Chapter 3: Jenny Takes Up The Sword

My name is Jenny Nishi. I apologize for intruding on Atina’s narrative, but she gets into a mood when she is preparing for a case. She is a kind person, but somewhat prone to obsessive behavior. I also apologize for not obscuring my true identity in some exciting way, but I am very new to all of this.

In December 2015, I was a freshman at Binghamton University, studying English, and hoping to someday be a poet laureate, before I even knew clearly what it meant to be a poet laureate. I was born in Japan, but transferred to America for reasons that all seemed so clear at the time. I had a boyfriend, who is now buried beneath a gazebo in a botanical garden.

I was bitten by a vampire. An extremely old, extremely powerful vampire, by the name of Hun-Came. One of the Camazotz, and a goddess of the dead, more or less. She was murdered by her companion, Chaac, a goddess of the storm. But after she died, she was brought back by Dean Morton in spirit form, just long enough to acknowledge me as her offspring. And I became a goddess of the sun. More or less.

I sat in the back seat of Atina’s car, the tiny orb of sunlight dancing and twinkling between my fingers, watching it move. It was daytime, and the cold February sun glittered in the sky, a uniquely clear and bright day shining down on us. Outside, a thick snow covered everything, lifeless trees standing like bleached bones. It would be some time yet before life returned to the world. Binghamton was like that, after all.

The word goddess has been used several times, here. I don’t entirely understand it. None of these things conform to physics, chemistry, biology. They are not things of prosaic science. They are, ironically enough, more based in my training. Magic, monsters, gods, these things are all very, curiously human, following the same strange jumping logic and free association that all humans possess. The sun is a source of light, heat, and life. Thus, it destroys the undead, who have none of these things. I gained my power from blood, and thus, I am a powerful and formidable creature despite being a mere child, as the child of a noble or a genius inherits their power through lineage. The Camazotz took power from blood rather than from belief, and so they maintained their godly status, preserving it, even as their worshippers were wiped from the face of history.

Symbolism rather than biology. Narrative rather than chemistry. Themes rather than physics. A strange world. For a world that seemed to conform so well to the way humans think, it could be very confusing. But that wasn’t unexpected. Humans are vastly more complex than fundamental physics.

“Are you alright, Jenny?” asked Megan. I looked to the side, and smiled reluctantly. The Native American woman leaned back in her chair, and she was twirling a cigarette holder slowly between two fingers. Her rich black hair hung over her shoulders, plaited into a ribbon. She was dressed casually, a turtleneck sweater and a pair of jeans.

“Fine. Just… thinking.” I smiled apologetically. “You can smoke, you know. I don’t seem likely to suffer lung cancer.”

“Terribly rude to smoke in someone else’s car. I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs for a little bit, though.” She opened the door, and I followed her. The two of us stood on the sidewalk as she lit a cigarette, placing it into the holder, and taking a deep breath. She released it with a sigh that was just short of sexual.

Megan had been in the company of another vampire, when I had first met her. She was… Well, I wasn’t certain. I suspected she was a goddess, but a better class of goddess than I. That was not just modesty or a lack of self-respect speaking. She had the kind of mien of confidence that came with knowing exactly who, and what, you are. She had been given a long time to grow into who she was. I could imagine the kind of terrible pains she’d been through, but she bore them with dignity, and even a smile.

“How have you been?” she asked, after taking another puff of the cigarette.

“In… a holding pattern, I suppose. ” I bit my lip. “Is it always like this?”

She paused a moment, looked down at the cigarette, and then back up at me. “You mean waiting for people? In a life that measures in millenia, yes, almost entirely.” She frowned, looking around the parking lot. “Reminds me, I need to figure out where Coyote is. Who knows what that son of a bitch could be getting into.” She pulled hard on the cigarette, the tip flashing red, and then turning grey, exhaling a great cloud of smoke. “Or who.”

“No, I mean-” I swallowed. “Atina told you about the situation.”

“Faerie Court Gauntlet, your friend believes he is fated to die to fulfill a legend, and you cannot see any path to escape.”

“That is a succinct summary.”

“Do you know, we did not have any prophecies about invaders from beyond the sea? We never saw that particular curveball coming. There were diseases, mind you, and rumors of foreigners, but there had always been those who visited from the east.” Megan puffed slowly on the cigarette. It was another uncomfortable reminder of her past. I had lost a boyfriend. She had lost a civilization.

“I’m sorry.”

“It is the nature of immortality. The longer you live, the more connections you make, the more are taken away. Mortality is indiscriminate, and humans are brief, but there are gods and monsters and heroes I knew who are no more, as well. That you do not die of old age does not protect you. If there is one thing I have learned, Jenny, it is that everything, everyone, everywhere, dies eventually.” She drew the cigarette holder in an arc in front of her. “This city, these people, these buildings, Atina, all of them will be gone, someday. And because you and I are immortal, it will likely be before we die.”

“How do you deal with that?”

“There are two broad schools. The wise, or at least the fearful, learn to treat it all as a cycle. Atina may die; but she will with any luck, and perhaps a little cajoling from us, pass on her genes. Her children will carry on her legacy. When you are immortal, you start to see how the same people seem to appear again, and again. The child is rarely the same as the parent, but grandchildren, great-nieces- Over the course of a century, you will find all of your old friends seem to return again, not remembering you, but nonetheless there. Cultivate the lines of those you love, and they never truly leave. On such things are immortal lives built.”

“Does it really work?”

“Sometimes. But then…” Her expression was still, calm, as she stared out at the horizon. The sky was the most intense, serene blue. “It works only so long as the greater framework survives. If every human being were to die, it would end, and I think that it would be a far more terrible fate if we were to survive that. Can you imagine, a world inhabited only by sparse and lonely immortals? No bright sparks of light and warmth, the flickering campfires of mortality? That is the fate of those who survive long enough. Perfect isolation. So, tell me.” She looked over her shoulder at me, and smiled. “Whose death do you fear? Yours, or theirs?”

I hesitated. It was not a proud moment, but it was one I could not avoid. “I suppose-“

“It doesn’t matter. I have very good reason to believe our world will end, and soon.”

“What?” I asked, blinking, shocked. “Alfred said-“

“He may have the right of it. There is talk of War in Heaven. And while such wars are usually not a threat to mortals…” She shook her head. “Humans have advanced so far, so quickly. They burn brighter than the sun gods. And all of that wisdom they lose each time they die, they struggle so hard to regain. It’s not a good time, Jenny. That’s why I’m going to suggest you not be cautious. I suggest you take the unwise tack.”

“You’re saying I should intervene.”

“Violence, conflict- They are tools, like any other. The sword does not create, but it cuts down the tyrant who suppresses. To pluck the weed is to take a life, but so that another may take its place. Violence is a terrible argument, but it only has one counter-argument.” She puffed on the cigarette slowly, the tip glowing cherry in the cool air, before blowing out a cloud of smoke. “I do not wish to make you believe that your only path forward is to be a weapon, Jenny. Your life is your own. But if you are frightened of your friends being taken from you…”

“Can I stop it?”

“No.” She smiled. “We cannot stop Death. She takes us all. That is the cruelty of the world in which we live: We shall all die, someday.” She looked aside at me. “But we can delay her. We live in a perpetual war with her. You can fight.”

For some reason, she seemed very sad as she said those words, her expression downcast, not quite meeting my eyes, her lips quirked downwards. But I felt a little warmth in my stomach as she said the words. I smiled. “Thank you. That helps.”

“We always feel better when we have the option of violence,” she said. I looked aside at her, but she didn’t elaborate.

The world of the supernatural was full of old people. And the thing about old people was, their lives were full of regrets. They had been given years, decades, centuries- On a few occasions, millennia- to think about the mistakes they had made. They had power, now, all the power they needed except the one they wanted most. The power to do things over again. I wondered what regrets the soft-spoken, dark-haired woman held. I began to compose a haiku in my head.

Silent goddess stands
Her eyes see beyond the veil!
I envy her wit

I was pondering a few changes when Atina emerged. She was followed by a young man I had seen once before. Handsome, beguilingly so. None of the coldness I saw in most. Young, too. But he did not seem like my type. Too slender, too pretty, almost waifish.

Atina had told me the boy, Eric Grafsson, had a certain glamour that could enchant women. I wonder what it said that it did not work on me.

Perhaps that humanity disappeared by degrees, and you did not notice it until it was gone.

Perhaps merely that he was not my type.

“Hey, guys. Sorry about that.” She smiled. It was a wan smile. She’d been in a mood ever since the Gauntlet had been thrown. The process of investigation was a slow, gradual one, and Atina didn’t deal well with such things hanging over her. None of us did, but none of us bore the weight of it like Atina did, no matter how much we wanted to. “Alright. Let’s get back to the house. Thank you for helping me out, Eric.”

“I swore that I would aid you, Atina,” the boy said, serious, dignified. He was actually younger than me, by perhaps a few months. I felt perhaps a thousand years older in life experience. After all, how often had he found himself threatened with death?

“Hamburger, Jenny?”

“Thank you,” I said, graciously. I didn’t need the food, but it felt incredibly silly to sit with a mug of warm blood and nothing else. I could certainly enjoy the food, after all, and my digestive system still worked after a fashion, even if I did not need the food to survive. I looked around Atina’s dining room. “It seems much roomier in here than before.”

“I took out that wall. Made a lot more room. That’s right, you haven’t been over for dinner in a month or two.” Atina smiled apologetically. “It’s been a bit hectic. Eric, this upcoming challenge- What are the details?”

“Simple enough. They’re pulling out all the stops, possibly in the hopes of exhausting Alfred. Five Baubles. Three pre-made, two performances.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and frowned. “Could you run me through that?”

“The three broad areas of art are considered to be Visual, Literary, and Musical. There is prepared art- something made beforehand, where the final product is considered on its own- and performative art, where the process of creating the art is a part of the experience. The difference between writing a sonnet, and reading it aloud. Between creating a costume, and dancing in it. Between composing a song, and performing it.”

“So, how many champions have they entered?” asked Atina, sitting back at the table, with a rather burnt looking hamburger.

“Five.”

“We’ll need to match them, then.” Atina rubbed her chin. “We can prepare beforehand, at least, get ready for the big day. Need to figure out who can do what.”

“Physical performance,” said Alfred. “I think I can manage that. Dancing and fighting aren’t so different.”

“I will be able to organize something of an artistic endeavor. Sculpture, dance. Atina, you’re skilled enough at writing,” said Eric.

“What?” said Atina, blinking.

“If I’m going to trust anyone to have my back, Atina,” said Alfred, a smile playing across his lips. It had been too long since the last one. Seeing that smile made my heart feel just a little bit too big for my chest.

“I’m… shit, Alfred. Your life’s on the line. I don’t think I’m the right person for this. Hell, I know I’m not.”

“You’re a clever enough person, Atina. You know the Fae. I’m sure you’ll write something that’ll knock their socks off.” Alfred smiled. “At any rate, the selection is somewhat limited. That leaves us with a musical piece, and another performance.”

“I know of several skilled musicians in the city. I am fairly confident one of them will agree to aid me, I have several open favors.” Eric smiled. “That leaves only the performance. If-“

“I could do it,” I said, softly, and regretted it almost instantly. Everyone in the room looked at me. “I have a background in performance. I have a stake in Alfred’s survival. I know I’m not experienced, that I am young, and-“

“That’s not the problem,” said Li Fang Fen, softly. “Death… takes something out of you. Some of the vital spark of art, of creation. You’re very young, you haven’t even been undead for long, but…”

“The works of the dead seldom spark beauty and joy in the eye of the beholder,” said Eric, apologetically. “We will be able to find an able performer. I can promise. In fact, I may know just the person- One of King Baynson’s by-blows. He has something of a standing grudge against the king. He and his wife should fill the remaining roles outside of Alfred, Atina, and I.”

“Alright.” Atina blew out a sigh. “We’ll meet up in a couple of days, Friday afternoon. Figure out our performances, what we need. Do a weekly meeting to make sure that we’re on track.” She wolfed a bite of her hamburger, chewing for a moment, swallowing, and then frowned. “Any thoughts on what we should do?”

“Play to your strengths,” said Eric. “Passion is critical in something like this. They are not be revealed until the day of the trial, and the gallery opening.”

“Gallery?” I asked, wishing desperately I could provide any damn thing to these proceedings besides asking for clarifications.

“Yeah, what’s this about a gallery?” said Atina, an eyebrow raised. I felt slightly better about myself.

“Ah, to determine which work is the most moving. Passion is vital to create a truly powerful bauble, as is speaking to an audience. The works will be displayed publicly during the course of the day. The gallery will climax with the presentation of the performances.” Eric smiled cheerfully. “It also helps to support the local businesses through advertising and catering-“

“Okay, fantastic.” Atina frowned. “Shit. I really hate writing for an audience I don’t know.” She leaned back in the chair. “Well. I’ve got a meeting with a couple people of interest next month. We’ll see if any of them actually manage to give me some useful information.”

“You’re doing your best, Atina,” said Alfred, softly, calmly. “Even if the absolute worst comes to worst, we will make it through this.”

“I mean, you won’t,” she said, and she was trying to smile. Everyone got a little quiet. Her smile faded away. “Sorry. That was grim. I’m just worried.”

“I have an escape valve.” Alfred smiled. “I know you will all do your best. But if it comes down to the end, if there’s no other choice…” His voice died away.

“We have ten months before that becomes an issue,” I said, straightening a bit. “We must keep going, one foot and then another, and strive to the end.”

There was a soft murmur of assent. Then Polly smiled. “I’m starved. Let’s eat, shall we?”

An hour or two later, as we began to filter out of the house, I walked onto the street. Home was a long walk away, but a part of me, a dark and lonely part, craved that. More than getting a ride from someone else, more than being around someone. More than being reminded of my failings.

“Jenny!”

I kept walking a couple of steps. Alfred ran up alongside me, at a light jog. “It’s a bit late, Alfred,” I said, and smiled softly. “I don’t need an escort. I doubt there’s anything in the night that will hurt me.”

“Oh.” He paused for a moment. “I didn’t consider that. I just wanted to talk with you.”

“I’m… not in much of a mood to talk, Alfred.”

“I want you to defend me,” he stated.

“I… That’s very sweet, Alfred. You’re very kind to consider my feelings-“

“Kindness has nothing to do with it. I think you’re the right person for the job.” He started walking, stopped after a couple of steps, and looked over his shoulder at me, as I stood in place. “Coming? It’s a long walk back to your apartment.”

I fought back a smile. It was not cute when he did that. It was arrogant, and a bit snotty. I tried to persuade myself that I believed that, even as he marched forward into the night, one hand on his rapier. Apparently it was not being kept as evidence. I had limited my exposure to the various legal systems of the fantastic. That was, after all, Atina’s place.

“You’re a very good poet.”

“I’m really not,” I said, softly.

“No, you are. Your problem is much the same as Atina’s. You’re creative, clever, and perceptive. You know how to inspire emotions. But you fear failure. You keep all of those poems up in your head. I’ve seen how many times it’s been suggested you publish a piece. I know you have more than enough money necessary to see that your work reaches a wide audience. You have everything you need to succeed. She’s much the same. She could be doing a lot more to publish her work. You know why she doesn’t?”

“Atina loathes her own work,” I said, and smiled apologetically. “I’ve talked with her about it, many times. You know how she feels about herself. We all do, when she’s been drinking. I do not think my work is bad. It is simply… Terribly, viciously, cruelly exposing. What I write, it lays bare how I feel about the world. How I feel about people.”

“You are not as subtle as you think you are,” said Alfred, and he smiled softly, gently. “Your fear of your own lost humanity, your resentment and affection for Li, your admiration and anger towards Atina… You’re not a subtle person. You are not a skilled deceiver. Your emotions are close to the skin, and they are quite beautiful, Jenny. All of us know what you feel.” He frowned. “I could have slapped Li for feeding you that line of hogwash about the undead.”

“She’s right, I know that my work hasn’t been popular-“

“Because you seldom put it out where it can be appreciated. The dead are not lacking in creativity. Not in my experience. There are those among them who are capable of the most beautiful creations. No, few of them crave the spotlight because of their very nature, and many of them do not open themselves up to new experiences. Their nature works against them, but not as a rule, not as an iron-clad law. Your words could make saints weep.”

“If I’m so obvious-” I said, biting my lip, biting back the traitorous words.

“This is about Polly, isn’t it.”

“She is more suited to you. I understand.”

“You accept. It is a different thing from understanding, and a very different thing from agreeing. You know, she left me because she did not believe that she was right for my story?”

“I remember,” I said, softly.

“Love is… a terrible, painful thing, sometimes. Love is self-sacrificing, altruistic, by its very nature. But true love, that is also selfish. It is doing what is right for you, not just for your partner.” He looked away. “In that, I suppose I didn’t truly love anyone. Altruism is easy. But selfishness is bitterly difficult. The issue was forced. Polly didn’t truly love me, either, in that sense. She did what I needed, she took pain onto herself in order to protect others. In order to protect you from a decision like that. Or me.” He took a slow, deep breath. “The relationship has died. It lingers on, but I know that I will die, and betray her, and hurt-“

I slapped him, hard. I didn’t punch him. I wasn’t good at punching. My blow did not take him off of his feet, it did not send him spinning. It was not meant to. It was simple, sharp, shocking. “I am serious,” I said, my heart pounding. “You are not going to die. No matter what anyone claims. I do not care if you are with Polly- This isn’t about a desire to be with you. You are a good man, and good men are terribly, tragically rare. I’m not going to see one sacrifice himself.”

He rubbed his cheek, and smiled. “Well, I suppose so. But fate has a way of taking advantage of our hubris. The challenge-“

“I should not be the one to do it. I am not familiar with the preferences, either of the Spring Court, or of Binghamton. The right choice is to use someone who knows what they’re doing. I will find another way to help to protect you.” I smiled. “Who knows? Perhaps we’ll need some sunlight.” I paused for a moment, as the two of us walked. “There’s something I’d like to ask you, though. A… favor, I suppose. I understand if you’re busy, or not able-“

“Anything,” he said, cheerfully.

“Can you teach me to fight?”

This drew a raised eyebrow, and a grin. “I’d love to.” He looked around. “Right now?”

“Probably not,” I admitted. “It is late. Would… Friday be alright? After we complete the meeting, with Atina?”

“Of course.”

He walked me all the way home, like a true gentleman. I was struck, when I returned, how empty my apartment was. Had any of my friends ever visited it? Had I ever had someone stay the night since Tony died? I lay in my bed, staring up at the ceiling, until my eyes closed of their own volition.

Friday came quickly. The defense team gathered. The Half-Faced Man, Eric, Baynson’s son and his wife, Polly, Li Fang Fen, Alfred. And I. The four of us sat in the back yard, a truly unseasonal warmth leaving the snow melted, and the lawn practically balmy. Baynson’s son, who introduced himself as Karl, and who was more heavily pierced than the victim of a shrapnel grenade, did not volunteer much in the way of words. He had long, blonde dreadlocks which hung around his head, and had a distinctly grunge look which no doubt drove the women mad in the 90s. His guitar was painted red with black flames, and it looked as though it had been reconstructed from other, lesser guitars which had not survived his apocalyptic rage.

“Just some tomato juice for him,” said his wife, smiling. “He gets all frisky if he has meat.”

Karl grunted, strumming a power chord which reverberated softly through the back yard, as Atina nodded, an eyebrow raised. “Alright. So, the defense-“

“Our standard rate is a minor bauble for the defense- I’m sure something will be well within your financial means. A favor in the event of a successful defense.” The human woman smiled cheerfully. “Naturally, we will cover both the prepared musical piece and the performance.”

“I haveta ask,” said Polly, frowning as she leaned back in her chair, a bottle of Guinness in one hand. “Is a piece of work done for mercenary reasons really going to be… beautiful? Like, a worthwhile bauble?”

“Money can be a very potent motivator for some people,” said Atina. “And I’ve known soulless pieces written by someone who just wanted to get paid which made people far more passionate and intense than the life’s work of a tortured genius. It’s the best we’re likely to get.”

“I have a question,” I said, and frowned. “The consequences. If we fail…”

“I will be clapped in irons,” said Alfred. “Held in iron chains. And, as I am the Iron Knight, it is my honor to have an iron knife shoved through my heart by an appropriate King’s Man of the Court. Iron is not as fatal to me as to one of the fae, but the knife through the heart will prove to be quite an issue.”

“Oh,” I said, softly. “Rather high stakes for a gala, then.”

“Yes. It’s a rare punishment, one not often handed out, and rarely followed through on by the Spring Court. Unfortunately for me, the Gauntlet ensures that they will give it their all. Their lives are on the line.” Alfred turned his head to the Half Faced Man. “I would still dearly love to know how you convinced them to risk that.”

“Well, it would rather defeat the point if everyone knew,” said the Half-Faced Man. He frowned. “The demographics of the art gallery will be important. It’s taking place in Binghamton College’s…”

I drifted away from the conversation, closing my eyes, and took a deep breath, in and out once. Prepared myself for the lesson afterwards. I drifted away from the tedium of statistics and cultural trends, and when I came to, I was alone with him.

The sun had set. Alfred and I stood on the small basketball court. The sky was clouded over, the moon not visible, the court lit by the street lights, creating pools of light that we stood in. It was beginning to cool. His breath fogged the air. Mine did not. He held out a sword. It was wooden, a curved blade and a smooth handle. I frowned.

“Racist?” he asked, his head tilted.

“Just… a little bit overdramatic. This won’t get me made fun of?”

“What, wielding a katana?”

“It seems very cliché,” I said, swinging the blade once. “Not the rapier?”

“The rapier’s a stabbing weapon. It relies on precision. The katana is a slashing weapon. You’re inexperienced, and poorly trained for now, but if I know anything about the undead, you’re likely to be inhumanly strong. You could probably cut down a tree with that.” He stepped towards me, and then around me. From behind, he rested his hands on mine, shifting my grip on the blade. “And if someone tells you that you’re a cliché, laugh at them and tell them you know. A cliché is strength. The power to embody what is great. If the world laughs at you, laugh with them, louder, more proud, than they can.” He grinned. “That’s how I lived my life.”

“You’re not kidding,” I said, softly, and I didn’t try to fight the smile. I shifted my grip, one hand over the other. I raised the weapon into the air, as he showed me, and swung. Once, twice, ten times, a hundred.

I had never been much for exercise. I kept skinny through diet, and after I had died, I never had much call to exercise. Blood had little in the way of calories. I wasn’t even sure if I could lose or gain weight. Still, I had experienced hard effort. Working myself out to exhaustion, running, sweating.

The hundredth swing was as smooth, as effortless, as the first. I felt the slight tinge of hunger, the tang of iron, the desire for blood. It was distant, though, and I felt as strong as I had with the first swing. I looked down at my hands.

“You’re looking melancholy again,” said Alfred, and he smiled. “Missing sweat?”

“Not entirely. It’s just… strange.” I sighed, holding up my hands. They were not even calloused. “I feel… wrong. Like it’s all too easy.” I was quiet for a moment. “Your mother. She was a notable figure in the Fairy Courts. Yes?”

“Indeed. Some claimed she was a goddess.”

“Do you ever feel as though you were the wrong person for the gifts you’ve been given?”

“Every day.” He smiled. “Laugh at that, too. That you would even wonder that shows you are not the wrong person.” He drew his blade. “A duel. To first touch.”

“Alfred- What if I hurt you?”

“You would have to hit me, first.”

It was not easy. Indeed, by the end of the session, as night fell, the only blow I had inflicted on Alfred was to leave him sweating. He had fought in full chainmail, and landed a dozen blows on me, the rapier’s tip landing against me as soft as a feather, against chest, stomach, elbow, neck. I might well have survived even a blow like that, but it was as good a way as any to illustrate the point. We ended the session, and sat on the bench. I reached into the gym bag I had brought, drawing forth two bottles, handing one to him.

“Ah… Jenny?”

“Oh.” I coughed, and took the bottle of blood from him, giving him the one that contained water. “It is a little dark.”

“No worries.” He smiled, and took a sip of the water, closing his eyes as he leaned back in the chair.

“This was nice,” I said. “Doing something. Being active. Just… swinging a sword around. It made me feel better.”

“It does that, doesn’t it,” he said, smiling wryly. “Fridays work well for me, if you want to keep this up.”

“Of course,” I said, and smiled. “I need to land a blow on you eventually. I wouldn’t be able to look the other goddesses in the eye if I can’t do that.”

He chuckled, and leaned back. “Well, I’ve got a training regime for you. Learning the blows, memorizing them, making them a part of your muscle memory, it’ll make you stronger. An hour each evening, don’t let it fall by the wayside, and we’ll meet up like this once a week for training.” He smiled. “I’ll look forward to it.”

“Thank you, Alfred,” I said, softly. “For letting me feel… useful. At least a little bit.”

“Feel?” He grinned. “You’re going to do great things, Jenny. I’ve no doubts about that.” He rested a hand on my shoulder, and squeezed me gently. I tried not to flush as he did. It was not hard- I didn’t blush that way. Not anymore. But his hand was warm, and his expression warmer.

I’m not sure what drew me to return to Atina’s house. I knocked on the door, and found her answering the door. She smelled of tequila, and looked surprised. “Oh! Jenny. Everything, uh. All alright?”

“Yes- I’m sorry, Atina. I hope I’m not interrupting.”

“Nah! Nah.” She smiled wanly. “Just… having a little time of it, you know? Roy’s off on one of his little trips, so, uh. Just.” She coughed. “Come in, come on. What do you want to talk about?”

“Nothing, honestly,” I said, as I slipped into the front hall. “I was just… Are you okay, Atina?”

“Yeah. Yeah.” She smiled. “Best friend’s going to be executed and it’ll be my fault, but, you know, same old same old. Wouldn’t be the first time!” She coughed. “Sorry. I’m, uh… It’s a little hard to… relax, lately.”

“I know,” I said, softly. “I came by to watch something.”

“Oh. Yeah, sure. Sure. Anything special you wanted to watch?”

“How about that show you like? The one with the bad movies, and the little talking robots?”

“I’m… You’re trying to cheer me up, aren’t you?”

“A little quiet, calm enjoyment together,” I said, and smiled. “Come on, Atina. You’ve been trying to get me to watch that show as long as we’ve known each other. You’re going to let an opportunity like this slip away?”

It didn’t take a genius to realize a few things about Atina, like that she drank most when she was alone. She was embarrassed at losing control in front of others, so she drank when there was no one to see her. And I wouldn’t normally interfere with her ways of handling stress, but I already had one friend about to self-destruct. She needed the company.

And so did I.

Quicker than I could have imagined, we found ourselves approaching the day of the Spring Equinox.

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