Fireworks sparkled overhead in a stygian sky, but another hazy sight dazzled me more. Less than a story below, across the street, tucked away in a secluded haven of twinkling fairy lights and holly boughs, two foreheads bowed together, two hands mirroring the tender touch. Smirkums had asked for this moment to be private, but at least promised us a view.
It was all I could see of the romantic event we’d been anticipating for weeks. I huddled with the small group Smirkums had invited, all of us watching from the top of the stairs outside the National Gallery of Art’s exit. Between so much dark distance, the bare trees and sculptures blocking the view, and my breath billowing in my face with every exhale, all I could see were the colored shapes moving and make out their actions. The others must have seen far less.
At least my supernatural hearing offered more detail. Erikhó:wa gulped air and sank to one knee, the light thud accompanied by Serena’s ecstatic giggle. Serena cried through stuttered gasps as Erikhó:wa began her practiced speech.
Even though I could pick up on those special words, I distracted myself with my brooding brother at my side. Tall and muscular on the outside, sensitive and soft on the inside, I had to look up at his squinting eyes. The only hint of the blonde hair under his hat was the new short beard he’d trimmed down to a stubble for the evening.
Jason would never admit it, but the standing vein along his left temple gave away his frustration at not being able to see clearly. He’d taken on most of the work to aid Smirkums’ secret preparations for weeks, to preserve what little time I had left at home to rest.
Serena squealed an emphatic yes, and Smirkums flew up from bended knee and into her open arms. They started making out passionately, and I really tried to ignore the smacking lips and sucking sighs. The men around me, spared from the excessive details my supernatural hearing caught, oohed and aahed while I tried to keep my face from cracking. One of the lovebirds was going to lose a lip.
Instead of plugging my ears, I forced an awkward chuckle. “Let’s give them some space.”
My guests agreed, Jason waving Serena’s fathers ahead of us. Guillermo, sporting a fresh haircut and refusing to wear anything over his head, shivered in Owen’s lanky arms, both decked out in immaculate suits under their thick coats.
Rohan fell into step with me, the alluring scent of his special aftershave filling my nose. My hand found his without hesitation, from muscle memory of the exact height and angle. I leaned in, pressing my lips against my boyfriend’s neck, tasting him.
“Someone’s been inspired,” he whispered.
Rohan’s voice had mesmerized me from the moment we met. I’d never heard anyone speak to me sounding so sweet, but whatever magic drew me to the sound of his voice like gravity hadn’t faded. It grew. I looked forward to every morning when he asked how I’d slept and craved every hushed moan of my name at night.
I squeezed his hand and pulled him tight against me.
“Maybe I am,” I said.
He leaned in, but instead of kissing me, his other hand brushed along my jaw, his gaze drawing me in. Deep, dark eyes under thick eyebrows, a straight nose, plump lips, and a mischievous expression that tempted distraction.
“I like that,” he murmured, his tone dropping low.
The layers I wore to resist the cold masked the shiver rolling down my spine, sparking waves of heat. He knew what that lower tone did to me.
“Don’t you dare,” I whispered. I pressed my lips to his, quick, hard, and used every ounce of my willpower to stare him down and mean it. “Not now. Later.”
An arrogant smile slid into place, and he still spoke in that melt-in-my-pants voice. “Until later.”
I took a deep, not very calming breath, and managed to say, “You have no idea.”
I tugged him along to retreat from the outdoors before his temptation forced the Alpha to enforce the responsible boundaries I almost couldn’t.
Decorations in red, green, and gold adorned the walls and pillars of the lofty museum, and brilliant poinsettias wreathed all the fountains. Loads of inebriated people in formal wear crowded the galleries which branched off of the central hallway running through the museum. Instead of elaborate holiday gowns or themed tuxes, Washington DC’s political donors and campaign staff still wore the same old stodgy fashions with an occasional festive tie-clip or pair of earrings.
Thankfully, the elegant and conceited snobs didn’t cross our paths often. The layout encouraged the other attendees to abandon the central hallway, even though there was a constant ebb and flow of foot traffic as people went to the various bar carts or restrooms. The only seating available was in the galleries.
Rather than return to the main party, our small group continued upstairs where we would have more privacy—further from the drinks, further from the people. We found an empty couple of benches in one room, put up our feet, and started to gush over the proposal. I mostly listened, relishing one of the few times I’d shared space with Serena’s loved ones without aggravating them. They were less than impressed with my track record so far as the only Alpha of humans, and it was a blessing that we could all shelve those deserved and pressing criticisms so we could celebrate the lovebirds.
My watch buzzed. I checked the screen, then pulled my phone out of the pocket of my favorite pant suit.
“Hey, Lucky!” Joyous tension pitched Smirkums’ voice higher than usual.
I grinned. “Yeah?”
“Can you bring us some glasses? I remembered the champagne and the roses, but not those.”
“Sure. I’ll be right out.”
Serena’s voice carried through the speaker. “Everyone might as well come down, too.”
“You got it.”
“Thanks! You’re the best.” Smirkums hung up.
I smiled as Jason snorted. “She’s been up my ass for weeks rehearsing every last atomic detail for tonight. I can’t believe she forgot.” The glee in his tone sounded a little too eager to reciprocate all of Smirkums’ nagging, scheming, and pleading.
“Come on, give her a break,” I said. “She’s worked hard.”
Jason grunted. “I’ve worked hard. Do you know how annoying it is to spend all day watching your business get dragged through the mud, and then, as soon as you sit down for one moment, you suddenly have to start editing a four-and-a-half-page proposal speech?” He gave a put-upon sigh. “The labors I do for those ladies, and do I get a thank you?”
“Well, you can ask them for one right now. They said we should join them.”
He frowned and mumbled, “It’d ruin the mood.”
Such a teddy bear.
But my golden teddy bear did have every reason to complain. Despite my sleuth’s joyous occasion that night, the weeks since I’d been found on Assateague Island among ashes and sand after a magical detonation had been awful. The SDA, the Shifter Defense Agency of the US government, turned each day into a miserable slog of interrogations, audits, and everything else they could throw at me to pin the suspected attack on me. As Jason was both my sleuthmate and an SDA contractor, he was being dragged through it, too.
Pushing back those grim realities that would carry over into the new year, I split off from the group and followed my nose to the nearest bar cart. Two other guests waited in front of me. The one directly in front of me turned to say hello, but she froze when her eyes met mine. Her shoulders caved in and the tipsy enthusiasm drained out of her smile before she dropped her head.
“I’m sorry,” she muttered to the floor.
“There is nothing to apologize for. I’m Sialuk.” I held my hand out.
“Helen,” she said. She still stared at the ground. I caught a whiff of something bitter mixing with the sweet alcohol on her breath.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. Then I took my phone out to escape the annoying situation and Helen’s tactless social skills.
There were people like Senator Davis, the party’s hostess, who were eager to associate with shifters like me, and then there were Helens. I neither cared nor wanted to understand why Helen wouldn’t greet me. While I could conclude that I had triggered her stress response, I couldn’t say whether it was because of bias, outright fear, or something else entirely. Sensing hormones was one thing, but interpreting them was delicate, imprecise, and contextual. And besides, with everything weighing down on my shoulders, the Helens of the world were the least of my problems.
In fairness, the bias ran both ways. I’d grown up most of my life defining humans by their historic violence and hypocrisy, until one human proved me otherwise and opened the door to a complex, morally grey world where shifters weren’t just good and humans weren’t just bad. Most shifters never experienced anything that made them reconsider what they knew versus what they believed about humans.
I checked to see if the photographer had uploaded any of the images yet to the cloud. None. I sighed, but kept staring at my phone because I didn’t want to stare at Helen’s back.
The headlines cluttering my notifications sucked, and even though I tried, it was hard not to see my name jumping out at me as I scrolled. There was no silver lining about the American investigation into my activity on Assateague the day Tau, a shark shifter and a fire mage, created a fireball of mass destruction I deflected into the air. Suspiciously, the SDA, the Shifter Defense Agency, found no evidence to corroborate my side of the story, but they also hadn’t been able to pin an actual crime on me. Hence, the endless, rote interrogation routine we’d been dancing for months, to the delight of the press.
My name had been a trending hashtag on social media for six weeks straight. Most barker sites, fan forums devoted to shifter fanatics and fetishes, dedicated new tabs on their homepages for news and content all about me. The deep-fakes infuriated me worse than everything the investigation had put me through, but there was nothing I could do about it besides ask the host sites to remove the content, which so far, all had done.
On top of that fiasco, a crew of hardcore journalists had camped outside the Fortress’ main gate for three days after the SDA announced the scope of their investigation into Avarice’s detonation. At first, Smirkums and Serena had found it humorous, but it got old quickly. The reporters were determined to catch me red-handed doing… something. Anything. Growing anti-shifter sentiment driven by propaganda meant I could sneeze three times and they’d call me cursed.
Anti-shifter seeds of fear of always existed, and had even been encouraged in extreme parts of the internet, but it had been decades since the last media blowout over a single one of us. Fear was the best fuel for outrage-based consumerism, and I was the easiest of targets.
The American public didn’t know what had happened on Assateague Island beyond rumor. Lots of people had seen the fireball, but the pendants, the mages, and the shield had all been kept from the press, which left me as the big mystery. And there’s nothing like mystery for media spin. Four reporters riding fear-driven ratings spikes still covered my every move, even if they didn’t sleep on my doorstep anymore.
No more casual shopping just because I was out. No more running outside the Fortress’ walls. No more outings except to the SDA or the CNA, the shifter Council for North America. It could have been worse, since I wasn’t legally allowed to work anyway, but even comfortable shackles steal from the spirit. I especially struggled in my bear skin, because my bear’s consciousness didn’t care about consequences contrived by stupid human expectations.
I sulked as the line moved forward, and Helen began to order. My sudden relevance to American culture also meant networking invitations, marketing offers, and hopeful influencers flooded every public form of contact connected to my name. I’d received all sorts of requests from joining a televised celebrity dance competition to private golf rounds with countless CEOs and fancy events like the New Year’s Eve party we were attending.
I’d turned all of them down, even the local invitations, because I barely had enough time to sleep between the SDA and managing my sleuth, and I had no desire to make time for those who pounced on the chance to embellish their brand using my name. I’d made the exception for this one event.
Suzan Lee Davis—a Nebraska lawmaker known for insisting on the “Lee,” popular for her economic policies, and controversial for her cooperation with shifters—had invited me. Her reelection campaign was ramping up, so it had been no surprise when she’d asked for my attendance and a photo. I’d accepted only because Erikhó:wa had begged me for the perfect location to propose. The Smithsonian museums were frequent date destinations for my sleuth’s lovebirds. I couldn’t refuse, busy and exhausted or not. I’d done the photo first thing when I arrived to make sure I wouldn’t be interrupted during the proposal.
Helen collected her glass of wine and made the mistake of peeking back at me as she turned to leave. Her eyeballs bulged, her breaths shortened, and she set her shoulders defensively low as cortisol warped her scent like cheap perfume.
I hoped I hid my irritation well enough by the time I finally got to order.
“Can I get two champagne flutes, please?” I asked.
The svelte bartender returned a politely puzzled expression. “Pardon?”
“Champagne flutes. Two, please,” I repeated.
She gave me a hesitant smile. “We shouldn’t… Well, no outside alcohol is permitted at tonight’s gala. Might I give you two glasses of champagne?”
“Oh, it’s not for in here,” I said. “There’s a proposal going on outside, and they forgot the glasses.”
She blinked, and her eyes narrowed. The scripted bartender let suspicion filter into her polite tone. “How wonderful. Congratulations. I still can’t give you the glasses, though. Can I give you two champagnes instead?”
I sighed. “Sure, two champagnes, please. “
“Wonderful. Coming right up.”
Her appreciative smile didn’t mollify me. She gave me two half pours, then leaned forward and dropped her tone.
“So you don’t waste too much.” She mimicked dumping out the glasses.
Why? Why does human society have to be like this?
“Thanks.” I tipped and left with my half-drinks.
The tiny interaction was a microcosm of everything that had frustrated me for the last two months with the SDA. Everything about human bureaucracy was there to keep people from taking advantage, cheating, and stealing, but the everyday cost was needless formality and a waste of time, effort, and tons of paper. And it drove me to murderous daydreams regularly.
I turned the nearest corner leading away from the judgey bartender into one of the galleries off the main floor hallway. The crystal flutes balanced perfectly in my fingers; I threw both drinks back without touching the rim of either glass. I gulped the surprisingly pleasant alcohol down with grudging appreciation. With my empty flutes, I wound my way into the main hallway back toward the exit, but not before a burp caught me by surprise.
The belch rippled across the central hallway, replacing distracted chattering and small talk with pointed staring. Heads turned around in either surprise or disgust. The bartender crossed her arms and scowled at me.
Oh. Sweet. Earth.
Of course, the voice I dreaded most was the only one that spoke to me.
“Are you okay, Sialuk?” Senator Davis’ soprano came from behind me.