Kai Tallman Michalski stood at her kitchen sink looking out the window. In daytime she would have seen mesquite, tumbleweed, and the pale grasses of winter stretched across land as flat as her frying pan. But it was after eight o'clock at night in late January, and her apartment complex perched at the very edge of town. Beyond the reach of the parking area's lights, across the wide road that ran along the back of the complex, darkness waited.
Lightning stitched from one black-hung pocket of sky to the next. Eight seconds later, thunder rambled like a giant's empty belly.
Her own belly tightened.
"Where's your plastic wrap?"
She twitched all over like a nervous horse.
"Chill," Jackie said. "It's just me."
Kai turned away from the window to see her friend standing in a tiny kitchen aglow with color. Ghostly patterns swam through the air, some soft as a soap bubble, some so vibrant they seemed almost solid.
She clenched her fist, digging her fingernails into her palm. Pain was a quick way to focus – handy, too, since it was always available. The colors faded to a transparent overlay, barely visible. "Sorry. I phased out watching the storm rolling in on us. Listen, y'all don't have to clean up."
Jackie rolled her eyes. The transparent sea around her was olive shaded with royal blue. Small, discrete shapes swam in her colors like agitated minnows. "Plastic wrap," she repeated. She jiggled the platter she held, still half-full of broccoli, carrots, and bell pepper.
As usual, the vegetables had gone largely unappreciated. Kai always put them out – she liked them, even if no one else did. "In the bottom drawer by the stove. But there isn't much mess, and the storm – "
"Now, Kai." A chunky blonde zipped through the arch between the kitchen and the living area, her hands full of glasses. The colors swimming around her were as quick and lively as her hands as she plunked glasses in the dishwasher. Ginger was twenty years older than Kai and Jackie, but she didn't move like it. "That storm will bother you a lot more than it does us. You need to learn to accept help gracefully, like Jackie does."
Kai's smile stretched across her face, slow and amused. "Jackie does almost everything gracefully. Then she opens her mouth."
"Hey." Jackie's eyebrows lifted above eyes almost the same warm mocha as her skin. "You think I can't chew on my foot gracefully?"
Ginger patted the taller woman on the arm. "We love you anyway, sweetie. So," she said, ripping off a paper towel and turning on the water to dampen it. "Y'all are going to the rally tomorrow, right?"
"Count me out." Jackie's colors looked upset, the shapes breaking up and re-forming. "If what Kai said about those two people who were killed is true – "
"It is," Kai said quietly, opening the refrigerator to put away three unopened Cokes and two cans of Dr. Pepper. "You won't read about it in the paper, but they were both Gifted."
"So we're supposed to band together and march in public, demanding our rights?" Jackie snorted. "Might as well hang a sign around my neck: Gifted here. Come get me. Even if the psycho who whacked those two people doesn't come after me, other nulls might. Like my boss. Or the idiots in Reverend Barclay's congregation. Bet they'd be thrilled to know exactly who to hate."
"We've got to do something." Ginger was uncharacteristically serious. "We can't let them march us off a cliff without speaking up."
"Not everyone has your nerve," Kai said. "But I suppose I'll go. If you..." Her voice trailed off.
Jackie's colors were too jumpy, too dark. She was a deeply reluctant medium who did her best not to contact the dead, but sometimes they pushed their way in. "Hey." She put a hand on Jackie's shoulder. "What's wrong? Is one of the dearly departed giving you a hard time?"
"No. It's nothing. Here." Jackie thrust the wrapped veggies at her.
Deliberate lies were snot green. Something was wrong, but Jackie didn't want to talk about it, so she lied.
Kai didn't call her on it. She accepted the platter and found room for it in the refrigerator. People lied in so many ways, for so many reasons. Most lies weren't malicious. People dodged the truth to spare someone's feelings, to avoid long explanations, to get what they wanted, to fit in, to avoid the consequences of their actions.
Kai knew that good people lied, sometimes for good reasons. She just wished they'd stop. Which, of course, made her quite the hypocrite. She might only lie about one thing, but it was a whopper.
"So how's Nathan?" Ginger asked, whisking herself back into the living room, paper towel in hand.
The question wasn't the non sequitur it seemed. Kai had told everyone who showed up tonight about the two victims being Gifted; she wanted her friends to be wary. She hadn't told them how she knew, but they would assume the information came from Nathan.
As, of course, it had.
"More to the point," Jackie added, "where's Nathan? How come he didn't show? He always comes to your parties."
Ginger laughed. "Comes? He's usually here anyway."
"He had to work tonight." Kai looked around. The kitchen was spotless, so she headed for the living area. "Besides, this wasn't my usual sort of get-together. Ginger, there isn't a thing left to clean in here."
"I guess you'd know his schedule." Ginger tossed her a grin as she wiped down the coffee table, a garage-sale find Kai had painted turquoise and coral and black. "Though I can't believe y'all are still paying for two apartments when you spend most of your time in just one."
Jackie's dark, angular face broke out in a smile. "So you and Nathan aren't just friends! I didn't see how you could be. I mean, the guy is seriously hot in a tall, dark, and uncommunicative sort of way, and you're hetero, right? And the two of you look good together, like bookends. You're both so buff and bony."
Ginger hooted. "Jackie's mouth strikes again!"
Jackie grimaced. "I didn't mean – "
"No, of course you didn't." Kai smiled. "But Nathan and I aren't lovers. We spend a lot of time together because we're friends, and because he's teaching me self-defense. He – "
"And you're teaching him computers," Ginger broke in. "And you run together. And eat dinner together half the time."
Kai looked at Jackie. "Ginger likes to think she's matchmaking with these little comments she makes. It's annoying, but I haven't been able to hint her into stopping."
"Hint!" Ginger laughed. "If I ever learn how to say things as bluntly as you do without people wanting to slap me – "
"It's that Buddha smile," Jackie said. "She smiles like that and you can't get mad."
"I think I'm blushing," Kai said.
"Really?" Ginger made a point of pressing her hand to Kai's cheek. "Nope. Not a hint of heat."
Kai looped an arm around Ginger's shoulders and hugged her. "Okay, not blushing, but I feel like I should be. Now, that gully washer is nearly here, so you two need to be on your way. I don't want to worry about you getting home safely."
Ginger returned the hug. "We'll be fine. But you'll do better if we aren't around when it hits, won't you?"
"What?" Jackie frowned, looking from one of them to the other. "I'm missing something here."
"You know Kai's Gift has a hitch in its gallop?"
"Well, yeah, but erratic empathy isn't such a bad deal. Who wants to feel everything everyone else feels all the time?"
"So true. Problem is, it goes wonky when there's a storm. Sometimes she gets nothing. Sometimes every feeling for a mile around washes right in on her."
Jackie looked appalled.
"Not to worry." Kai patted Jackie's arm reassuringly. "Someone gave me a recipe for a tea that helps. It's got a little magical boost that helps me shut things down. But I'll sleep after drinking it, and I can't do that until – "
"Until your guests are gone," Jackie finished for her. "Got it." She retrieved her coat from the couch and handed Ginger her jacket. "Come on, Ginger. I can't leave until you do, remember? I rode here with you."
Ginger just grinned. "Would that friend who gave you the tea be Nathan, by any chance?"
"If I'd wanted you to know who it was, I would have used his or her name. Go home, Ginger."
"Because I've wondered if Nathan was Wiccan. That's not a big deal in some parts of the country, but here in the Bible Belt it can be. Especially now. With Nathan being a deputy, it could mean trouble if he were known to be a witch. So I thought that might be his big secret. He'd have to be a solo practitioner, since he's not part of my coven, but – "
"Home." Kai grabbed Ginger's purse from the couch and held it out.
A few minutes later, Kai shut the door behind her friends. She breathed a sigh of relief. She loved Ginger dearly, but her friend's inquisitiveness could be a trial, and Nathan's secrets weren't hers to disclose.
Not that she knew many of his secrets, but she knew the biggie. Part of it, anyway. Nathan wasn't Wiccan or Gifted because those were human labels. And Nathan wasn't human.
Kai wandered around her small apartment, fluffing a pillow, straightening a stack of books, too twitchy to settle. It was barely nine o'clock. She didn't want to sleep, dammit, but with that storm... maybe she should listen to the weather forecast. She clicked on the radio.
"The president announced the expansion of the task force initially formed to study the effects of the power winds that shifted the balance of magic five weeks ago. Speaking to a crowded town-hall type meeting in Boston, she said..."
Kai snorted. She doubted a task force was going to help. They couldn't remake the world back into its old shape – though a few dozen more dragons to soak up excess magic leaking from nodes all over the world would help. Maybe they'd find a way to conjure or contact some.
Here in Midland, the Turning hadn't caused as many problems as elsewhere. With only one small node in the city, the ambient magic level hadn't risen enough to interfere badly with computers. They hadn't been troubled with things blown in by the power winds, either, like the goblins that hit a little town near Austin, or the hell-rain in Houston.
That had blazed for days in spite of the efforts of firefighters from all over the nation. It might be burning still if the FBI's Magical Crimes Division hadn't sent three covens to extinguish it.
Of course, the hates-magic crowd thought the covens had started the fire in the first place. Never mind that experts said the Turning was caused by a shift in the realms – they blamed witches.
Now that most of the big, showy problems caused by the Turning had been dealt with, people were noticing another change. The population of Gifted had pretty much doubled. Turned out that a lot of people possessed a potential for magic, but so slight it had gone unnoticed until the power winds blew through in December. Existing Gifts had been strengthened. Nascent Gifts had bloomed into the real thing – delighting some, traumatizing some, and feeding the antimagic hysteria that spread like a fungus in others.
People always wanted someone to blame, didn't they? Fear tied knots in reason and shut down compassion, even in basically decent people.
Not everyone was basically decent. Politicians pandering to fear and prejudice had introduced a bill in the Texas House to require all Gifted to register their Gift. They wanted it put on driver's licenses and employment applications, loans, and several types of professional licenses. It made Kai think of the way the Nazis made Jews wear Stars of David on their clothing.
She bent to pick up a crumpled napkin Ginger had missed in her frenzy of cleaning. The truth was, she was afraid, too – not of magic, but of people. Which wasn't like her.
Kai gave a lot of parties, though she wasn't an extrovert in the usual sense. She just liked people. She especially liked bringing together those who'd never ordinarily have a chance to get acquainted, and her job took her into homes all over the city, so she knew people from all walks of life.
She threw good parties, too. Like a chef, she took a little of this, a little of that, and stirred up a delicious gathering. But tonight's party hadn't been her usual get-together. Tonight she'd asked her Gifted friends and a few concerned spouses or partners over to talk about the prejudice that had blown into Texas along with the power winds... and to pass on Nathan's warning.
Two people had been killed in the past month, their bodies drained of blood. Reverend Barclay and his ilk blamed some demonic cult, but Nathan said both victims had been Gifted.
"In other news," the NPR announcer was saying, "Republican House Leader Brent Trott renewed his opposition to the Dragon Accords, referring to them as 'deals with the devil.' The Accords, sometimes referred to as Dragon Treaties, were passed last week by strong majorities in both the House and the Senate, and the president is expected to sign them into law tomorrow. In China..."
Kai turned the radio off. She didn't need a weather report to know the storm was close. She'd better get her tea brewing.
In the kitchen she got down her teapot, filled it with water purified by more than reverse osmosis, and set it on the burner. Her stomach churned with guilt.
What she'd said outright was true: the tea helped protect her from the effects of the storm. The rest had been half-truth, misdirection, and lies.
The tea hadn't come from Nathan, as she'd allowed Ginger to assume, but from a shaman of her mother's tribe. That misdirection was for Nathan's sake. It was best if even tolerant people like Ginger continued to think him human. Nor did the brew knock her out. It enhanced her focus so she could put herself in sleep – a trance state that shut down her Gift along with her conscious mind. That half-truth had been for her own sake, to spare herself explanations she couldn't afford because of her one big lie.
Kai wasn't an empath.
While she waited for the water to boil, she wandered over to the sliding glass doors that opened onto a tiny balcony. Impulsively she yanked open the blinds, but the lighting tricked her out of a view. Instead she saw her own face, ghostly in its reflected state, looking back.
The face she saw was... bony, she thought, and chuckled. Trust Jackie! It was as good a description as any. Better than plain, which is what she usually thought when she looked in the mirror. Her features didn't rise to the extravagance of real ugliness, but they didn't add up to anything as smooth as prettiness, either. That sharp blade of a nose would have done any Dine warrior proud.
Like her grandfather. She smiled and her ghost smiled back. That beak looked great on that fierce old man. She did have good skin, and she thought her neck was rather elegant. Her hair was okay. It was thick, at least, though straight as poured water, and the color hit a bland halfway point between her mother's shiny black and her father's dusty blond.
The woman in the glass lost her smile. The root-ripping torrent of grief had long since subsided, and memory ran smoothly in its beds, a quietly welcoming stream. Yet she'd never stopped missing them. She'd give almost anything to hear her father's belly laugh one more time, or be back in her mother's kitchen making fry bread.
Her mother had been a pretty, feminine woman. Maybe if she'd taken after her mother more, Nathan would...
Oh, stop. She yanked the blinds closed. There were plenty of pretty women in Midland. She'd never known him to bring one of them home. Nor any pretty boys, for that matter. For awhile she'd wondered if his moral code precluded sex outside of marriage, or if he'd taken some kind of vow. A couple months ago she'd been nervy enough to ask.
He'd looked startled, then said, simply, "No."
Nothing more, just that one word. With anyone else, it would have been a rebuke for having pried. With Nathan, it was a mark of trust that he'd answered at all.
She could only suppose that human women didn't ring his chimes. Pity he rang hers so well.
The whistling of the teapot drew her back to the kitchen. She took down the glass jar where she kept the herbal mixture, filled a mesh tea ball, and placed it in a glass mug. The herbs had an odd, not unpleasant aroma dominated by the anise scent of giant hyssop. As soon as she'd poured the hot water she covered the mug with her left hand and began chanting. Heat and moisture dampened her palm as she repeated the chant three times, then thanked the Powers. She covered the mug with a glass saucer and left the tea to finish steeping.
In the bathroom she pulled on her faded flannel pj's, put her clothes in the hamper, washed her face, and brushed her teeth. Her contacts went into their case and the world turned blurry, but she didn't bother with glasses. She retrieved the mug and brought it into her bedroom, where aqua walls and white wicker unknotted some of her tension.
Color mattered. Kai knew that better than most. She could see the way people responded to the colors around them. She'd painted this apartment as soon as she moved in last year – aqua in the bedroom, a warm tan in the living area, sandy tan in the kitchen, with a turquoise stripe wrapping the two areas to unite them.
She tugged down the covers and turned off the bedside lamp, leaving the one on in the kitchen. Childish, foolish... she promised herself again to stop with the name-calling, but it did embarrass her. Eleven years after the accident, and she still didn't like the dark.
She cozied into her nest of pillows and drank the tea in three big swallows. And shuddered.
The stuff tasted nastier than it smelled, but it worked fast. Even as she snuggled down flat, warmth opened in her middle like a blossom and began sending out tendrils.
She lay in the darkness breathing quietly, listening to the wind as it kicked up a fuss outside. Warmth continued to spread, reaching places that made her think of Nathan and wishes... a wish that hovered in the air, its wistful lavender woven threaded with silver and red. A nice carnal shade of red.
A sensible woman would be glad their relationship hadn't gone in the direction she'd wanted. He was leaving, wasn't he? He'd told her that three months ago. People he worked with were beginning to be suspicious about him. He couldn't stay in Midland much longer.
Surely it would hurt worse when he left if they'd become lovers. As it was, loss already ached inside her like a tooth going bad.
Maybe he wouldn't leave if...
Yes, he would. Dammit, she knew that.
Rain tapped its first, uncertain fingertips on the window. Time to finish putting herself out... not for her own sake, but for everyone else's. Her Gift might not be empathy, as she claimed, but it was skewed.
Which was just as well, since that was probably why she wasn't crazy. Telepaths usually were.
Kai didn't read minds. She saw thoughts and the emotions connected to those thoughts, and sometimes she changed minds. Literally. If she stayed awake for tonight's storm, there was a good chance that some of her thoughts would split off to tangle themselves up in other people's heads.
This wasn't unusual. The biggest null on the planet left a residue of thoughts and feelings behind, but such a faded wash that only a strong psychometry Gift could read anything from it. Strong emotions caused many people to project, and a few others were natural projectors.
But normal thought-bodies evaporated soon after separating from their origin. Kai's didn't. Her stray thoughts might cause her neighbors no more than a brief confusion or bad dream, but it could be worse. Much worse. And with the way her Gift had strengthened since the Turning, she couldn't take any chances.
Kai no longer needed to speak the entire spell aloud. Long practice plus the focusing property of the tea allowed her to carry only a single word deep inside, where she released it. In a dizzy, immaterial shift she slid into white fog, a place diffuse and warm where thought slowed... and slowed... and faded away.