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Jecia Singh. Solday, Aries 8th 2351. 12:05 PM. Pacific Palisades (Brightman Residence).

Two weeks after Cynthie Brightman’s arrest, Jecia drove back to Pacific Fucking Palisades. After two hours in traffic, she finally crested the ridge to Kileena’s home. There were a few guys on mopeds, telephotos slung over their shoulders, pointedly loitering. As Jecia drew near the palatial house, one of the paparazzi pulled his camera and started snapping pictures. When the others took notice, they started shooting too.

Jecia stepped out of her car and rang the doorbell. She waited patiently, ignoring the storm of clicking behind her, which, while awkward, was better than reporters barking questions at her. When word got out that her venture had broken the Black Lotus curse by using the Mortal Breath, she had become a celebrity in her own right over night, with reporters frequently camping outside her house. But after a week of refusing to answer a single question, only the photographers persisted.

Kileena answered the door and quickly hustled Jecia inside. After shutting the door, she flipped off the paparazzi with both fingers.

“Fucking jackals,” Kileena said. “I appreciate you checking up on me, Detective Singh—err, Jecia. But the tabloids recognize you now and I don’t want to disrupt your personal life.”

It’s not your fault. It’s the damn scar. The distinctive check-mark shaped scar coming out of the edge of her eye made her easily recognizable, whether she showed up in asfalis clothing or her uniform. Somebody got it in their head that Jecia’s follow up visits were evidence of some kind of ongoing, clandestine investigation, or conspiracy between Kileena and the LAKF.

Kileena had timidly requested that Jecia escort her home from the hospital, in uniform, just to help keep the press at bay. About seven days later, Jecia offered to come over with pizza and beer. Kileena had reluctantly accepted, wary of ulterior motives. But Jecia was careful to avoid discussing the case—or what happened to her mother—until Kileena broached the topic herself. By that time though, she was a few beers deep and still on pain meds, so she may have regrets about confiding in me.

“It really doesn’t bother me,” Jecia said. “But if you want me to stop coming over, this can be our last visit. For what it’s worth, these check-ins have been good for me too.”

“How do you mean?” Kileena asked.

Jecia wasn’t sure what to say next.

Some night on that first week after they had arrested Cynthie, when Jecia and Sev were laying in bed, she expressed envy at his friendship with Juel. There were people in Newam that she wouldn’t mind getting a drink with, and she had some old friends from the Athenaeum, but they were Christmas Card acquaintances at best.Sev observed that she was more introverted than he was and relatively slow to trust, which made things harder. “The key to friendship is to trust somebody who will trust you back.”

“Outside my job, I don’t really have much of a personal life. Getting together with somebody, even if it’s just to talk about the weather… it’s new territory to me.” Jecia chuckled. “I guess that’s what you get for dating your boss.”

Kileena offered a tepid smile, unsure whether she was supposed to laugh or offer sympathy.

“Telling jokes is new territory as well,” Jecia said apologetically.

Kileena gave her a genuine smile this time and a sort of exasperated chuckle.

“Aren’t I an extension of your job too?” she asked.

“Maybe at first,” Jecia conceded. “But I like to think we got past that last Merday. It’s why I asked you to stop calling me ‘Detective Singh.’”

Kileena pinkened slightly.

“Yeah. I appreciate it. I just… I don’t know who I can trust.”

Jecia nodded.

“I haven’t… suffered like you have before. I don’t think anybody can claim to know where you’re coming from given what happened. But before I left Newam… I definitely went through a period where everything felt like a lie. My impressions of everyone felt fragile.”

“Why?” Kileena asked.

Jecia took a deep breath. In for a penny…

“I was working undercover when somebody in our chapter leaked our identities to the bad guys. And they captured me. Then they tried…well, they succeeded at breaking into my mind.”

Kileena blinked at her and her mouth slowly opened, but she never quite came up with an appropriate question. Jecia rescued her from the awkward silence by continuing:

“There are days… where I worry that all of this is an illusion. Somebody playing with my head. A way to trick me into handing away my trust. But now… most days… I feel better. Good enough to talk about what happened, and confident enough that it is behind me.”

“I don’t know what to say that,” Kileena said.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t worry if you can’t talk about it now. We don’t know each other that well yet anyway. But if you need somebody to listen, even if it’s just to listen and forget what they hear, I can do that for you.”

“Uh, yeah,” Kileena said, after a couple seconds’ hesitation. “I’ll put on some coffee.”

—Juel Flores | 1:28 PM. Arroyo, Brookside Terrace (Grimm Residence)—

Anigale Grimm née Stewart answered the door a couple seconds after Sev knocked. Juel had first met her when Grimm was discharged. She struck him as warmhearted, honest, and straightforward—a disposition that seemed endearingly at odds with her Bardie-Doll come-to-life appearance. She had some work done to accentuate her already-pronounced hourglass figure, and routinely wore bright pink clothing accompanied by heavy make-up.

“Hey Ani,” Sev said.

“Oh, hi honey! How are you?” She kissed Sev’s cheek and bid them enter.

“Doing alright. Probably still better than Rick at the moment,” Sev assured her.

“Hi Juel,” Ani said and gave him a hug like he was an old friend, even though it was only their second time meeting. “How’s your wife? And your boy?”

“They’re both doing great, thanks.” Juel said as they entered the house. “Since the Black Lotus Case ended, we’ve actually had some time to act like a family. How are your kids?”

“Juliemma is here with me,” she said, beaming with pride. Her expression fell somewhat before she continued: “Stennith is still at the Athenaeum. He’s only been to visit once, if you can believe that. And people wonder why Keepers have no work-life balance.”

I don’t think anybody actually wonders about that, but I get your point. Early on in their friendship, Grimm confessed that his frequent absences were ultimately what put his marriage with Ani in ‘purgatory.’ Juel suddenly had to hide a smirk.

He always heard that word in Grimm’s voice, ever since they got drunk at The Book a few months back. “Our marriage is in ‘purgatory.’ Not dead. ‘We’re in purgatory,’ is what she told me. What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Juel and Sev had both done their best to explain her metaphor, but five rounds of cocktails had dulled their articulation considerably and by that point, Grimm was effectively gone to the world.

Despite their split, they maintained a close, turbulent relationship with a deep undercurrent of mutual affection.

“What year is Stennith now?” Juel asked.

“Ninth,” Ani said, exasperated.

“That’s a hard year,” Sev said. “Things calm down once you hit ten and eleven but—”

“Yeah, yeah. I knew you were gonna say that. It’s like it’s part of your training,” she said, waving Sev off. “Rick told me the same thing. He doesn’t seem to mind either, but you’d think after what he’s been through, Sten’s teachers would make more allowances for family.”

They entered the living room, where Rick lay in a recliner, watching baseball with Juliemma, who lounged on the couch. She was in her early twenties, broad-shouldered and square-jawed like Grimm; full-lipped and buxom like her mother.

“Hey Juli,” Sev said. “How’s the patient?”

“Cranky and bored,” Juliemma said, as if she were speaking for two.

“Cranky? I’m being perfectly well-behaved! And who let these guys in anyway?” Rick joked.

“Feeling okay, big guy?” Juel asked.

Grimm chuckled.

“I won’t be running marathons any time soon, but all things considered? I can’t complain.”

“That is a lie,” Sev said flatly. “You could complain about sunshine and smooth sailing.”

“Facts,” Juliemma said.

Grimm gave her a sour look and tossed a pillow at her. She caught it and stood up, then gestured for Sev and Juel to take her seat on the couch.

“I’m gonna help mom with the dishes,” she said, and pecked her father on the forehead.

As he took his seat on the couch, Juel noted that Grimm’s color was much better than the last time they had seen him. He looks damn good considering how close he came to death. After three surgeries over the course of two days, Rick lost his spleen and a good chunk of his lower intestines. They were serious injuries that would require substantial recovery time, but the long-term side effects would be mercifully limited.

“So what gives. You don’t have anything better to do with your Solday than visit an invalid?”

“Not particularly,” Juel said. “It was either this or taking Ethano to a friend’s birthday party and I just couldn’t handle thirty screaming kids today. So Lami said she would cover it.”

“You married a saint,” Rick said, then turned to Sev. “And where’s your better half? She don’t love me anymore?”

“Jecia sends her love,” Sev assured him. “But she wanted to check up on Kileena, so she’s way the hell across town.”

Juel looked around the lounge, impressed at how clean it was. Rick’s house was the ultimate bachelor pad. When Anigale left him—somewhere between ten and fourteen years ago—he gave her their old five-bedroom place and moved into his parents’ old Craftsman house. It was a dark wooden cave of a home with damn near a dozen rooms, but only one full bathroom, and all of the bedrooms save for the master suite had been repurposed to Rick’s interests: humidor, library, and billiards room. The kitchen was relatively spartan, but the lounge was large and appointed in oxblood leather arranged around the altar of a truly massive symvision set.

“Place looks great, doesn’t it?” Rick asked.

Juel nodded and grinned. Rick didn’t live like a pig, but he certainly wasn’t clean. Stray coffee mugs or empty beer bottles were a common sight. He had dusted—once—mostly to be able to say that he dusted once.

“Anigale’s work, I assume?” Sev asked.

“Yeah! Much better than that topless maid service I told you about,” Grimm said loudly.

“Rick, my hand to God, I swear—” Anigale called from the kitchen.

“What? I said you were better! What do you want from me!”

Juel and Sev both laughed. The ballgame snagged Rick’s attention for a couple seconds, and he clapped when the pitcher struck out the batter to end the inning. As the players jogged off the field, Rick looked at his comrades:

“So. You both are in high spirits. I’m guessing you’re working M&M now?”

Juel and Sev both sighed.

“Meeting got pushed to tomorrow. So we don’t know yet, but we like our odds,” Juel said.

“Yeah, hell of a case to crack. How does it feel to be living legends? Ashael, Lothaine, and Elthiel reborn.”

“It’s your name on the case, big guy,” Juel said.

“Mark of fucking shame is what that is. What did I contribute, other than a portion of my guts?”

“Guts aren’t to be taken lightly,” Sev chided. “You also fielded the PR nightmare, dealt with the Juris Lexis to get our warrants quickly—”

“Okay. Great. So I played secretary. I also failed to keep my gun out of Cynthie Brightman’s hands,” Rick shook his head.

“Cynthie Brightman was possessed by a demon so powerful it nearly ended all of us,” Juel countered.

Rick shrugged, unpersuaded.

“It should be your names on the case. Arroyo broke this curse.”

Juel and Sev looked at each other and shrugged. He had made up his mind. If they pressed him on the issue, tried to assure him of his competence, or simply cheer him out, it would only worsen his bruised ego. We need a new topic.

“I just can’t get over Cynthie Brightman,” Sev said, reading Juel’s mind. “I wonder what she’s feeling right now. Does she only regret getting caught, or does she actually realize how fucked up her relationship to her daughter became to bring her to that state?”

“Probably a bit of both,” Rick said. “These kinds of people find a way to reframe themselves as victims. I used to think it was just selfishness, but now I think it’s a last resort to cope with getting caught.”

“I did the arrest interview, since I was the least fucked up from the fight,” Juel said. “At first, she was in hysterics about Kileena, and that concern seemed genuine. But she kept repeating, ‘I didn’t know,’ and ‘I swear I didn’t know,’ like a mantra. I think she was trying to convince herself more than anyone else. After her leximancer arrived…” Juel shook his head. “She just sat there. Mouth hanging open. Wonder what her defense will be.”

Juel shrugged. Cynthie’s possession was pretty damning, and there were plenty of witnesses, including Kileena, who would testify that it took place. Bathael couldn’t hop into any body she wanted. The bargain Cynthie struck provided a pre-existing link, though, and that was more than enough leeway to allow a powerful egregore to take a body for a joyride.

“Rick, goddammit, what the hell are these?” Ani demanded, appearing in the doorway to the kitchen holding a pack of cigarettes. “I thought you were going to switch to vaping. And you shouldn’t even have these in the house until you’ve completely recovered.”

“Yeah, I’m sure nicotine withdrawal will be a huge help with my convalescence,” Rick muttered. “Ani, just leave ‘em where you found ‘em, and I swear I won’t touch them until—Ani. Ani, wait. Ani!”

Anigale retreated into the kitchen, and the sound of running water followed a few seconds after her.

“She put ‘em in the fucking sink, didn’t she?” Rick said to nobody in particular, then complained loudly: “Goddammit Ani, those cost eight bucks!”

“You should be glad that she’s not going after your cigars,” Sev chided.

“Or your pipe tabacco,” Juel added.

Rick shot them a reproachful glance and gestured “What the fuck,” and “whose side are you on?” Juel gestured back “our own.” He snickered and turned back to his ballgame. The three of them fell quiet for a while. After about ten minutes, Ani walked out of the kitchen with Juliemma.

“We don’t want to cramp your style any more than we already have, so we’re gonna head out.”

“We aren’t feeling cramped,” Juel said, and Sev gestured the same.

“Aw, that’s sweet of you boys, but poor Grimm has been around too much estrogen lately. He had to put up with us the whole weekend, and I can tell it’s starting to grate on him.”

“Next damn thing you know there will be fuckin’ flowers on the wall and cherubs in the bathroom,” Grimm said.

Anigale approached him, kissed her palm, and smacked his cheek like she was plugging a hole with tape. He chuckled and kissed his lips at her. Watching them was like one of those family sitcoms that had gone out of taste in the late 30s. It had a cloying—if occasionally problematic or puerile—charm to it. As if to drive home the point, Rick started to sneak his hand toward Anigale’s waist to do something—probably inappropriate—only for her to smack his paw away. Juel laughed.

“Yeah. In your dreams,” Anigale said haughtily, then added: “Go and call your topless maids.”

Juel and Sev drew their heads back. Hello, I’d like to report a homicide. Juliemma winced.

“Can we please stop conjuring that image?”

“Sorry, sweetie,” Anigale said, patting her shoulder. “Gentlemen, would you mind helping us with our bags?”

Sev and Juel both complied, and the four of them trickled outside while Grimm resumed his ballgame. The car was loaded up in seconds, and Juliemma hopped into the front passenger seat, lost to her phone. Anigale lingered and gave them both hugs.

“Thanks for your help. And thanks for looking in on him. It means the world,” Anigale said. Then she hesitated, looked through the front window at Rick, and Juel knew that she had something else to say, but wasn’t sure how to say it.

“What’s up, Ani?” Sev asked.

Juel wanted to add “Ani are you okay?” but he sensed it was a delicate moment.

“I… I told Rick he should retire. When he woke up in the hospital. He didn’t take it well at first. Said I was kicking him while he was down.” She sniffed. “I can see why he’d look at it that way. I was upset. Probably should have been more polite.”

She wiped her nose, regaining her composure.

“But the other night, he said that he would think about it. And I think he was being serious. He wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t drunk. I just… Tell him to do the right thing, okay? I don’t know what that is for him. I know what’s right for me. But if he’s gonna be half alive with me, I’d rather him live a whole life on the Force.”

Sev and Juel looked to each other and nodded. It was a big ask, but they weren’t ones to back down from a challenge.

“We’ll talk it over with him,” Sev assured her.

“Thanks,” Anigale said. “And I mean it. Tell him what’s best for him.”

“Will do,” Juel said.

The two of them stood there as Anigale drove away. They waved, and then waited a moment before talking, both doing the math. Rick can get his kicks doing consulting. Hell, I can put him in touch with somebody from Hollywood, he’d love that. Or he can be a consulting detective for the AKF, stay off the field. But he has a son who is about to complete his time in the athenaeum, a daughter fresh home from college, and a woman that still loves him very much.

“Rick should retire,” Sev said.

“Glad we agree.”

“How do you want to play this?” Sev asked.

“Seems simple enough to me,” Juel said, smiling.

“Oh really?” Sev crossed his arms.

“Well. Step one, we get him drunk,” Juel said.

“Well, obviously,” Sev said. “Wait, not too drunk. The man still has a hole in him.”

 “You know what I mean. We wait for the right moment, get him to lower his guard a bit…”

“Yes, and then what?” Sev asked, impatient with Juel’s smugness.

“And then we tell him how he can get out of purgatory.”

Sev laughed and applauded. Juel took a bow.

— Hace Matthews | 6:06 PM | Arroyo Central Terrace (Lake Avenue) —

Hace walked back to the upper-class dorms on the east bank of the Central Arroyo, still damp from the showers, and still brooding from the morning’s disappointment. Kimiss had broken up with him. Again. Probably for good this time.

The last straw arrived when Drav made an open reference to the undercover op. Hace tried to hide behind the various confidentiality clauses he had to sign. But she obviously countered that I had clearly told Drav and Glem about the operation. Which is only technically true. But he had also lied to her about the source of his injuries. And that’s game, set, and match.

It’s probably for the best. I always felt like when I was happy, she was annoyed or nervous, and when she was happy, I was stifled or bored. Still, he cared enough about Kimiss to feel genuine remorse for hurting her. She was extremely driven, witty, and while she was all-business in public, she had a silly streak that only came out in private, which Hace found incredibly endearing. And my god, the sex. He wanted to weep.

“Hace Matthews?”

Hace realized with a start that he had arrived at the dorms, and nearly bumped into a handsome Asian dude with idol-esque hair, who had been waiting near the stoop. Jesus, what the hell happened to your situational awareness, Matthews? If he was an attacker, you’d be dead!

“That’s me,” Hace said, snapping to attention.

The Asian guy extended his hand. Hace took it but was plainly confused.

“My name’s Ezzie Chen. You, uh… you saved my sister, Celice. And I just wanted to say thanks.”

Hace’s eyes lit with recognition and a smile came to his face. He had wondered about the Asian girl with the antlers from Erato’s pleasure palace. He liked to think he saved her, but he was worried that she suffered a similar fate to his mother.

“How is she?”

“Thanks to you, she’ll pull through. She was really messed up for a couple days, but now she’s lucid again. The medithurges think the antlers are a permanent quirk, but she’s got her mind.”

The emptiness of a newly ended relationship gave way to elation. It was the first time somebody thanked him for saving their family. God, I want to wear this like a robe. I want to strut down the street in it. Hace Mathews: Saver of Lives. And that was the worst part about the thing with Kimiss. He wanted to tell everybody. Especially her. In the end, he only ‘told’ his roommates because they were asked to act as his alibi and proliferate a cover story that would give Hace some room to tell half-truths.

“I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that,” Hace said. “My mom, uh. She’s still… haunted by her time in the Faed, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh. Dude. I am so sorry to hear that,” Ezzie said, suddenly off-balance.

Hace backpedaled and gestured no worries.

“No, I’m sorry. Jesus, we just met. Very heavy way to say ‘hello.’”

“You’re fine. I was actually hoping I could like, buy you a cup of coffee or something. I’d like to do more, but… well, money’s kind of tight.”

Hace was touched. He knew how much a seemingly meager ‘thank you’ could cost. And a sympathetic ear sounded great tonight. Drav was making himself scarce, rightly sensing that Hace was too pissed to look at him. And Glem would only say things to the effect of “I told you so,” or “you knew this would happen.”

“Coffee sounds damn good,” Hace said.

“I know a place in Old Town,” Ezzie said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder.

“Lead on,” Hace said, then paused. “Actually first, I gotta ask: How—did you find me? That op was supposed to be confidential. Like my girlfriend—err, ex-girlfriend—just found out this morning, and… well, now she’s my ex-girlfriend.”

“Oh bro,” Ezzie said. “I am so sorry. Wait, why? You’re a hero. Like actually. You saved a dozen girls that night—oh, I’m beginning to see the problem.”

“That wasn’t even it,” Hace laughed. “I just… I didn’t trust her enough to tell her everything. And what I left out—the real reason I got hurt—was a dealbreaker.”

“You got hurt saving my sister?” Ezzie asked.

“I kinda got stabbed. Half-fae bounce back quick though! It’s still sore, but other than that? Like it never happened.”

Ezzie nodded slowly. For a hard half-second, Hace worried that Ezzie was rethinking his offer. Kinda casually dropped that I’m half-fae in there. Only natural that would give him—

“Well, if it’s any consolation. I can think of a few girls who are dying to take your ex’s place,” he said, smirking. “To answer your question: I just asked Celice and a couple of the other girls you rescued what you looked like. They wouldn’t shut up about how handsome you were. Also, you have dark red hair, which is pretty distinctive. After that, finding you was easy.”

“Really?” Hace asked.

Ezzie gestured “Oh. Bro.” and nodded emphatically.

“I am a free-lance photogra—fuck it. I am a paparazzo. Was a paparazzo. I’m looking into getting my private detective’s license. The skills are surprisingly similar. Anyway, with a physical description, I knew who I was looking for. And judging by your rough age, I knew you’d be in the athenaeum’s upper class male dorms. It helped that you used your real name; you probably shouldn’t do that in the future.”

“Half-fae,” Hace said, grinning.

“Oh shit,” Ezzie said. “I’m sorry. Is that, like offensive? To ask you to lie? I’m sorry—”

Hace laughed and thought of the torrent of foul verbal abuse Glem subjected him to. He thought of the horrible jokes he shared at his own expense.  He shook his head at Ezzie and said:

“I’m not easily offended when it comes to my heritage.”

“Me either. I’m probably the worst Chinese guy you’ve ever met.”

Hace laughed.

“What does that mean?”

“Whenever there’s a negative stereotype? Like having a disappointed mother and father? It’s dead on. But whenever there’s a positive stereotype; knows how to speak Chinese, good at math… it’s dead wrong. Hence, worst Chinese guy.”

“You seem pretty cool to me.”

“The better you get to know me, the faster I’ll disabuse you of that notion.”

“Let’s put that to the test,” Hace said.

—Sevardin Harker | Lunday, Aries 9th. 8AM | Arroyo, Central Terrace (AKF Central Precinct)—

Sev was slightly unnerved to see that Drake had not summoned the Deputy Chief of Monstrum and Malefaction to their meeting. If she had decided to approve their proposal, custom dictated their new boss be present to assist with onboarding. Stay calm. We’ve got this.

“Let’s get down to business,” Drake said, as soon as everybody had sat down before her desk. “I have denied your transfer request to Monstrum and Malefaction.”

Sev tried to keep his expression neutral. Solving cases didn’t guarantee promotions or approval of transfer requests, obviously. But the Black Lotus wasn’t just another case. And now that you know what we can do, are you really going to squander us in Cold Cases and Public Outreach?

“Can we continue working together in any division?” Juel asked.

“No,” Drake said flatly. “Frankly, I don’t want to burden my division chiefs with the bullshit associated with an intraoffice romance. Especially when the couple in question has a near-mythological power at their disposal. Aside from disrupting the social dynamic, it gives you an unfair degree of leverage over the people who should be in charge.”

Sev was stunned. He and Jecia had kept practicing, albeit in shorter, safer stretches. They could reliably achieve it. You’d be a fool not to leverage the Mortal Breath. We still don’t even know its full potential. Drake continued, looking at Jecia:

“Detective Singh. When I signed you onto my Force, you told me something along the lines of ‘no dogs, no kids, no men,’” she looked pointedly at Sevardin. “It seems to me you’ve managed to find three in one.”

Sev snickered at the comment, but he could tell that Drake had struck Jecia’s nerves.

“With all due respect, Chief,” Jecia began, “our ‘office romance’ played a crucial role in breaking that curse.”

Sev and Juel were both about to back her up, but Drake gestured for silence sharply before continuing:

“Starting a week from today, the three of you will occupy a new position in the AKF. A Special Cases Venture that reports directly to me.”

Sev, Jecia, and Juel exchanged a glance, grins spreading across their faces. This seemed to incense Drake, who continued:

“Ever since the press got wind of you two using the Mortal Breath to solve the case, I have a gun to my head to make use of you. And I don’t particularly enjoy having a gun to my head, so you’d better believe I’m going to bleed you dry.”

She clearly intended this as a threat, but with each passing word, Sev grew more excited. And he could tell he wasn’t alone. The venture thanked Drake, more or less in unison, and she gestured for silence again.

“The SCV will be the ace up Arroyo’s sleeve. Every high-profile, unsolvable heap of bullshit will land in your collective lap. You will be the ones fielding the press conferences. When we aren’t busy, I will be loaning you out to other chapters. You will only receive subordinate assistance at my discretion. And you will thank me, profusely, for these privileges.

“I have reappropriated M&M’s second conference room to be your shared office and staging room. This represents the sum total of your personal resources unless I say otherwise. Check your amail for your amended terms of employment this afternoon. And if you have any issue with the pay or the perks… I wish you the best of luck with another chapter. I am not going to haggle on this.

“As per your united proposals, Harker will be the CO of the SCV. Flores, I want to have verbal confirmation, here and now, that you will not gripe about Harker and Singh’s relationship. It is effectively a condition of this venture, and you will have to put up with it.”

“That won’t be a problem, Chief,” Juel said.

“Oh, I promise it will cause you all kinds of problems down the road. But whatever they end up being, they will remain your problems, and not mine. Is that clear?”

“Understood, Chief,” Juel assured her.

Drake nodded, and finally allowed herself a grudging smile.

“I am expecting tremendous things from all of you.”

“We won’t disappoint,” Jecia assured her.

Drake snickered and opened a folder on her desk, producing Sev’s second letter.

“Now. What is this about Vadon Freeman? As far as I’m aware, he made no significant contributions to the Black Lotus case.”

He would have, if you gave me more people to work with. Vadon had spoken with Sev and Jecia only when strictly necessary throughout the past week. Never silent enough to impede actual work, but indifferent to casual conversation. You cost me my relationship with Vadon, Drake. I may have pulled the trigger, but if you want to talk about people putting guns to your head…

Sev swallowed his frustration and said:

“I believe Vadon has served his time in Cold Cases, Chief.”

Drake gave him a flat look followed by a long sequence of gestures to the effect of ‘oh well, excuse the fuck out of me.’ When Sev fell silent, she bade him continue and he complied:

“At the beginning of this, he told me he wanted a transfer—”

“Then I’d like him to have the balls to submit a proposal himself,” Drake said.

“Arroyo is underutilizing him,” Sev said, the words outpacing his better judgment.

Juel coughed pointedly and Jecia gave him the most serious side-eye of their relationship to date. Sevardin gestured respectful apologies and continued:

“I’m not asking for him to be transferred unasked or unconditionally. But if he does submit a request, please consider it seriously. I want to give him my full endorsement.”

Drake smiled—ah shit, here it comes—and said:

“Well, Detective. Since we’re being frank with each other, I have to wonder: How much of this is coming from your golden moral compass, versus the guilt you feel for cutting him out of the spotlight in favor of your new girlfriend?”

Sev’s veins went rigid against his temples. Blood surged to his head. Drake’s expression dared him to do something. Attack me. That’s fine. But stop dismissing Jecia as ‘my girlfriend,’ when she’s the only reason we were able to lay this case to rest. Sev remained calm, and hated himself for it. Drake seemed to realize she had crossed a line and recanted ever-so-slightly:

“Look, if your endorsement is genuine…I need to know. Call me a skeptic. Call me a fucking bigot. But the man is in a wheelchair, Harker. Will that impede his ability to perform in the field?”

“No, Sir,” Sev said, decisively. “It’s not an irrelevant handicap, but Vadon is a para-athlete. Basketball after work, and the asfalis T54 one-hundred meter on the weekends. He has trained himself to do things with his chair and sorcery that—”

“Fine,” Drake waved away the rest of what he had to say and switched to a new front: “In the past, you felt Freeman was a loose cannon. We know what happened at the sting op wasn’t his fault, but do you think he has outgrown those early tendencies?”

Sev thought back to Vadon blasting the gremlin with his Locke. Fortunately, that specific anecdote had not seemed to reach Drake, else she would have used it against him specifically. And I want to believe that was a symptom of his circumstances. The kid is starved for action. He suffered an irreversible injury at the outset of his career, and he’s been trapped in the record room since.

“He has matured greatly, Chief. I mean that whole-heartedly.”

Drake took a deep breath and nodded.

“If he applies for a transfer, I will give his application due consideration. Informed by your endorsement. Now. I believe that settles everything?”

The venture nodded and gestured in the affirmative. The three of them stood and shook hands with Drake, who gave them another rare, grudging smile.

“Make the most out of this transition week. Your lives are about to become very busy.”

— 9:54 PM | Arroyo Central Terrace (Glenarm Animathurgy Plant) —

Sev took Jecia out on his bike that night. It had become a ritual for them. Something akin to taking a walk. Except the noise of the bike gave them a perfect excuse to enjoy meaningful, intimate silences amidst conversation. And when they spoke, they always had something significant to say.

They always came to a pause at a random location for a longer talk at some point in the ride. Parks. Views from the foothills, or briar bridges. Tonight, Jecia bid him to stop at a derelict, Art Deco building surrounded by chain-link fence.

“I haven’t seen this one before,” she said.

“That’s the old Glenarm Anima Plant,” Sev said. “It was in operation about a hundred years ago, but only for about fifty years, when the city switched to a Gygen grid. It’s a historic city landmark, but they can’t figure out how to repurpose it.”

“Off-limits?” Jecia asked.

“Definitely,” Sev said, reading the public notice set up on the fence. “But not condemned. And you know… abandoned buildings are ideal breeding grounds for dire animals, egregores, and natural chimeras.”

“It would be irresponsible not to inspect it,” Jecia said seriously.

“Grossly negligent,” Sev agreed. “Does it have an interesting inherence?”

“See for yourself,” Jecia said coyly.

Sev sauntered over and took her in his arms. She placed her hands on his chest. They synched their breathing quickly. It flared like magnesium, so bright and intense it dazzled him. And then he was with her in her wyrd. Sev let go of Jecia’s back with one arm, and extended his hand toward the old plant.

Collectively the building was melancholy, but proud. It had been sequestered from the world and left purposeless for half a century. And yet people still reached for it. People took pictures. Artists sketched it. Bored kids snuck in at night on dares. Despite the universe’s attempts to hollow it, the plant persevered. And it was proud to be a living—if silent—part of Arroyo.

There was an undercurrent of malevolence to it as well, however. It had incubated monsters before, and would likely do so again before it met its end. Its interior was tattooed by at least a dozen gangs, the majority of which no longer existed. But for brief periods of time, some of those gangs had staked their claims in earnest, taking charge of the building’s inherence. It had witnessed dark deeds and erased evidence with gales, dust, and dew.

Sev was once again taken aback by how powerful Jecia’s—our—insight was when it came to Inherences. They were slowly expanding their approach to the Mortal Breath, dabbling in combined exercises of kinetic sorcery—but their first trick was still their best. He released the breath, and looked at Jecia.

“That building went through a serious serial killer phase. I think we should check it out.”

Jecia nodded emphatically, smiling.

Sev appreciated that about her. She understood when he was being funny. Not simply laughing at his lame jokes—though he appreciated that too—but she always recognized his sense of humor, and it resonated with her own.

I feel like a changed man. Somewhere between Jecia’s transfer and the night he had his legs broken, Sev had given up on the idea of a storybook ending for himself. He, who had jumped headlong into the Amagium, raised on stories of true love, heroism, and righteous justice, had dismissed those ideals as possibilities. He had hardened his heart against the potential disappointment they represented.

But now, he felt like a living legend. Even when he was not performing the Mortal Breath with Jecia, his wyrd felt explosively powerful and infinitely flexible. Its confidence outclassed anything it had ever been before. And more importantly, these last two weeks have been the happiest of my life. They decided against moving in together to avoid alarming family. Instead, they simply traded off whose home they retired to in the evening.

But an unpleasant thought returned to Sevardin as they circled the perimeter. It was the kind of thought that always crept up on him when they were apart, busy, or in public. When they had convened at The Book, and Jecia confessed that she was afraid the Amagium meddled with her memories, he had remained silent, even though he went through the same thing after the Samhain Massacre.

I wasn’t sure I believed it myself. But over the past few days, I can’t deny that there are gaps in my memories that go beyond PTSD. Certain things about that case just don’t add up, and the harder I try to think about the details, the more slippery they get.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to bring up… But it’s never been the right moment.”

Jecia turned to him, emerald eyes glittering like a Cheshire—with the grin to match.

“I’ve been thinking about what you said at The Drowned Book.”

“I can’t always read your mind, Sev. You need to be a little more specific.”

They had frequented the bar several times throughout the last two weeks, often with Juel.

“Back when we were still working the case,” Sev said. “You talked about your abduction. How you said you weren’t sure whether the Amagium edited your memories when they treated your psychic intrusion.”

Jecia swallowed and nodded.

“It’s probably just paranoia on my pa—”

“They did it to me too,” Sev said.

“What?” Jecia asked, suddenly alarmed.

“You heard of the Samhain Massacre? The Egregoric incursion in downtown Los Angeles on Samhain in 2344. Dozens of people died. I was a ‘consultant’ on the case even though I was a rookie. It allegedly dealt with xenomancy too. But every time I try to dig into the details—”

“They slip away,” Jecia said, and nodded.

“Well. That’s horrifying,” Sev said.

Jecia turned to look out over the South Arroyo slope. The plant was built on the southern-most edge of Arroyo’s central terrace, offering a decent view of the city of South Arroyo.

“We’ll figure it out,” Jecia said.

“What?” Sev laughed.

“I meant what I said,” she insisted. “Look. We aren’t just cops any more. We can—we must—do more than that. If the Amagium is screwing with Keepers’ heads, they’ll probably try again. And next time they try, we’ll be ready.”

“What are we if we aren’t cops?” Sev asked.

Jecia smiled.

“We’re heroes, Sev.” She looked back over the slope of homes descending into the lush gully, and the rising slope on the opposite end. “We have a gift, and enough sense to realize we have to use it responsibly. Even if that means biting the hand that feeds.”

Sev approached her from behind and hugged her against him, then whispered a quote from Ashael into her ear:

“‘By your side, I fear no evil.’”

Jecia looked over her shoulder to kiss him, and whispered:

“We are of one mind, across two bodies.”

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