached over to drop a kiss on Michael’s cheek. “You’re very brave. My hero.”
Minal said quietly, “Mine too. Both of you. You rescued me.” In so many ways.
Kavitha said lightly, “We rescued each other, and we’re all very brave and noble, but if we keep on thanking each other, we’ll be talking all night. I think there are much better uses for our mouths, don’t you?”
Minal laughed, and couldn’t help but agree.