Kate woke with Damon still curled around her, his breathing so slow and steady that he had to be asleep still. She lay still for a bit, not opening her eyes, just trying to absorb every detail.
Finally, though, the insistent demands of her bladder forced her to gently extricate herself. Damon mumbled something incoherent, reaching for her; Kate leaned down to kiss his cheek and murmured, “I’ll be right back.”
She visited the bathroom, and returned to find that Damon had rolled onto his other side; she arranged herself against his back and slipped an arm over him. He caught her arm and hugged it to him, and she heard his breathing slow down again immediately, back into deeper sleep. Kate let herself relax, half-drowsing, keeping her thoughts turned firmly away from the future and focused on the present.
The trilling of the phone, on the corner of the desk and plugged in, shattered the peace.
Damon muttered something under his breath that she couldn’t identify and wasn’t sure she wanted to. “Forgot to turn the ringer off. Ignore it, that’s what I have voicemail for.” He twisted onto his back, kissed her gently, and smiled at her—his pupils, in the sunlight, had contracted so tightly they were almost invisible against the dark blue, blocking as much light as possible. “Good morning, beautiful.”
“I am not.”
“To me you are. I hate being woken up by the phone, but I very much like having the first thing I see be you.”
Kate blushed; the only response she could come up with was, “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.” Damon stole another kiss, then stretched lazily and sighed. “I have no idea what time it is, but I suppose I should find out who just called. There’s a chance it’s important.” He got up, stretched again, and vanished down the hall towards the bathroom before returning to the phone. He hit a couple of buttons, setting it in motion to play messages on the speaker while he sat at his computer and did something. Kate sat on the edge of the futon, waiting.
One message had clearly been left the previous day, and had something to do with a website; the second was a female voice.
“I’m having computer problems, can you give me a call whenever you get this?” That was all there was, no name or number.
“Clea,” Damon said. “Give me a minute to deal with these, and we can take our time with breakfast and, hm, whatever.”
Kate nodded. “No hurry. I certainly don’t want you to not be doing work just because I’m here. Is it all right if I borrow the shower?”
“When I told you to make yourself at home, I meant it as an open-ended sentiment. There are towels in the closet in the bathroom.”
While Kate collected her small pack, Damon dialled a number, still on speakerphone.
“Heya,” Damon said. “Computer problems?”
“It won’t turn on. At all. No fans, no hard drive noises, absolutely nothing. And yes, it’s plugged in, and the outlet works.”
“Sounds like your power supply died. I’ll see if I have one here or pick up a new one, and come over later. Do you mind if Kate’s with me?”
“No, not at all.” Clea sounded mildly surprised, Kate thought, but sincere. “I’ll be home all day, any time is fine. I’ll be all right without the computer for a little while.”
“Is the software I installed last week doing what you need?”
Kate retreated to the bathroom at that point, and missed the rest of the conversation.
When she emerged, dressed in the turquoise-and-rose pants and matching short-sleeved tunic she’d brought, Damon was still on the phone, though it was a male voice now, and he was typing rapidly while he was talking. He greeted her with a smile and silently handed her a half-dozen sheets of paper. Since he might just as well have been speaking another language for all she could understand what he was talking about, she looked at the paper, and after a moment decided they were printed copies of messages from his bothsider contacts. She sat down on the futon, legs crossed, to scan through them.
There were five, though not all jobs per se: in some cases, it was more a matter of joining a community where her skills would be useful. Two she dismissed immediately because she didn’t speak the dominant local language, or even a common secondary one. The idea of living in a cliffside city, dug out of the living rock, overlooking an ocean bay wasn’t terribly appealing, although she had to admit that there were probably advantages. After having been in charge of the library, archives, and town records in Tullovar single-handedly for six years, being an under-librarian would probably only frustrate her—there might well be the potential to become head librarian someday, but she didn’t particularly fancy having to supervise others, either. The last was in a city notorious for its walls and its strict regulation of how long anyone not human was permitted to stay within them—the greatest flexibility was for luminals, less for hydrans, and tenebrans were grouped in with the two shapeshifter races as barely tolerated at all.
“I’ll get that finished up as soon as I can,” she heard Damon say. “Unfortunately I can’t promise today, because of other commitments.” Kate frowned at him, and he just grinned at her completely unabashed. “But it’ll be done tomorrow at the latest.” Pleasantries and farewells were duly exchanged, and Damon hung up.
“I really don’t want you putting off work because I’m underfoot,” Kate said sternly, as Damon left the computer to join her, stretching out next to her in a rather feline curve.
“Under, perhaps at moments. Underfoot, however, you are not. That would be no fun at all.” He laughed as she blushed. “What he wants, now that I’ve managed to get a clear description from him, won’t take me more than an hour or so to do. It’s just a minor adjustment. If I get to it today, he’ll be impressed and happy, and if I get distracted or something today, he won’t be disappointed until tomorrow.”
“So much for Riverwood directness.”
“It’s exclusively a business-related thing. You could be the world’s greatest web designer, but if you can’t get the info you need out of customers and make them happy, you won’t get far. I will not tell anything but the truth, though. I do have other commitments today. I need to fix Clea’s computer and install some software, and while spending time with you may not be precisely a commitment, it’s something I intend to do as much as possible for as long as I can. Speaking of which, were any of those leads any good?”
Kate shook her head, and shared her thoughts on them. “I suppose the best of the bunch, if I absolutely had to pick one, would be the cliffside one. But, well…”
“If it isn’t something you’re happy with, then don’t take it. I’m sure Magda would tell you the same. You won’t go hungry, and you have places to sleep. There’s no immediate hurry, so it’s not worth trying for the first job that comes along instead of waiting for one you think you’d really like.”
Kate made breakfast while Damon showered and dressed; they ate without haste, conversation roaming through news from the bothsider email list to the movie the previous night to what was going to happen today.
On the way to Clea’s, Damon made a brief stop to buy something he said was a power supply for a computer.
Clea lived in a small red brick house on a quiet-looking residential street. Damon pulled into the single-car driveway, and they crossed part of the tiny front yard paved with cracked stone to reach the front door. Damon didn’t knock, just opened both the screen door and the natural-toned wooden inner door and gestured for Kate to come in.
“Clea?” he called, following and closing the doors. They were standing in a cozy living room; a mid-sized entertainment centre held a TV and assorted electronics along with books and such, accompanied by a comfortable-looking couch and loveseat, and a coffee table and matching end table, all in oak and sky blue with a creamy carpet and blue-tinged white walls.
“Kitchen!” Clea called.
The living room’s single doorway led to a kind of central hall area, offering access to several doors that Kate could see, but it led them past the stairs up to a sunny kitchen that was all lemon-yellow, muted light green, and oak. Clea was seated at the round table on one of the four matched chairs, a clipboard and pen in front of her, but she abandoned them to stand up and greet them with a welcoming smile.
On one of the other chairs, an orange and white cat was curled into a cozy ball; a second one, with more white, was perched on the windowsill, and barely glanced at Kate and Damon, apparently enthralled by something outside.
It was instantly obvious that Clea been wearing illusion jewellery at the Gryphon’s Nest, probably the silver and crystal ring resting around her neck on a black cord, her only visible jewellery. Equally obviously, she couldn’t go out in public on Brightside without it.
Her brown hair, undisguised, was a rather metallic bronze with highlights of copper and gold and verdigris green, a darker shade of the delicate scales that formed a mask over her eyes and ran down her outer arms, her outer legs, her lower belly, her bare feet, all in an intricate and artistic pattern. She wore only a brief black halter and a simple sarong knotted as a skirt, ruby and sapphire and black.
She gave Damon a warm hug, and turned to Kate. “Is Damon behaving himself?” she asked, her tone mock-severe. “If he misbehaves, make sure you let me know. I’ve known this rascal for most of our lives, I can keep him in line.” Clea laughed. “I have a very good memory for embarrassing incidents from our childhood, which gives me excellent blackmail material. Would you like to join me for a drink while Damon does his magic with my poor computer?”
“I’d love to. Especially if I can hear one or two of those stories.”
“Don’t you dare, Clea,” Damon said, stroking the cat on the chair affectionately; the cat arched into his hand, its purr audible. The cat in the window stretched, leaped to the floor lightly with one brief touchdown on the edge of the counter, and sauntered over to Damon. “Don’t cross the one who has all your computer passwords.”
That made Clea laugh again. “You know where the computer is. Would you like me to bring you something to drink?”
Stretching upwards, the more-white cat planted both forepaws on Damon’s thigh and arched its back inwards. “Ouch! Yes, all right, up you come.” Damon scooped the cat up, and it settled cozily against his chest, one arm supporting it. “Sure, a drink would be great. Whatever you decide on is fine.” He vanished back the way they’d come, still holding the purring cat. Kate remembered how those nimble fingers felt on her own skin, and briefly envied the cat.
Kate accepted the invitation to sit at the table. “Tea, wine, cider, cola, or orange juice?” Clea asked. “You aren’t allergic to cats, I hope?”
“Cider, please, and no, I like cats and they’re fine. What are their names?” She offered a hand to the one on the chair. The cat sniffed at her, then rubbed against her fingers invitingly.
“That’s Tinker on the chair. If he can take something apart, he will. Nomad is the one who went with Damon. He thinks he’d like to escape on his own, instead of going out to explore on a leash. Brothers, littermates. Neither is shy. If anything, they’re spoiled. They associate company with being admired.”
“Rightfully so. They’re handsome boys. Do they go back and forth to Riverwood with you? Or stay here?”
“They’re experienced travellers. They’ve been with me since they were very small, and Damon and I made sure they went back and forth often enough that they got used to it.” Clea filled three glasses with cider, and excused herself briefly to take one to Damon. Kate continued making friends with Tinker in the interim, discovering that if she scritched along the side of his jaw, he leaned heavily into it and his purr redoubled.
Clea returned to join Kate at the table. “I’m only teasing, by the way,” she said. “Damon would never misbehave in any serious way. We’ve been close friends for so long, we tease each other a lot.”
“Damon is hard to not trust,” Kate said. “Even after… oh my, almost three full days.” Even after, or maybe especially after, the playful casual way he’d approached her to go out, and that intense moment at the waterfront when his carnivore side had nearly slipped its leash, and the absolute refusal to pressure her into anything. There was, clearly, infinitely more to Damon than his half-tenebran heritage—but that still coloured all the rest.
She wasn’t at all sure she wanted to discuss whatever it was developing between her and Damon, so she shifted the subject. “Can I ask a very rude personal question?”
Clea smiled. It made the tiny scales near the corners of her eyes sparkle, adding to the warmth of the expression. She unlaced one long-fingered hand from around her glass and laid it on the table so the scales that ran up onto the back and the slightly claw-like golden nails were clearly visible. “What am I?” She sounded amused, and was still smiling when Kate nodded sheepishly. “Don’t feel badly you can’t place me. I am, quite literally, unique. Have you ever heard of a shaper?”
“It’s a fairly rare Darkside gift that only turns up in luminals. I’ve seen it described as the dark side of healing.”
“Not a bad description when it’s abused, although not all shapers abuse their gift. They can heal things no one else can, but the ones that pursue other paths… there was one who was curious about human genetics. Humans can interbreed successfully and prolifically with anyone else, even though the others rarely conceive together and the offspring are usually not fertile in turn, and the non-human genes tend to express themselves strongly. He decided to see how far that could extend. In Priskanon, where everything is rigidly stratified with more kinds of bigotry running rampant than I can quickly list, he had no difficulty finding unwanted human children to buy—girls, mostly, around five or six years old. Younger ones were too much trouble, and older ones were less physically malleable.”
“He was experimenting on children?” Kate realized she was staring at Clea in horror, and forced herself to drop her gaze.
Clea nodded. “For several years, he stayed unnoticed, or bribed the right people—in a couple of cases, with exotic illegal slaves, pets, same thing.” She shrugged. “I was one of the lucky ones. Some died in the process, some lived a few days and death was a mercy when it came. Some were mentally and emotionally shattered, and are still in the care of a gentle and compassionate asylum—the rest of us check on them to make sure of that. And some of us, the ones that had some hope of a normal life, were adopted into sympathetic households in Riverwood. They went through his records and made sure every one of us was accounted for, present or dead or given away, and did their best for all of us.”
“That’s… I’m glad they caught him and stopped him, but… how could he do that to you?”
Clea laid her hand over Kate’s and squeezed. “Relax. It’s been over for almost three decades. Being surrounded by people who care helped us heal. Including a certain mad tenebran halfbreed who lived up the road from my new parents. The first thing he did was inform me that he’d made friends with the garter snake that lived in their yard, so much so it would allow him to pick it up, and would I like to come meet it?” The affection and merriment in her grin were infectious; Kate couldn’t help but return it. That sounded like the Damon she’d been seeing, no question. “His family and mine got used to seeing us together most of the time. I have a loving adoptive family. My mother is pard and my father is hydran, so they couldn’t have children of their own together. They adopted both me and my part-otter sister, and we couldn’t ask for better. I have many wonderful friends, a perfect job, and my own home with my lovely boys. I can’t remember being entirely human, this is what I am and I’m fine with that and wouldn’t change it. Most of it is cosmetic, just a few small functional quirks. Compared to the life I’d have had anywhere in Priskanon, especially given that my birth family was almost certainly extremely poor, I actually quite prefer the life I have.”
“Mm. Good point. Can I ask what job?”
“When I was twenty-one, a bothsider photographer saw me without my ring and asked me to model for him. He’s largely retired these days, but he took one of my sisters as an apprentice of sorts and he still gets involved occasionally if Anya and I ask. They progressed over time from fantasy-themed to more erotic, and it’s always an interactive process, between Anya and I and anyone we invite to join in. It’s a lot of fun, actually, and we always try to find new ways to make them artistic, not just bare skin made exotic by scales.”
“I could see it being fun, and I bet they’re gorgeous pictures.”
Clea flashed her that sunny smile. “Damon has all of them, ask him. So, to make a long story a little shorter, these days I write erotica and model for photos, all of which are printed and sold privately. Between that and a few related but less consistent sources of income, I make a comfortable living.” She took a sip of cider, and regarded Kate thoughtfully. “Well, you don’t look scandalized, that’s good.”
“Why would I be scandalized? Does Damon have what you’ve written, too?”
“I’m looking forward to borrowing them.”
Clea chuckled. “Only read them if you have an open mind—but I think you do. The same with the photos. Tell Damon if you only want to see the lighter ones.”
“I’m much too curious, I’d rather see all of them.” Curious was an understatement. Erotica requiring an open mind sounded much more intriguing than the kind of stuff bored housewives read. And… lighter ones?
Clea, still watching her, said casually, “So, any job prospects yet?”
They chatted comfortably about life, jobs, and families until Damon joined them with his nearly empty glass. “Power supply’s been replaced, and everything’s working normally,” he reported, dropping into the one chair that was still unoccupied.
“Thanks. What did it cost?”
“Not much, don’t worry about it. Software’s installed and working, let me know if it still isn’t what you need. You haven’t been telling Kate stuff that would make her run away from me, have you?”
“Only a little,” Clea said cheerfully. “I appreciate the repair, and the company while waiting for it, but I’m afraid I have to throw you both out. I have work to do now that I have a functioning computer again. Go find some mischief to get into.”
Damon finished the last swallow of his cider and stood up. “As you command, milady. Shall we, Kate?”
Continued in Brightside 6, in which Kate and Damon go to a nightclub. Pouncing occurs, a long blood-red scarf is involved, tenebran instincts appear to be a factor… details at 11. Or rather, 6.