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        2. 花猪棋牌

          Que Sera Sera

          Little stories about an imp and her dad



          Foster

          The door leading from the waiting room opened after a few minutes, and a young man in his early twenties poked his head around the door. He gave a toss of his dark, curly-haired head. "Mr. Dyne? You can come on in."

          Hafiz stood and walked to the door, which the young staff member opened. His name tag read 'Louis'. Hafiz gave him a warm smile and held out a meaty hand. Louis took it, his own hand wiry and cool to the touch, and they shook.

          "Thank you, Louis. It's been quite a trip getting here," Hafiz rumbled in the cobblestone voice of a lifetime singer and smoker.

          "The city's pretty careful about thaumomorph shellwork. It's real important that we all stay safe." Louis said, his voice tinged with a note that Hafiz couldn't quite identify as apology or sarcasm.

          "Right this way," Louis said, leading his guest through the first room of cages. Most here were empty, only sparsely occupied by strange-looking creatures. Most were humanoid, but a few were not; one cubicle was occupied by a hairy spider the size of a terrier. Neither Hafiz nor Louis reacted overtly to the occupants of the containers.

          As he entered the next room, though, something caught Hafiz's eye and he frowned. A cage of a dark metallic color squatted at the far corner of the room. It seemed a striking juxtaposition from the friendly curves of the molded plastic cubicles that lined the room.

          "What's ..." he began, touching the shoulder of the staff member leading him.

          "Ah," Louis began, and let his voice trail off uncertainly. He gave Hafiz a nervous smile. "That's a kind of ... unusual one."

          "Aren't all of your guests a bit unusual?"

          "Well." Louis shrugged. "Our policy is to only take thaumomorphs that can be socialized. A few sorta skirt the line."

          Hafiz silently ran a hand over his bald pate, chewing his lip.

          "You can look at it closer, if you want."

          "What is it?"

          "An imp."

          Hafiz raised both bushy eyebrows, but started to approach the cage curiously. Once he was close, a scrabbling noise erupted from the container, accompanied by a thin hissing noise. The staff member raised a hand in warning. "Careful," he said. "It's still pretty feral."

          Next to the cage now, Hafiz rested both thick-fingered hands on his thighs and leaned toward the cage. A tiny humanoid figure, no more than four inches long, crouched inside on taloned hands and feet. Its naked body was an angry pink color from its oversized head to its tiny tail, and a small shock of spiny auburn hair jutted from the top of its head like quills. The retinas of its disproportionately large eyes, fixed firmly on Hafiz, were a brilliant red. It opened its mouth, revealing two rows of tiny fangs, and directed an angry hiss at the man.

          "It's so small," he murmured, bemused.

          "They get bigger," Louis replied. "Almost as tall as people."

          "They're not people?" Hafiz asked, dropping to his haunches. The creature in the cage jerked backward, its stare still fixed on the intruder. "I thought they were a kind of faerie."

          "Well," Louis said. "Thaumotyping thinks they are. The Greater Court, less so."

          "Is it sexed?"

          "Yes. Female."

          "How did you end up with her?"

          "It's kind of a nasty story."

          "I don't mind," Hafiz said, his crow's feet crinkling with a wan smile. "I've heard a few."

          "Uh ... all right." Louis, said, scratching a spot between his neck and shoulder. "There was a colony of the damned things in UZ #42. They'd stage raids on the nearest precinct, but when they actually killed somebody the municipal company got sick of it and hired mercs to wipe 'em out.

          "One of the mercs was a new mom and couldn't bring herself to kill the babies. She threw 'em in a bag and found out that they'd killed each other by the time she got home. Only survivor is the one that fell into a side pocket. She tried to find a local place to take it, but only we accepted. Fat lot of good it did."

          "Huh," Hafiz said, leaning a bit closer to the cage.

          "Are ... you considering adopting it? Sir?" Louis asked carefully.

          Hafiz turned to the representative and gave him a low, dry chuckle. "Well, son, you're such an enthusiastic salesman..."

          Louis scuffed a shoe, then met Hafiz's eyes. "I ain't much of a liar." Then, "somebody wants to adopt an imp, they have to know what they're getting into. If I pretend that thing is gonna be your cute little daughter, you'll bring it back in a year and it'll be even harder to give away."

          "Take it easy," Hafiz replied, turning back to the cage. "I honestly appreciate it. Is she bound?"

          "Yeah, to a bottle," Louis replied, surprised. "You ... know a lot about monsters."

          Hafiz reached out and touched the outside of the cage's wires. The imp inside stared but did not flinch. He smiled gently, his eyes crinkling at the corners again. "A monster's what you make of it," he said.


          Back to top

          Discipline

          Hafiz threw his weight forward, tossing Serafina's lighter form away from his body. She lashed out with one spidery, taloned hand as he shoved her, raking it across his arm. She tumbled to a crouch, bared a mouth full of sharp triangular teeth, and hissed with eyes ablaze.

          Hafiz set his jaw. He drew in a breath as if to sigh, then abruptly uttered the word "Haptbandun!"

          Sera took a gulp of air in angry shock, but it was too late; within a fraction of a second, that breath rushed out of her lungs in one great, hot, empty gust. She felt herself fly through the prickly ether of half-corporeal space for a few moments as she was summoned, shrinking in height and frame. Moments later, she was uncomfortably constricted by the cold glass mouth of her tiny prison and dumped into its confines.

          She was still out of breath but wasted no time in scrabbling to her feet on the glass floor of the bottle, pounding her now-tiny fists against its curved wall. After a few moments of rapid gasps, she was able to draw enough air to vocalize her rage. "I hate you so much!" she shrieked in what she thought of as her least human-sounding screech. "I hate you! I hate you and you're not my real dad!"

          "I know, sweetie," Hafiz murmured, turning a critical eye to the long scratch on his arm. Though it wasn't deep, it had already begun to bleed.

          "My real dad would kill you and rip your guts out! And then he would eat them!"

          "Yes, I know, Sera."

          Sera's enraged tirade devolved into animalistic noises, and she drove her claws into the fabric of the reality to each side of her head. The points of her talons pierced the ether, and a hot, stinking gas issued forth in a whistling stream from each breaking point. She forcibly dragged her hands downward, tearing ragged holes in the air that spilled a sulfurous flame into the bottle.

          "You're only going to overheat, Serafina," Hafiz chided as he walked to a shelf. On it, a supply of first aid supplies sat tidily-arranged in quantities that a clinic would envy. He grasped a can of antibiotic spray by its lid and placed it on the small dining room table. Bracing it against the table, he popped off the cap with one hand.

          "I'll burn you up! I'll burn up your things!" Sera screamed. She grabbed handfuls of a viscous, burning material from inside the fiery holes and smeared them against the side of the glass, which didn't even blacken in response. "I'll burn up your house and your stupid girlfriend who sucks!"

          "Little girls shouldn't use language like that," Hafiz said, a bit more sharply. Taking the spray in hand, he fanned it over his arm, letting the cloud of sterile solution coat the bleeding claw-mark. "And don't even think of tossing any of that stuff out of the bottle, or I'll put the cork on."

          Sera once again allowed her rage to become wordless, and she railed against the side of the bottle with fists ablaze. The small bottle rocked back and forth on the dresser where it sat, threatening to tip over. Hafiz continued to ignore the tantrum. Eventually Serafina, trapped in an overheated and confined space as she was, couldn't take the drain to her stamina. She collapsed against the side of the bottle, her flame-retardant jumper soaked with sweat and rising and falling with her ragged breath.

          By this time, Hafiz had finished cleaning his wound and was wrapping a length of gauze around his bicep to bind it. "Do you feel any better, Feenie?"

          Serafina kept her silence for a few moments, panting with her cheek pressed against the side of the bottle. As her rage and adrenaline began to wane, her chest tightened and the simple features of her face contorted. She curled up and let out a choked sob.

          Hafiz was next to the bottle in a moment, his concerned face huge next to his foster daughter's reduced, bottled form. "Serafina, are you feeling a little bit more calm now?"

          His words seemed to elicit another choked sob from the tiny imp, who moved her clawed hands up to cover her face. Her shoulders shuddered and she curled into a ball. The sobs became more frequent and audible, and soon steam from her boiling tears leaked through the gaps in her claws.

          "Feenie, are you ready for hugs now?" Hafiz asked. His voice was soft and careful, the traces of determination and anger gone from his heavily-lined face.

          The miniature imp nodded behind her hands.

          "Insprinc," Hafiz said, and there was another rush of air and ether. Soon his arms were around his foster daughter, gone from four inches tall to half his height. He smoothed her spiky hair back as she cried into his shoulder.

          "It's all right," he murmured to her. "Strong girls cry. Strong girls let it go."

          "I love you daddy," Serafina murmured into his shoulder, gently pawing at his arm with the pads of her long fingers.

          "I love you, Serafina," he said back, his lined face once again creasing into a smile.


          Back to top

          Bright and Beautiful

          As the front door to the apartment swung open, Serafina came with it -- braced against the doorframe with her oversized pink feet and clutching the knob with both hands. Once her exaggerated lean had reached the limit of her height (barely half that of the door), she let it drag her into the apartment. Her toe-claws rasped against the plastic of the floor briefly, then stopped as the door's momentum ran out. Serafina reluctantly clambered to her feet and let go of the doorknob.

          "Welcome home, sweetie!" Hafiz's voice called from the kitchen. "How was VC?"

          "Weird," Serafina said, pushing the door shut with her forehead. "Really weird and kind of stupid. Everybody's a grownup but me and nobody wants to get near me. Do I have to keep going?"

          "Yes, Sera, you do. Do you remember why?"

          "Yeaaaah," the imp intoned in a long note, still leaning against the door but now pressing her cheek against the doorknob. She moved her head back and forth, listening to the tapping sound as her head-quills bounced against the plastic of the door.

          "Would you like to tell me?"

          "No?" she said, her tone cautiously hopeful.

          "I think you should tell me anyway, as a reminder. I might have forgotten."

          Serafina drew in a deep breath and let out a drawn-out sigh, sure to be loud enough that Hafiz would hear. "I have to learn to be nice and defend myself and school isn't enough so I have to take classes from the Securemarket."

          "Why is that, Ser-bear?"

          "Because I grow up faster than other kids because I'm a monster."

          "Serafina Enat Dyne!" Hafiz barked. His head appeared around the corner of the kitchen wall, glaring at Serafina. "We do not use that word in this apartment!"

          "Muh," Sera grunted.

          "Sera," Hafiz knit his brow. "Where are your gloves?"

          Sera's bored expression turned to a guilty one. She moved her claws in front of her skinny body in a futile attempt to hide them.

          Hafiz's expression turned to one of alarm. "Sera it's very dangerous for you to walk around without your gloves. Where are they?"

          "Some kids took them away," she replied, turning her face away completely.

          "At school? Which kids? Did they hit you?"

          Sera nodded.

          "What did they do, sweetie?"

          Sera grunted against the door.

          "Did they hit you with fists?"

          Sera shook her head, her quills clicking against the door.

          "Shinai?"

          Sera nodded.

          "How many were there?"

          Sera shrugged.

          "Did you tell a teacher?" Hafiz frowned as Sera shook her head again. "You need to tell a teacher when kids bully you, especially if they take your things. Just because we don't hit doesn't mean it's ok to let them do that."

          "Mr. Massey was there. He didn't do anything," Sera told the door.

          Hafiz clenched his jaw. "I will talk to the principal about Mr. Massey, ok? But the next time that happens, you should go to Miss Ableforth or another teacher that you know will help you, ok?"

          "I don't want to be a tattle tale. They'll just hate me more."

          "School is for learning," Hafiz said. "Your classmates -- and Mr. Massey -- all need to learn that you are a person, and being cruel to people carries consequences."

          "I'm not a person," Serafina replied, though she was careful this time not to specify what she was.

          "Serafina," Hafiz said sternly, stepping out from around the corner. "I won't have that kind of talk in my home and yours. You are my daughter and neither you nor anyone else will say otherwise. Do you understand me?"

          Serafina turned around to glare at Hafiz, her crimson retina swirling violently. "Dad, why are you doing this? Why are you trying? It's too hard. It's too hard for everybody."

          "People need to understand that just because--"

          "Is it because you're mad at people for treating monsters like monsters? Are you trying to prove some kinda point with me? Because it's not working!"

          Hafiz was silent, his face masklike.

          Serafina put her claws against her head and tapped them against her quills with nervous energy. "It's -- I mean -- you've done your best daddy but I don't know. You can't change people. They look at me and they know that I'm not supposed to be going to school or taking customer service classes. I'm supposed to be stealing kids and eating people. And I don't know that they're not right because sometimes I want to do that stuff. I go to biology class and then have dreams about opening people up and eating their insides, dad! That's not what a person thinks about!"

          "Humans have a baser nature as well, Serafina."

          "I know but -- not like this!" Her fingers fluttered more rapidly against her head, making a noise like a rain stick slowly tilting.

          Hafiz reached forward and gently pulled her hands away. "I know. It's difficult. God is testing you and me and all the people around, and it's very hard on all of us, especially you. But you are bright and beautiful and it will be all right."

          Serafina sighed and stared at the ground. "I don't think I believe in God, dad."

          "That's all right," Hafiz said. "He believes in you. And so do I. I was making stew for dinner, but maybe I could order in some Bao instead?"

          Sera's eyes lit up. "Bao?"

          "Would you like that?"

          The a smile touched the edges of Serafina's wide mouth. "...maybe a little bit."

          "Well then let's maybe a little bit order some Bao," Hafiz said, smoothing back Sera's quills with a heavy, calloused hand. "And we'll worry about God and people later."

          Serafina nodded. "Okay, dad."

          "There's a girl."


          Back to top

          Apprentice

          "All right," Hafiz said to his weathered handshell as he walked from the apartment's kitchen to its den. "I'll send down a replacement. Feel better, all right, Talmach? Get some rest. Yes. See you." He lowered the shell and tapped it, ending the call. Hafiz turned to his foster daughter, who was hunched in front of their shared homeshell's screen.

          "Ser-bear? What are you up to right now?" he asked.

          "Roleplaying," Sera's gaze remained on the screen, her talons skittering across the shell's keys.

          "Oh, where you're pretending to be someone else?"

          "Yes, dad, where I'm pretending to be someone else," Sera said, removing her eyes from the screen only long enough to roll them.

          "Are you pretending to be a dwarf?" Hafiz asked.

          "Dad."

          "I'm only asking!"

          "Dad. You don't have to roleplay as something imaginary. I am not roleplaying as a dwarf. My character is a human. He's a private dick."

          "Serafina!" Hafiz exclaimed, aghast.

          Sera sighed. "Not like that dad. It's old slang for a forensic mercenary. They called them that before the Snowfall."

          "Well, whatever it is, could you wrap it up for a bit?"

          Serafina frowned. "Um, probably? Why?"

          Hafiz sighed. "Mr. Hastings isn't feeling well and is going to go home. We need somebody to watch the front desk."

          She blinked. "Of the building?"

          Hafiz raised his eyebrows slightly. "No, Feenie, of the boat."

          "I can't do apartment stuff! Especially not the front desk!" Serafina said, turning back to her shell and typing madly.

          "Why not?"

          "People will be scared off," she said. "People will complain."

          "If people complain, I will explain that you are my apprentice. Let me worry about that, Serafina."

          "But - I - Bluh!"

          "Don't bluh me, young lady. Here." Hafiz tossed a heavy piece of clothing at Serafina. She recoiled from the object as it landed in her lap. She reached forward and lifted it gingerly with the tips of her talons.

          The first thing that caught her eye was the nametag, sealed to the cloth with immaculate gold writing. It read 'S. Dyne'. She shook out the garment and realized with dismay that it was a custom jacket, exactly the kind she saw every day on the building's front desk attendants.

          "Aw iyesu, dad," Serafina whined. "You've been planning this."

          "Ganbatte," Hafiz said with a grin.


          Back to top

          Random Encounters

          Sera sat at the reception desk of the Lon Fon Plaza apartment building, drumming her talons against its surface. The desk and her stool were elevated just enough to put her around eye-level with most of the residents and visitors who walked through, and the diminutive imp had decided, after a few moments of disorientation, that she rather liked the effect.

          Maybe I ought to learn how to use bouncy stilts, she mused silently, drumming a syncopated rhythm with her talons. Her gaze drifted through the polyglass front wall of the apartment, watching the steady pattern of raindrops against the pavement outside. She shivered briefly and looked away.

          A pretty, sandy-haired woman draped in expensive-looking, flowy clothing emerged from the revolving door. She had a handshell pinched against her ear with one shoulder as she used both hands to fold a plastic umbrella.

          "Yeah, I'm there right now," she said to the shell. "But let me tell you if he just wants to watch touchdown I will turn around and go right home."

          The woman's lazy attention passed over Serafina once without incident, but a double-take brought her attention back and her eyes went wide. She averted her attention, riveting her stare to the elevators ahead and returning the shell to her hand.

          "Can you believe this neighborhood?" the woman muttered into the handshell, turning her head away from Sera but still clearly audible. "There is a monster at the front desk of Noonie's apartment."

          Serafina blinked and turned to stare at the woman's retreating form.

          "No, like a demon thing. It's pink all over and covered in pointy things."

          Sera sneered, then slapped one hand down on the surface of her desk. "Oi!"

          The woman started as though she'd been jabbed in the ribs and wheeled to stare at Serafina, her eyes dinner-plate wide. Her finger stood poised before the elevator's call button.

          "You know, some of these pointy things are for hearing!" Sera snapped, pointing at the long, thin ends of her ears.

          The woman did not respond, apparently struck dumb by Sera's capacity for speech and sudden use of it. The handshell squawked in her ear and she began jabbing the elevator call button repeatedly.

          Serafina opened her lips in a huge grin, displaying dozens of sharp, triangular teeth.

          "Yeah, no, sorry," the woman said to her shell in a tight, squeaky voice, mashing the call button several more times. "It's nothing." A few seconds later, one of the elevator doors opened. The frightened woman hurried into it, still staring at Sera, tapping a button inside the elevator until the doors closed.

          Serafina sighed, rolling her eyes.

          Another figure emerged from the revolving doors of the apartment. He was elegantly-dressed, middle-aged and handsome. He carried a bulky satchel and a cheerful expression, despite his waterlogged clothing. When he saw Sera, he smiled.

          "Hello there Miss Serafina," the man said with a smile. "Working the front desk, I see!"

          "Hello Mr. Westenra," Sera replied, smiling a bit. "Sure am. How are you?"

          "As well as can be expected, with weather like this," Westenra replied, spreading his hands to display his rain-slick duster. "But look at you! It's only been a few months and look how you've grown."

          "Well," Serafina said. "Yeah."

          "Another year or two and you'll be fighting off the boys," Westenra said, smiling brightly.

          "Heh heh!" Serafina said, forcing her face into a sawtooth smile. "Not if I run fast enough."

          "Oh, you'll understand someday. Your kind isn't immune to hormones. I should know!"

          Sera's fake grin cracked, forming a combination of barely-suppressed amusement and discomfort. "Zat right?"

          "Oh, well," Westenra said, leaning forward to gently punch Sera in the shoulder. "You don't wanna hear this stuff from your old man's war buddy, do ya? I knew you when you could stand on a handshell."

          She shrugged sheepishly.

          "Well, I'll let you get back to your job! Cheers, little ember!" Westenra offered Sera a grinning salute, then strode to the elevator. She studiously avoided watching him go, her expression still bouncing between laughter and embarrassment.


          Back to top

          Incident

          An hour passed without incident. Residents and visitors passed through, most either pointedly ignoring the new receptionist or staring at her until she stared back. Still, none spoke up, and Serafina found herself growing bored.

          Her attention again drifted to the door. She spent a few moments staring at nothing in particular for a few moments, when suddenly a peculiar sight caught her attention. A woman approached the apartment building, a satchel slung across the shoulder of her pantsuit and a small revolver holstered on the opposite hip. She carried no umbrella, but the water didn't seem to be hitting her; so far as Sera could tell, it appeared to be evaporating about a foot above her head. As it became apparent that her destination was, in fact, the apartment, Sera revised her stare to what she hoped was merely an interested glance.

          Once inside, Sera was struck by her appearance: the woman had very dark skin, great brown eyes, and thick black hair that had been tied into a bulky bun. She approached the desk, retrieving her handshell from one of the satchel's pockets. Sera realized with surprise that she had assumed the woman to be older due to her attire and poise, but in fact she was likely in her early twenties at the oldest.

          "Good afternoon," the visitor said in a quiet voice, turning her eyes to look directly at Serafina. If she was shocked by the receptionist's race, her face did not reflect it.

          "Ah, good afternoon," Sera replied. "Help you?"

          "Um, actually I'm here to visit a Dr. Mircalla Glendon?" the young woman said, checking the surface of her shell and then looking back up at Sera. "She didn't give me her ethadd, she just said to have the front desk call up. Would you please give her a ping?"

          Serafina opened her mouth to reply, but then everything went to hell.

          The figures were inside the building before Sera even realized they had arrived, heralded by the secondary door's slam and the clatter of equipment and boots. There were three: helmeted, armored, heavy jackboots slamming the floor with measured efficiency. Though it was superfluous in the face of their easily-recognizable outfit, each bore a shoulder badge of Mayfield's Heavy Police force.

          "Freeze!" the lead stormtrooper bellowed. Keeping the barrel of his assault rifle trained on her chest, he circled Serafina as the other two officers fanned out behind him. "Mayfield police!"

          The woman, shocked, darted away from Sera's desk. She clapped one hand over the pistol at her hip and backed against the wall. Sera's wide eyes flickered between the officers, lingering on the ionic taser held by the officer in the center. "I --"

          "Quiet! On the floor!"

          Sera dismounted from the stool and stepped away from the desk slowly, her hands held palm-out toward the officers.

          "Yesu! Lookit those claws," the third officer said, gesturing with the black spell-gauntlet that he held, its lens focused toward the imp.

          "Down!" shouted the lead officer.

          "Excuse me--" the young woman interjected, but was cut off.

          "I said DOWN!"

          "I work here!" Sera said as she lowered to her knees. "I'm registered! I have my card!"

          The leader gestured with his head. "Get its shell," he said to the center officer, who immediately advanced on Sera, taser extended. Before Sera could react, the muzzle of the weapon was in her face, the smell of ozone filling her lungs, and a part of her mind recoiled --

          Doctor's office. A vet, really. You clawed them and burned them and they wouldn't let dad in the room, they couldn't put you in the bottle so they shocked you with the blue electricity, the one that makes magic settle down. It hurts for people but it was worse for you. "My soul," you cried. "You're pulling out my soul."

          Some primal, vicious part of her mind gripped hold of her. Serafina's hands tensed, turning from gestures of peace to outwardly-turned blades. She scrambled backward, hissing, and her eyes roiled with panic and anger. Loud buzzing filled her ears, and her muscles twitched at the desire to spring forward, tear these men to pieces. Eat their flesh while they were still alive.

          She didn't even hear the gunshots, only felt the pain of the bullets tearing through her thigh. Before she even had the chance to fall or growl, the ionic beam hit her.

          Unbearable, numbing cold swept over Serafina's body, like the taser had blown away all of her body heat and vital signs. Her breath was forced out in one sharp blow and her vision filled with a nauseating splatter of neon blue light; she hit the ground heavily but didn't even notice the pain as her head slammed against the floor. She felt her muscles draw tightly to her core like a dying beetle's legs, and her unseeing eyes suddenly felt too dry even to blink. Nothing was ever going to be all right again. Insensible with agony, she waited eons for her body to unclench, to let her take another breath.


          Back to top

          Arguments

          After an eternity, the buzzing in Sera's ears began to fade. Though still blinded by swirling blue spots, she was able to discern voices through the ebbing noise.

          A quiet, feminine buzz said something Sera couldn't quite make out.

          A louder, deeper buzz said a garbled sentence, something about monster, attack, forced to something.

          The female noise said something about not taking hostile action.

          "[Unintelligible] how things work around here. [Garbled noises] and there won't be any trouble."

          Something about laws from the quiet voice.

          "[Buzzing noises] even have rights?"

          Something about precedent and court rulings, "even in this benighted precinct."

          The masculine voice said, "You talk like there's an attorney in the entire district who'd even represent it."

          "I am her attorney," said the female voice.

          There were a few moments of silence. Sera's vision slowly began to clear, and she could make out humanoid shapes through the dizzying blue swirls. The officer with the ionic taser still stood nearby, the muzzle of the weapon glowing white with charge in her altered vision. As her sensation returned too, Sera's thigh began to throb with pain. She reached down and found her slacks sticky with scalding-hot blood. Nauseated again, Sera turned her attention back to the voices.

          The lead officer, who was standing uncomfortably close to the suited young woman, gave her a threatening chuckle. "You're really not from around here, are you, kid. Let me explain something to you --"

          "I've been recording this entire encounter," the woman interrupted. As Sera's vision continued to clear, she recognized an expression of flat but ironclad determination. Like dad.

          The officer, forced to collect his thoughts again, frowned behind the helmet's plastic faceplate. "Bullshit."

          The woman tapped her lapel, near a small dragonfly-shaped pin that Sera hadn't noticed before. "Recorded and uploaded with crystal-clear audio. And I suspect that this building's security footage will corroborate me."

          "You're dreaming," the officer said, though he stepped back slightly. "No court around here would rule in a monster's favor. That thing threatened a visitor here."

          "And I suppose you witnessed that?" the young attorney raised her eyebrows, folding both arms in front of her. The officer did not reply.

          The officers and the young woman all jumped slightly as the elevator bell rang, and the doors slid open. Hafiz's bulky form emerged, a drum-fed combat shotgun in his hands. "What the hell is going on here?" he shouted, his face livid. Another of the apartment's staff trailed Hafiz, a thin man with a shaved head and a submachine gun in his hands. "Machere, you lowlife, did you shoot my employee?"

          "Just a simple misunderstanding, Dyne." the lead officer said, stepping back. "No need to make a fuss about it. Didn't know you were flagged for integration," he added in a mocking tone.

          "Dad ... they ... dad," Sera groaned, reaching a claw out to Hafiz. "I'm fine..."

          Everyone turned to look at her. Officer Machere smirked, then looked over at Hafiz, then back at Sera. He chortled. "Really? 'Dad'?" Hafiz did not reply, his face chiseled with anger.

          Machere leaned over and punched the officer with the ionic taser in the shoulder. "Let's get outta here. No need to call this one in, Dyne, but good luck with your pet. Probably see more of it. Wait'll the old man hears about this." He turned back to the young woman in the suit and pointed at her. "Hey kid? Watch your back around here. We don't need you."

          The officers filed out under the watchful eye of the employees and their guest.


          Back to top

          Never Simple

          Sera sat on the edge of the dining room table, swinging her feet back and forth, examining the business card that she held delicately with one hand. Though it had only been a few hours since her injury, the bandage around her thigh was dry and the injury beneath only hurt a little bit. Hafiz had said that the wound would be completely healed within a week.

          Now Hafiz was seated at his homeshell, typing furiously, sending message after message that Sera presumed were about the day's adventures. She was left staring at the card she'd been given by the young attorney, her mind whirling with unanswered questions. She read the text on it, what little there was, again.

          Lucy Balman
          Attorney of Law and Ordinance
          lucy.balman@dlc.nw

          "She told them that she was my lawyer," she said. "Do you think--"

          "We're not going to call Ms. Balman, Sera," Hafiz cut her off.

          "Why not?" Sera frowned, rubbing the narrow pad of her thumb over the smooth surface of the card.

          "Because she won't be able to help," Hafiz replied.

          "She won't?"

          "No."

          "But she's a lawyer. Or at least she says she's a lawyer. She went to school for this stuff, right?"

          "Serafina," Hafiz said, sighing. "I'm certain that she is a very intelligent young lady. I'm just as certain that she is freshly certified by a company near the very heart of the city."

          "So?"

          "So she knows what the law is," Hafiz said flatly, an edge in his voice. "She does not know what the law does."

          Sera's brows drew downward. "I don't--"

          "The fact that she even confronted those officers shows how green she is. As does the fact that she carries a physical card, for whatever reason. She deserves better than to begin her career by tilting at windmills, and you deserve better than to be carried astray by her quixotic attempt."

          Sera clenched her jaw. Hafiz spun in his chair to face her. Though his craggy face was grim, she could see a sad compassion around his eyes.

          "I know that this is frustrating for you, Sera."

          "I didn't say anything," Sera growled.

          "I could hear your teeth squeaking, ember."

          Sera let out an explosive breath through her nose. "She wants to help me, dad! I was tased and shot. Shouldn't this be simple?"

          "Nothing is simple." Hafiz shook his head. "Never simple. Not for us."

          Hafiz turned back to the desk shell and resumed typing. Serafina returned her attention to the card. Both fell silent.


          Back to top

          In The Halls

          Sera heard the flurry of footsteps behind her, but had only turned halfway when her teenage assailant arrived. With a puberty-split "Hah!" he thrust both hands forward and shoved Sera hard on the shoulder. She stumbled, tripped over her own oversized, stockinged foot, and toppled over. Her full weight landed squarely onto her elbow, sending shooting pains up and down her arm.

          As quickly as her attacker approached, he fled, looking over his shoulder with manic glee as if he'd just pulled a tiger's tail. He turned the corner in the company of half a dozen nearly identical teenagers, whose laughter bounced down the crowded hallway after they had disappeared from view.

          Sera sighed and dropped her head against the tile floor with a soft thunk.

          "Are you all right?"

          Sera raised her head to see a young man, probably in his fourth year, holding out a hand to her. His appearance was almost strikingly normal, with mid-toned skin, dark brown hair cut into short waves, and deep brown eyes. He half-smiled to Sera and moved his hand toward her slightly.

          "Yes, I'm fine. Thanks." Sera clambered to her feet without using the proffered hand, her expression a flat scowl.

          The young man smiled and shrugged. "Don't worry about it too much. Those guys are always like that," he said.

          "Pretty much everybody is always like that," Sera replied, raising one needle-thin eyebrow as she shrugged her backpack into position, hooking her thumbs under the straps.

          "Oh, um." The boy looked around, nonplussed. "Not everybody."

          "Almost everybody."

          "I wouldn't act like that to you."

          "Okay," Sera said, her scowl fading into a look of confusion.

          They looked at each other for several seconds, Sera shifting from foot to foot.

          "... Thanks?" she finally ventured.

          "Sure," the boy said, shrugging again. "Well, um, see you."

          He hurried away as Sera stared after him.

          "Hey you," someone said just behind her. Sera spun and skittered backward, then relaxed upon seeing the familiar tumble of black curls and the pretty, heart-shaped face they framed. The girl smiled and held up both hands.

          "I surrender!" she said.

          "Sorry, Miki, I'm --" Sera shrugged.

          "It's all right kiddo," her friend replied. "I saw that chall push you. Sorry I didn't come over, but I didn't wanna scare away that boy flirting with you."

          Sera made an incredulous face. "He wasn't flirting with me. He was pitying me. Getting flirted with is your thing."

          Miki sighed, rolling her eyes. The jab had substance. The friendship between the two had begun early in Secondary school, when a chubby, beleaguered thirteen year-old whose body had chosen to develop prominently met a developmentally advanced nonhuman who would never pass for an accepted race. They spent that year huddling together against the ridicule of their classmates, and by Miki's fourth year (Sera's third, though she was placed as a fifth-year now) the two were fast friends. Now in the second half of their upper school experience, the male attention that Miki received was rapidly turning from teasing to advances.

          "He was flirting with you," Miki said, her tone a bit patronizing.

          Sera shook her head. "I don't think so. He felt sorry for me. It doesn't matter."

          "No," Miki said, smiling a bit. "He was flirting with you."

          "You think this is funny," Sera complained, scrunching her button nose.

          "No. Well," Miki replied, giggling. "A little. Come on, let's go to your tree."

          "Okay, but I have to do homework." Sera started walking, followed shortly by her friend. "Dad is putting me on administrative shifts these days, and I can't work through 'em like I can at the front desk."

          "Oh," Miki said, her face falling a bit.

          Sera let herself smile a bit. "Well, ok. I can talk a little."


          Back to top

          Character Study

          "I have to go check out an amplifier on the fifth floor," Hafiz said. "I have residents reporting weak Ether. Ember, you're on the hook, all right?"

          "Okay, dad," Sera intoned.

          "If Taggart calls again, either bully him or stonewall him. I do not want him thinking that he can roll right over you, understand?"

          "Yes dad."

          "All right, I'm going. Love you, Feenie."

          "Luvyutudad," Sera mumbled to her text.

          "Don't let my daughter get into too much trouble, Michelle," Hafiz said.

          "I won't, Mr. Dyne," Miki said cheerfully.

          "Dad!" Sera barked.

          "Right, right, I'm going." Hafiz shouldered his tech satchel and exited, pulling the door shut behind him.

          The girls sat quietly for a few minutes, both fixated on their studies. Each held a worn, school-issue tablet textbook, a telescoping plastic frame that projected slow-loading text onto a flexible screen. They studied in silence, the apartment's living room silent but for the ticking of the kitchen's retro-style analog clock. After a few minutes of study, Miki collapsed her textbook and took a handshell from the front pocket of her backpack. She was quiet, prodding the shell's surface for several minutes. She looked over to her friend.

          "So," Miki said, smugly jabbing at the surface of her handshell. "I've been thinking about ideas for your birthday party."

          "No." Sera did not look up from her computerized textbook.

          "What?" Miki blinked, surprised.

          "I'm not having a birthday party."

          "Sure you are!"

          "No."

          "Why not?"

          "Miki," Sera explained, forcing her voice into a more patient tone than she felt. She pushed the telescoping halves of the tabletshell together, sending it into standby. "If I have a birthday party, people are going to expect to know my age."

          "So what?" Miki asked. "People know that faeries age faster than people."

          "In abstract, sure," Sera rolled her eyes. "They also know that pigs have guts, but when we have to dissect one everybody starts fainting."

          "You're really gross." Miki made a face. "Why do all of your analogies have intestines in them?"

          "Point is that I don't need to parade around the fact that I'm the only twelve-year-old Junior in the school. It's hard to pass for a fifth year as it is, much less convince anybody that I'm not actually a 'tween. And don't try to tell me they see me as a faerie."

          "I'm sure some do."

          "You do."

          "I just ... don't you want to celebrate your birthday?"

          "I don't know. It's not my birthday, anyway," Sera said quietly. "They don't know when that is. It's the day they killed my biological parents and put me in the shelter."

          The friends sat in silence for a few moments.

          "I'm sorry," Miki said.

          "Don't be sorry," Sera said. "You just wanted to be nice."

          Miki nodded. The girls were saved from another awkward silence by the sound of a loud, vibrating bell. Sera immediately began rummaging through her bag, searching for her handshell.

          Miki winced at the noise. "What is up with your house's ringtone?"

          "It's what ringtones used to sound like, apparently. They used actual little bells. Aha." Sera drew her handshell from her bag. She tapped the screen to answer the house phone and put the shell to her ear. "Hello?"

          "Why would you put a bell in a computer?" Miki asked herself.

          "We've already inspected that, Mr. Taggart," Sera told the phone, then was silent as she listened to the reply. "I understand your concerns."

          "Bully him!" Miki said, smiling. "Stonewall him!" Sera scowled, shushed her, and flailed a claw at the heckling.

          "Mr. Tag -- Mr. -- pl--," Sera let out an explosive breath, narrowing both eyes. "Mr. Taggart!" she barked.

          She raised both eyebrows. "I understand, Mr. Taggart. The answer is no. The inspection has been performed, and we are not liable. You will receive no discount."

          She closed her eyes as the shell squawked into her ear. "Please control your language, Mr. Taggart. I will be disconnecting you at this time."

          Sara removed the handshell, jabbed savagely at its surface with a gloved talon, and threw it across the room, where it bounced off the wall and tumbled across the ground. "And go fuck yourself!" She shouted at the disconnected shell.

          "Now I know why you got such a durable model," Miki said meekly.


          Back to top

          Queues

          Sera's eyes were still fixed on the coffee shop's menu board when she realized that there were no more customers in front of her. She hurried to the counter.

          "Good morning, miss. You all set?" The cashier asked her. He was in his early twenties, with lanky black hair that was probably supposed to be short but badly needed a trim.

          "May I please have uh an iced vietnamese?" Sera asked, stepping back to get a good look at the menu.

          "Sure," the cashier said. He brushed his bangs out of his eyes and tapped at the surface of his register. "That's two cred seventy."

          Sera extended her chargebus, carefully tucked between two thin knuckles, to the cashier. He took it calmly, plugged it into the register, and handed it back. "There you go. Your drink will be at the counter to the right."

          "Thanks," Sera said, giving a tight smile.

          "Thank you," the cashier said. "Hey, weren't you here last week?"

          Sera sighed. "Yes."

          "Ah," the cashier raised his eyebrows slightly, reading between the lines. "Well, have a good day and, uh, good luck?"

          "Thanks," Sera said with a rueful smirk.


          "I don't have a TIRM officer," Sera said, trying not to bare her teeth as she talked. "I was adopted and naturalized."

          The integration agent, a rail-thin woman whose hair had the shine and immobility of plastic, raised her eyebrows. "Naturalized?"

          "Yes," Sera said. One of her eyelids twitched. "It's in my shellwork."

          "Then I'm afraid you've got the wrong desk, young lady," the woman said. "I work with residents in the process of rehabilitation and integration."

          "I--" Sera began, then took a deep breath. "I ... know what TIRM stands for. But I'm not a TIRM resident. I'm a TC."

          "Here's a number for the Thaumomorph Citizens' desk," the agent said, and Sera's handshell chirped from the surface of the desk. "They can help you there."

          "But ... the receptionist sent me to you! I've been waiting for an hour and a half!" Sera said, her voice wobbling between frustration and pleading.

          "I'm afraid I cannot help you. Your shell will let you know when you're ready to be seen. Shouldn't your guardian be here?"

          "He couldn't make it." Sera's shoulders slumped, discouraged at the thought of being redirected again.

          "Ah," said the agent, and Sera saw a note of sympathy creep into the woman's expression. She could only imagine what images of neglect or abuse her body language had conjured in the woman's mind. "Well, the TC desk will see to your problems. Be sure to tell them everything."

          Sera clamped her jaw, resisting an urge to leap up and shake the agent by her lapels. I wonder if she'd rattle, she thought, but then the sight of a ceiling-mounted stun turret sobered the girl's fantasy. The chances were high that the agent had been assaulted at least once during her career.

          You're not a monster, Sera told herself as she stood up from the chair and walked back toward the waiting area. Don't think like a monster.


          When Sera trudged back through the coffeeshop doors, the dark-haired young man who had taken her order a few hours before saw her first. Stationed by the espresso machines now, he smiled at her over a row of flavor syrup bottles.

          "Hey, you're back," he said. Sera nodded a weary reply.

          "Uh-huh."

          "WOTA still hasn't got you sorted?" he asked.

          "Hnope." Sera leaned on the counter with both hands.

          "That sucks," he said, shaking his head sympathetically. "Can I get you something?"

          "Could I please I have another iced vietnamese?"

          "Uh," he muttered, drumming his fingertips against the countertop. "Sorry, but we're out of sweetened condensed milk."

          "Urrgh," Sera said, putting her forehead on her hands.

          "Will a white mocha work for you?"

          "It's not the same," Sera told the floor, then raised her head. "But yeah."

          The barista turned to his coworker at the till, a skinny man with sandy hair who had been watching the interaction. "Ring this as a Vietnamese."

          The cashier stared at Sera, then stared at the barista, seemed to realize that he was staring, then turned to jab at the register's screen.


          By the time that Sera's number was called, she had finished the white mocha and let all of the ice melt in the cup. She slouched in an uncomfortable chair in the waiting area, impatiently trying to absorb information from her textshell.

          Her handshell chirped and leapt in her pocket, and Sera was on her feet in a moment. She tossed the collapsed text in her satchel and threw the strap over her shoulder. Hoisting the bag, she powerwalked toward the door that read "Now serving no. 38" in a cheerful illusory font.

          "Next please," the agent said as he heard Sera enter. This time it was a jowly, dour-looking man whose expression upon seeing the imp immediately turned to exasperation. "You're in the wrong office. This isn't TIRM."

          "No, please!" Sera said. She dropped her backpack and climbed into the chair. "I'm a citizen. I'm supposed to be here."

          "You're a TC?" the agent's incredulity seemed to drip from each nasal syllable.

          "Yes." Sera said. She set her handshell on the table and pressed her finger against its surface. "It's in my shellwork. I've been here for almost three hours trying to get my taxes straightened out."

          "Well!" The agent said on the exhalation of a sigh, looking at the monitor of his deskshell. "... Serafina. We are not a tax office, so why are you here?"

          "Because I can't get my forms from YOUR site," Sera said. "I log in and I can't find my job's registration records."

          "Our records don't indicate any registered contracts for you," the agent drawled, his eyes still on the monitor.

          "I'm not a merc," Sera growled, trying unsuccessfully to quell her mounting frustration. "I'm an employee. You should have a WX-4 logged for me, and I have a copy of it on my shell if you need confirmation."

          The agent turned from the monitor and squinted at her, as though just realizing that he had been talking to a person. "What's your company name?"

          "Lon Fon Plaza LLC."

          The agent turned back to his deskshell and typed on the keyboard for a few moments. Finally, he let an explosive breath out through his nose. "Hm. Well."

          Sera fidgeted.

          "It looks like when you registered your employer with WOTA, the employment was mistakenly registered as an MC-99," the agent muttered. "Since none was submitted, your online account doesn't reflect that your employer provided a tax form at all. I will correct the record."

          Sera let out a breath and leaned back in the chair, a move that bent her neck forward uncomfortably. "That's it?" she asked hesitantly.

          "Mm, well," the agent said. "Technically, not having been registered throughout the year, you've been working illegally."

          Sera stared, frozen in place.

          "I'm going to send you an authorization notice that ought to straighten it out. I strongly suggest that you take it to a NWTO branch at your earliest convenience." He looked directly at Sera. "Preferably today."

          Sera nodded numbly.


          "Back again?" the barista said as Sera pushed through the door again. "My shift's almost done. Do you want another white mocha?"

          "I want a steak," Sera said.

          "We're fresh outta steak," the barista said without so much as a blink.

          Sera pointed at the pastry case. "That. What's that. That looks fried and glazed."

          "The apple fritter?"

          "Yes, that. I'm going to put it in my mouth."

          "Coming right up," the barista said, reaching into the case.


          Back to top

          Smoky Savior

          "Serafina?"

          Sera didn't look up from her lapshell. "Mm-hm?"

          Several moments passed.

          "Serafina!"

          "What!" Sera called out, annoyed.

          "Come out to the living room please. There is someone here to see you."

          Something in Hafiz's voice gave her pause. Sera typed out another few sentences, set her state to 'away' and rolled off the bed. She walked into the living room, saw someone standing next to Hafiz, and froze.

          The stranger was a broad-shouldered woman whose heavy frame was rendered even heavier by a set of bulky combat armor. She bore a shaved head above a hard-eyed face. A large burn scar stretched from the edge of her mouth to her left ear, giving a barklike texture to her already bark-colored skin. A heavy-looking custom shotgun was strapped to her back and a bandolier of color-coded shells traced a deadly rainbow across the front of her armor. Her right and left hip bore a hand cannon and a telescoping shock baton, respectively. She was nearly the most heavily-armed person Sera had ever seen.

          The woman tensed when she saw Sera, her fingers twitching slightly. Sera did the same, her reason wrestling with her fight-or-flight instinct.

          Hafiz cleared his throat. The woman and Sera both relaxed slightly.

          "Sera," he said, "This is Ms. Shiva Glenn."

          Sera nodded cautiously. "Pleased to meet you."

          Glenn nodded. "Likewise," she replied in a smoke-seasoned alto.

          "Sera," Hafiz said, "Ms. Glenn is the contractor who brought you to the adoption shelter."

          Sera's heart seemed to drop into her gut. Several long moments passed silently. She tried to speak, but her mouth didn't seem willing to open. Finally, the mercenary spoke instead.

          "You've grown ... a lot."

          Sera's eyes darted back and forth. She still couldn't seem to bring herself to speak.

          "Maybe I should go," Glenn said, taking a step back.

          "Wait, please," Hafiz said, holding up a hand. "Sera, please come sit down and talk to Ms. Glenn."

          Sera quietly acquiesced, taking a seat that placed the coffee table between her and the mercenary. Hafiz looked at her and raised his eyebrows.

          "I didn't ... expect to ever meet you," Sera admitted.

          "I didn't know if I'd have it in me to see you," Glenn replied. "I'm glad to see that you turned out all right."

          A self-destructive impulse opened Sera's mouth and spoke through it. "Not like my parents."

          "Sera." Hafiz began.

          "It's all right," Glenn said, holding up a hand. She met the imp's eyes with hers, deep brown irises sliding inward to pinpoint pupils. "Yeah, kid. Not like your parents." Sera's mind conjured an image of deadly lasers firing from the mercenary's eyes, boiling through the imp's sclera and brain, toasting the back of her skull to ash and setting fire to the easy chair behind her.

          Don't be ridiculous, she thought. She wouldn't ruin dad's chair.

          That self-destructive instinct spoke again: "You really dressed up to come see me."

          "Serafina!" Hafiz barked. "She is not usually like this," he said to Glenn in an apologetic tone.

          Glenn waved the apology away and shook her head. "Mr. Dyne, I grew up in precinct 23. She's got more manners than my friends." She turned her gaze back to Sera. "Are you mad at me, kid?"

          Sera looked at her feet and was silent for a moment. "No," she said. "I just don't understand why you came to see me."

          Glenn removed her direct attention from Sera, causing an involuntary wash of relief in the imp. "I think ... I wanted to know if I'd done the right thing. With you."

          "Did you?" Sera asked.

          The mercenary turned back to face her. "Well. It looks like I did. What d'you think?"

          "I don't know."

          "Guess I don't know, then. D'you have anything you wanted to ask me?"

          Sera looked up, questions whirling through her head. Were you the one who killed my birth mother, or was it someone else? Why do you hunt monsters? Do you want to kill me? "You have a daughter, don't you? Ms. Glenn?"

          "Yezu, it's fucked up to hear that 'miz'. I'm Shiva. Or 'Glenn' if you wanna be professional. And yeah," she sighed, "I have a daughter."

          "How is she?"

          There was a pause. "I don't know," Shiva rasped quietly. "I ain't seen her in two years."

          Sera was quiet for a few seconds, but her curiosity got the better of her. "Why not?"

          Shiva shrugged. "Let's just say ... I'm good at gun battles. Custody battles, not so much."

          "Oh," Sera said, deciding to let the point drop.

          "Listen kid, I oughta get going actually since I got here late. But I left my card with your old man. If you wanna talk sometime you can get ahold of me. We'll talk."

          "Okay," Sera said.

          Shiva Glenn shifted her weight from foot to foot, then nodded to Sera and turned to the door. "So ... see you."

          "Goodbye."

          The mercenary walked out the door and shut it behind her. Sera stood up from the chair slowly.

          "Serafina, I wish you had been more polite to Ms. Glenn."

          "Shiva, dad," Sera said.

          "I'm sorry?"

          "She doesn't like being called Ms. Glenn," Sera said, walking back toward her room.


          Back to top

          Coffee Talk

          Though she had no business with the Washington Office of Thaumomorph Affairs that Wednesday morning, Sera found herself walking through its neighborhood nonetheless. By now it was a familiar walk; she'd taken over a dozen separate trips there throughout the year after what she referred to as 'the tax debacle.' Even with her work registration in order, snaking her way through the shellwork was a chore that she'd come to believe was designed to make people like her feel unwelcome.

          Her destination today wasn't the office, though, but two blocks shy of it. She shouldered through a door leading into an unremarkable branch of the Siren Coffee corporation. There, a familiar barista was on the customer side of the counter, pulling an apron over his head and off.

          "Hey," Sera said, giving 'her' barista a carefully closed-lips smile.

          The black haired barista, who had introduced himself as Gray months ago, smiled back. "Hey. How's life?"

          "Uh." Sera's face fell into the bemused expression that she'd been wearing on the street.

          "Hmm." Gray threw his apron over the back of a chair. "I see. You've got good timing, I'm on my break."

          "Oh, I don't want to take up your break," Sera objected.

          "It's fine, I'd have wasted it anyway. What's going on?"

          "Um," Sera sank into the chair on the other side of the table. "I met the woman who found me and gave me to the shelter."

          Gray blinked. "Really?"

          "Really."

          Gray braced his arms on the small table and leaned forward. "How did it go?"

          "Honestly it was kind of scary. She was armed like a tank. This is my mother figure? My mother figure comes with specialized ammo? Which is the kind that killed my biomom?"

          Gray gave a sympathetic nod that dislodged a lock of lanky black hair. He absently brushed it back.

          "I just, it's like," Sera huffed. "I dunno. I do want to call her again. But I wouldn't know what to say."

          Gray leaned back in his chair and nodded again. His hair stayed in place this time.

          "She'd be like 'What is it' and I'd be like 'I dunno.' And dad would be like 'Serafina I wish you were more polite to Ms. Glenn.'" Sera modulated her voice to a gravelly rasp and her deepest alto to imitate her foster parents.

          "It's understandable," Gray said, smiling slightly. He picked his cup up from the table and swirled it in a small circle. "Your dad is always looking out for you when you talk about him."

          "Yeah," Sera replied. "It's too much sometimes, but he is. I gotta remember that."

          "I think you do."

          Serafina folded her arms on the table and leaned her chin against them. "Sorry for dumping on you," she said. "I know you barely know me but you're nice and stuff."

          "Well you come in here so often, I feel like we're friends already." He took a sip of latte.

          "Ugh, don't remind me," Sera growled.

          "They still giving you problems?"

          "Well, the system is," Sera sighed. "Less so with the office now that I've got an agent who knows my face. But the city..." she shrugged.

          "Haha, seriously. 'Citizen race' Washingtonians complain about their shellwork, but you guys have it way worse than we do."

          "I'm so glad that you actually get it," Sera said.

          "Well, I have a lot of customers coming here going to and from WOTA. I like talking to customers, and that red tape is gonna be what's on their minds."

          Sera looked up at Gray and tilted her head slightly.

          He smiled nervously. "What?"

          "Uh," Sera said, "Do you want ... to go get coffee sometime?"

          Gray blinked.

          "I mean--" Sera stammered. "Not coffee, something else. I can't drink yet. Um. Tea? I mean you serve that here, but."

          The barista pressed his lips together, trying not to laugh.

          "Throw me a bone, dude, I am trying to ask you out," Sera said. "I don't know how to do this."

          "How about a steak?" Gray replied, grinning.


          Back to top

          Boyfriend

          "Miss Thrace sent you a text message while you were in the bathroom," Hafiz told Sera as she returned to the dining room. His voice was even and quiet, but a catch in his tone caught Sera's attention.

          She squinted. "Okaaay ... did you know it was Miki because of the ringtone?"

          "She said that she would meet you to study, and to call her after your date." He bit off the end of the last word and closed his cracked lips over it with distaste.

          Sera retrieved her voice from the pit of her stomach, where it rested beside her heart. "Don't ... don't read my texts, dad."

          "If you intend to keep me ignorant of your communiqués, Serafina," Hafiz rumbled, "Perhaps you should not leave your handshell lying face up on the dining room table. So. You have a date?"

          Sera's face felt very hot. "Yeah. A movie."

          "With whom? Is this your first date?"

          "The barista from the Siren next to the WOTA office," she said. "And, um, no. This is our third date. Nothing has, like, ... happened, though. I was going to tell you about it, I just ... hadn't yet."

          "I see. A barista," Hafiz said. "How old is this barista?"

          "Dad."

          Hafiz raised his eyebrows.

          "He's twenty-two," Sera admitted.

          "He's too old for you," Hafiz said flatly.

          "Dad!" Sera said, spreading her claws in an incredulous gesture. "How can you even say that! I'm probably better certified than he is!"

          "You are 14. That is too young to date. Does he know how old you are?"

          "I can't believe you're doing this. I have my diploma, dad. I'm working twenty hours a week and taking VC business courses with people three times my age. You know the science behind my physiology. Saying I'm like a fourteen-year-old human is bullshit and you know it."

          "Serafina, language!" Hafiz barked, and Sera shrank from his outburst. "You have no experience with men. Do you even know him?"

          "I've seen him more than I've seen Miki since I graduated," Sera murmured. "I spend so much time going to WOTA and waiting to be called."

          Hafiz sighed. "Serafina, entering into a relationship with a man means giving him a great deal of trust. You may be mature for your age, but this is new ground for you and I am worried for you. This world is too full of people who want to hurt and kill you purposefully for me to let you hurt yourself by accident."

          Sera clenched her jaw. "Are you going to forbid me from seeing Gray?"

          Hafiz lowered his thick brow. "Gray? That is his name, then?"

          Sera nodded.

          "No," Hafiz said. "You may go on your date, and any others you decide to schedule, but I want full disclosure from you. I do not care how intimate and private your life is, this is a matter of your physical safety as well as your emotional safety. Do you understand? If you are leaving a public space, I must know where and why."

          Sera nodded again.

          Hafiz stood, walked to Sera, and clapped one large hand over her shoulder. "We can renegotiate in two years, when you get your full ID. I'm only thinking of your safety, Feenie."

          "I know," Sera said, and Hafiz released her shoulder.

          A few moments crawled by on leaden treads. Sera felt them pass slowly, trying not to lift both claws and drum them nervously against her quills. Eventually Hafiz broke the silence.

          "If you need to go get ready, Serafina, go."

          Grateful for the reprieve, Serafina snatched her shell from the table and fled.


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          All Broken Up

          Sera stood alone on the sidewalk, her handshell held against an ear. Drumming her claws against the wiry thigh of her reverse-jointed leg as she waited. A few seconds later, she perked up.

          "Hey. Miki?" Sera paused for a few moments.

          "Yeah, I'm ok," she told the shell. "I just broke up with Gray."

          She resumed her walk, falling into shadow as she left the range of a streetlamp. "No, he didn't push at all actually. That's part of it, I just ... I couldn't get a feel for him. I never knew what he wanted. He didn't seem to want anything."

          "Sure," she said, tapping her quills slowly with her free hand. "And he seemed to be very happy to be dating me, but, I dunno, aren't you supposed to feel something special? Not just, like, 'this guy is cool?' I could never tell that he felt anything particularly special and he didn't open up. Maybe I'm missing something."

          Still walking, she moved her hand from her head to the building next to her. Her claws made a quiet rasp against the industrial plastic of the wall. "I think we will stay friends. He was disappointed, but he wasn't mad. It was a nice few months."

          Sera dropped her hand as she reached the mouth of an alley, then chuckled. "Thank you, but I'm doing okay. I'll settle with just --"

          Suddenly, a gloved hand was over her mouth, someone's weight pulling backward, throwing her off-balance. A sharp pain exploded against her temple and spots glittered across her vision. Her shell tumbled from her hand, but she couldn't hear it strike the pavement over the sound of hot blood rushing through her ears.

          She threw her arms outward, lashing out with the dull backs of her claws. She connected with something, heard a breathy grunt, but felt rough hands on both arms; she was quickly restrained by more unseen attackers.

          "Show you what we do with monsters around here," someone growled.

          Sera struggled simultaneously against her attackers and against a dark impulse from the back of her brain, rapidly surging forward and becoming more prominent. One of them has your claw, it thought. Fold it in. Shear off his fingers. If you kick off your shoes and shove forward, you'll have the room to disembowel the one behind you. Do it. Kill them. Kill them all.

          Someone delivered a vicious punch to Sera's thin abdomen, and she felt a shooting pain accompanied by a nauseating crack. It was followed by a heavy strike to the face in a narrow hard band, and she cried out as the cartilage of her button nose gave way. They're using knuckle dusters on me, she realized.

          They're strong but they're not deadly, the voice said. You are. You can set them alight and devour them. They don't know how you fight. You can kill them all, and they would do the same to you.

          No! Sera shouted back at it. No. If they had wanted to kill me, they would have done it. There are too many for me to fight them without killing. I would rather take the beating.

          So she did.

          It felt like hours. Her assailants were methodical, striking every part of her body with knuckle dusters and boots and bare fists and, once, a brick. They always returned to her head, beating her every time that she moved too much. Once she blacked out, and they waited for her to regain consciousness before resuming the torture. Laughing throughout, spewing epithets, making jokes. They stayed away from her claws, but she counted three broken ribs, a shattered nose, and deep bruises everywhere.

          Luckily for Sera, they failed to break or sprain either of her ankles, possibly misunderstanding how to injure her strangely-jointed legs. The moment their grip on Sera's slackening body loosened, her instincts kicked in. With a surge of muscle, she tore free and ran.

          Her feet pounded against the ground, wracking her whole body with pain. Her lungs burned as they pressed against her injured ribs, and she almost fell as she rounded the corner. She immediately saw a figure, a man in dark clothing turning the corner a full block away, and sprinted toward it.

          "Please!" she rasped. "Please help me!" Her voice, too hoarse and short of breath, did not reach the stranger, who continued to walk, back turned. A moment later, her assailants caught up with her; she was grabbed roughly from behind and her face slammed into the pavement.

          One of them let out a belly laugh, the genuine kind that most people reserve for really good jokes. "Did you see that? It actually ran! I told you they're durable!" Sera heard more laughter, and felt the plastic toe of a boot slam her ribs. She crumpled with a faint whimper.

          "Let's get it back to the alley," a voice said. "Few more minutes then we better go." Sera struggled in vain as they started to drag her back to the mouth of the alley.

          "The hell is this?" a familiar voice said a few feet away. Sera turned her head, blinking her eyes against the pain. The stranger, whose attention had evidently been drawn by the noise, stood nearby. He was dressed all in black, from jacket to jeans, with only a Wakizashi 9mm displayed on his belt.

          One of Sera's attackers stood up and made a shooing gesture at the stranger. "Just a monster," he said. "You want to get out of here."

          The stranger looked at the attacker for a moment. He turned his eyes to look at Sera, and suddenly recognition dawned. That voice and those eyes, behind the sights of an assault rifle, behind the visor of a riot helmet, asking whether things like her even had rights.

          "Machere," she croaked.

          He swept his eyes back to the thug standing in front of him. "It's illegal to hunt monsters unlicensed and without a contract," he said.

          He received a snort in response. "What are you, a cop?"

          Machere held up a badge in a faux-leather case. "Yup."

          The thug guffawed. "Don't you have something better to do? This is P13. Get outta here."

          The officer pocketed his badge and said, "Nope."

          The thug snorted and grabbed the front of Machere's jacket. There was a blur of movement and a crack, and the would-be frontman of the lynch mob fell heavily against the wall. An telescoping baton extended and held in his hand, Machere casually walked toward the group. "You're all under arrest for assault. So far."

          One of the men holding Sera down stood up and advanced menacingly on Officer Machere. Sera took the opportunity to drive her freed elbow upward, directly into someone's jaw. Her system flooded with numbing energy and she flailed wildly, breaking free of her remaining attacker and driving him against the wall repeatedly with her forearms and feet.

          The two remaining men decided to engage Machere, advancing on him with knuckle dusters raised. "Threatening an officer of the law and resisting arrest," Machere said, shaking his head. He raised his arm slightly and threw the baton into a whistling arc that ended against the forearm of one of the attackers. His victim dropped to the ground, clutching the limb and wearing a pained grimace. The other surveyed his situation, turning to see Sera grabbing the head of the man she'd elbowed in the jaw and slamming it into the ground. He kneeled and put his hands behind his head.

          Sera fell on top of the man she had just beaten insensible and watched as Machere cuffed the man who had surrendered. "Thank ... you," she rasped.

          "Don't get sentimental, imp," Machere muttered. "I'm just upholding the law. An ambulance is on the way."

          Sera stared at him for a moment, wheezing. "Oh ... okay. That's ... fine."

          "I'm not putting you in custody," he said, "But it's in your interests to give us a statement. Do you understand?"

          "Uh-huh. I'm going to pass out now," she murmured, dizzy.

          "Knock yourself out," Machere said, then smiled as he realized the joke. "Heh."

          And then everything went black.


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          Protection

          Once he had finished changing Sera's IV bag, the nurse scurried from the room, his eyes nervous and flicking between the heavily-bandaged imp on the bed and the glaring man by the door with a combat shotgun on his back.

          Now alone, Hafiz turned to his daughter. "Don't worry Feenie," he said, his eyes sad but with a steely anger behind them. "We will get to the bottom of this."

          Sera shook her head feebly and spoke between the hiss of her respirator. "Don't need to get to ... the bottom. I just ... want it to be over."

          A P13 officer, a wiry-framed woman with close-cropped curly hair, entered the hospital room carrying a tabletshell. Her badge read 'Hoffman'. "All right, Dyne, we had the research department look into Sera's assailants and her ex."

          "Wait, Gray?" Sera rasped. "Why--"

          "Sera, hold on please," Hafiz said. He turned to the officer. "Go ahead."

          Officer Hoffman cleared her throat and scratched the back of her head. "Well, Dyne, it's pretty clear that this was a hate crime with little to no premeditation."

          Hafiz's nostrils flared. "Look, if this is about money--"

          "Dyne," the officer replied, holding up a hand. "Your contributions to the Precinct 13 operations fund were received and appreciated, all right?"

          "Then why haven't--"

          "We have." she glared at Hafiz and pointed at the surface of her tabletshell. "These guys are common street scum with all the normal arrests you'd expect and nothing more. Two are low-ranking members of the White Knight Society, just the right kind of lowlifes to drum up a random lynch mob with their yuzie buddies when they hear there's a monster in town. All right?"

          Hafiz clenched his jaw.

          "None of these men have even met a Gray Hewitt. Mr. Hewitt has no organizational ties outside of Siren Coffee; he wasn't even born in New Washington."

          "And that didn't raise any red flags? He's foreign!"

          "Aren't you from the middle east, Dyne?" The officer raised an eyebrow.

          Hafiz lapsed into a stony silence.

          "Here's the deal, since you paid for it: Yeah, Hewitt is from New Celtia originally. He lost his parents in a house fire when he was eight, and got nominated for the International Exchange Program, which sent him here and put him with a foster family. He got passed around like a piece of trash, flunked out of secondary and has been doing shit jobs ever since. He's got no criminal record, no certification, and no future. Apparently he's good at retail but he never makes supervisor. That enough?"

          Hafiz grunted irritably.

          "Hey." Officer Hoffman narrowed her eyes. "That's the report, Dyne. You should feel lucky that this is getting any attention, all right? We've got actual people to serve and protect."

          Hafiz became very still. "Get out," he rumbled.

          The officer raised both hands and sneered in a gesture of mock helplessness, backing out of the hospital room.

          Sera coughed. "I ... I cannot believe you."

          "I cannot be too careful, Serafina," Hafiz said. "I cannot risk losing you."

          Sera closed her eyes. For a few moments, the only sounds in the room were the hisses and beeps of the medical equipment snaking its way to and from her body. When she opened her eyes again, her crimson retina were swirling. "Call Gray and tell him to come here."

          "No," Hafiz said, shaking his head. "You need to rest."

          "I want to talk to Gray."

          "It's too convenient, Sera," Hafiz said. "The case is not closed and I don't--"

          "Hafiz." Sera said.

          His stony expression cracked with shock, and Hafiz blinked with surprise.

          "The next person I talk to ..." she wheezed. "...will be Gray Hewitt. Alone. I am finished talking to you until then."


          He was out of breath when he arrived.

          "I can't believe this happened to you," Gray said, his face ashen. "I'm so sorry."

          "It's not your fault."

          Gray looked at Sera's hospital sheets and put his hand on her unbandaged arm. "I understand that we weren't ... working. But I just want to let you know that I'm still here for you. If you need me, need my help..."

          "I want you ..." Sera said, interrupted by the hiss of her oxygen feed, "...to swear to my father ... that you had nothing to do with this."

          Clearly taken aback, Gray shook his head. "What?"

          "I know," she wheezed. "But he won't let it go. Please. I want him ... to have to look you in ... the face."

          Gray shook his head. "I ... sure. I will. Does he really..."

          Sera sighed weakly. "He just ... wants to protect me. Anything could be a threat."

          Gray nodded and let go of her hand. "Okay. Let me know if there is anything else you need." He turned to leave.

          "Gray," Sera said. He turned around. "I'm glad ... you're my friend."

          Gray smiled. "I'm glad too."


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          Advocacy

          No one was in the room when Sera's handshell, resting on the dining room table, ended its restful state without warning. Its screen lit up, briefly displaying a photo of Hafiz and Sera leaning together and laughing before transitioning to an 'incoming call' screen. A raucous guitar solo blared from the shell's speakers and it danced to the music, vibrating across the table in a snaking, drunken path.

          "Shit!" Sera's voice came from her bedroom. "Um, dad?"

          "In the bathroom, Feenie," Hafiz's muffled voice answered.

          "Iyesu," she muttered. With a hard rock soundtrack, she began the process of dragging her bandaged body out of the bed and into her wheelchair. She gripped the far armrest of the chair and gingerly lowered herself onto the seat. By the time she had settled, her phone decided that the action sequence was over and lapsed into a smug silence.

          Sera let out an irritated breath and wheeled herself out to the dining room. Once there, she stretched out a spindly arm to grab her phone, which had decided to come to rest on the exact center of the table.

          She thumbed the screen with a clawpad and blinked at the unknown address, 'caramel@trac.org.nw'. "Huh," she said aloud. She tapped at the address and hit the button to retrieve its public profile. The profile's image filled the screen of Sera's shell, showcasing what Sera would normally have assumed to be a brother-sister modeling team, if not for the overlaid text. It read "Caramel Kendry," then, below, "Community Representative, Thaumomorph Rights Advocacy Collective (TRAC)."

          "But there are two of them," Sera murmured, then jumped in alarm as her shell speaker chimed its voice message alert and hid the Kendry profile page. She instinctively thumbed the 'listen' key and held the shell to her ear.

          "Hello, this message is for Miss Serafina Dyne," a genial female voice said. "My name is Caramel Kendry, and I'm from the Thaumomorph Rights Advocacy Collective. It's been my understanding that you've recently been the target of a hate crime, and I'd really like to talk to you about your experiences. Please call or e-mail me back at your earliest convenience and we can set up a meeting." The message chimed to indicate that it was over. Sera slowly lowered the shell from her ear.

          "I'm sorry I wasn't able to get your phone, Feenie," Hafiz said, emerging from the bathroom. "Who was it?"

          Sera turned to look at him for a moment, then smiled. "Just spam," she said.


          "Miss Dyne!" a masculine voice said. "We're glad that you made it."

          Sera looked up from her vietnamese. The Kendry pair were almost as beautiful walking through the door of a cafe as they had been on their profile. Each had a nut-brown, heart-shaped face framed with loose black curls. They were both dressed business-casual, with an Andiron brand bulletshield clipped to their belts. "Pleased to meet you," the male half of the pair said, holding out a hand. "We're Caramel Kendry. You can refer to me as Amel; my other half is Cara."

          Sera shook their hands in turn, trying to conceal her confusion.

          "We're a single person with two shared bodies," Cara said in explanation. "Birth defect."

          "Oh," Sera said. "Well, uh, yes I am Serafina Dyne, pleased to meet you. Sera is just fine."

          "You look good, Sera," Amel noted. "It looks like your injuries are mostly healed?"

          Sera nodded. "I heal fast, and it's been like a month. Um, how did you find out about...?"

          "It's on the police record. Group assault arrests stand out," Cara said. Amel nodded and continued. "TRAC has people keeping an eye out for reports of hate crimes, which sort of brings us to the reason that we wanted to talk to you."

          Sera leaned back in her chair and nodded at Caramel to continue.

          "Precinct 13 has a problem," Cara said. "Your assault is the first hate crime to be prosecuted in the precinct in almost a year. We have reason to believe that at least a dozen more have occurred in the intervening time without any arrests or court cases."

          Sera's face fell. "Seriously?"

          Amel shook his head. "No joke. It's probably because there was an officer on the scene. And that dozen we mentioned are just the crimes that our sources have heard; there may be even more that haven't come to our attention. P13 is not breaking up lynch mobs. There's a local White Knights chapter meeting on a regular basis and no ranking members have been apprehended."

          Cara and Amel sighed simultaneously, and Cara spoke. "Local T-folk are turning to Gaia's People."

          Sera knit her thin brow. "Who?"

          Cara nodded. "They're a thaumomorph rights group, like us, but they're more willing to endorse violent or radical ideologies. They have a history of ... problematic bedfellows."

          "Oh," Sera said again, increasingly convinced that she was diving into a more inhabited pool than she'd initially thought and also that someone might have done something to the water.

          "We're not expecting you to do anything public," Amel said, "Or become a representative for TRAC or anything. But we have counseling resources for you, and our legal team is growing. If you need help or representation, we can help you. Contact us directly and we'll do everything we can." Caramel both smiled warmly, and Sera felt her gut unclench slightly; it was difficult to stay nervous near the pair.

          She gave them a small smile. "Sure," she said. "Thank you."

          "Great," Cara said. "Thanks so much for meeting with us, and we hope you think of TRAC the next time you're in a bind. If you'd like to consent to an interview at any point --"

          "Ah--" Sera held up a claw. "I dunno."

          Caramel nodded. "That's fine," Amel reassured. "Please don't hesitate to contact us in any case."

          "Thanks," Sera said. "I won't."


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          花猪棋牌