Aphelion Issue 233, Volume 22
October 2018
 
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Ties That Bind

by Kasidy Manisco



I spotted the slaver right away. He stood at the back of the store, hat low over his head, trying to hide the tattoo on the left side of his face. The slaver's illusion magic was good, but with my eye sight, I could see a faint outline of the Hebrew fish hook. Even worse, he couldn't hide the metallic stink that hovered over him like vultures over a dead body.

A quick glance at Cece showed that she was oblivious. She flicked her fingers through the racks of clothes with a bored look on her face. Clearly she didn't like the selection. I squinted at the shirts and discovered the problem: no style and not enough color.

I tapped her on the shoulder and signed when I got her attention.

Cece, why don't we go to the second floor? I kept my eyes on the slaver, trying not to be too obvious about it.

Cece sighed and flicked another hanger to the left. She signed as she spoke, hands flying with ease. "Sure, all right. There's nothing here anyway." She played with the ends of her brown hair, which were dyed blue. Cece only played with her hair when she was nervous, and I wondered if she knew she was being watched.

My eyes drilled holes into the slaver's baseball cap. He had moved closer, not enough to rouse suspicion, but alarms clanged in my head regardless. We needed to move. Now.

Come on, Cece, I told her, dragging her along.

She went without protest, far more passive than usual. My attention zeroed in on her, while still keeping part of my attention on the slaver. If I didn't do my job right, he'd kidnap her and sell her to the highest bidder. Cece would be enslaved, her personality stripped down to the essentials and used for profit and black deeds. I couldn't let that happen. She knew nothing of my world -- her world -- and I needed to keep it that way for a little while longer. I was her protector first, but I was also her friend.

What's got you down? I asked, pushing her ahead of me as we went up the escalator.

Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. I felt too exposed here. At least among the racks of clothes, we could disappear. On the slow moving escalator, anyone could see us. I spotted an orange baseball cap, a weed sticking out among the crowd.

Cece turned around to face me so I could see her signing. "Jake hasn't called me. We went on two dates, and I haven't heard a thing from him for weeks. Do you think he doesn't like me anymore, Rashelle?"

I frowned, annoyed that she was still moping about him. Since when do you care about what boys think? They're all a bunch of idiots anyway.

Cece winced. My "tone" wasn't exactly sympathetic, and if I'd been a better friend, sympathy would have come easy. But my mind was practical and realistic. If a man didn't call you, it was his damn loss. Move on.

"I know." She pulled on her hair again as she stepped off the escalator. "It's stupid. But I really liked him. We seemed to have a lot in common. And we hung out weeks before he ever asked me out. I thought he was a decent person."

I rolled my eyes next to her. My skin stopped itching once my feet left the escalator, but I still felt that bull's-eye on my back. We needed to move this party farther out, away from the slaver. I'd prefer we left, but I couldn't risk raising Cece's suspicions. She wasn't stupid, and if something was bothering me, she would make me her new personal mission. That girl loved ferreting out secrets.

Did you sleep with him?

She winced again, as if this were a bad thing. She made the sign for "no," two fingers coming together with the thumb.

Then there's your answer. Like I said, the guy's an idiot. Drop him from your head. You have other, better things that deserve space up there.

The air stank of metal and I caught a familiar baseball cap not thirty feet away. His head was low, and he stopped, bent over like he was examining something. A row of boxes of kitchen products lined one isle, and he seemed intent on inspecting a blender.

Damn it, the slaver was right on our asses. Luckily, it was too crowded just now to pick up our scents. We needed to blend more, lose ourselves in the crowd. I glanced at Cece, who was about my height -- five feet five inches -- and scanned the racks of clothes, already scheming on just how to change our appearances. Cece's blue-tipped hair would be a problem, but I thought I could fix that.

I caught Cece making the sign for "bathroom", and I nodded and shooed her away once we were close enough. I watched her enter even as I was moving away, finding the nearest hat rack. Plucked a black beanie off a hook and jammed it over my matching hair, sweeping it up into the beanie, tucking the tag discreetly up with my hair. Baseball Slaver was quite a distance away, not even looking my direction. This was the junior's section, and it would look a bit weird for him to be there without a teenager of his own. So he hung out farther back by the purses, which wasn't much better, looking bored.

I disappeared among the racks, found a thin black jacket and tugged it on over my long sleeved t-shirt. Then, pretending I needed to tie my shoes, I knelt down with a sharpie and squiggled some cutesie design on my white sneakers, coloring in certain spots with a purple sharpie. I folded up the cuffs of my jeans so the ends came right to the bottoms of my ankles.

The whole job was done in less than five minutes, my eyes on the slaver the entire time. His back was to me, but I could imagine he was waiting for her scent to return. Among other things, slavers had an acute sense of smell. They relied on smell more than sight, because most of them had really bad eyesight. I'd hoped we could avoid a confrontation, but he knew her scent now despite the huge crowd -- he wouldn't still be here if he hadn't caught it. My only ace was that he hadn't scented me yet (a fey's scent was far more difficult to catch).

With that thought I circled around, hiding behind the racks of clothes, and found a perfume area towards the front of the store. I walked by with my hands in my pockets and filched one of the open blue bottles and stuffed it in my jacket pocket. I didn't even slow down.

It helped that I was essentially unnoticeable, even without magic.

Circling back around the store, I took out the bottle. The perfume was called "Wonderstruck" by Taylor Swift. Hopefully it wouldn't make me or Cece smell like a farm. When I came back to the bathroom from a different path, I held the straps of a large bag on my shoulder. I'd save the perfume for Cece -- slavers couldn't pick up the scent of my kind.

Rather than go to all this trouble, I could have used a glamour -- I was only half fey, but I still had power -- but I lacked finesse. A slaver would be able to spot it a mile away. All they had to do was taste the air. That they could sense from me. So I went mundane on this one, grabbing whatever I saw with a critical eye on my way to the restroom; I ripped the tags off, stuffed everything in my new bag and walked into the bathroom.

Cece was just walking into the lobby in the bathroom when I moved to intercept her, signing, Let's go, and pushing her back near the stalls. A long line of women pretended not to watch us, but I could see some of them lean in towards each other. Whispering.

My friend looked at me suspiciously when I yanked her pink hair tie out and put it around her wrist, adding a few charms to turn it into a bracelet. I told her to fluff her hair out, which she did without question. I'd been known before to be a fast shopper and fashionista. Dressing someone in under two minutes when the mood struck me was something I did often, so she didn't question my sudden wardrobe changes now.

I added a jeans jacket, fingerless pink gloves, and a pair of sunglasses on top of her head. To offset the blue in her hair, I added fake blue strands and strings of beads. She had some lipstick in her purse, which I applied to her lips, as well as pink eye shadow and blush. A touch of eyeliner, add the perfume, and voila. She was a completely different person.

Smiling mischievously, I licked my finger and stuck it on her shoulder, then snatched it away as if her skin burned me. You are hot. If I was into girls, I would so do you.

Cece rolled her eyes, but I finally got a smile out of her. "You are terrible," she said.

####

While we were certainly more noticeable this way, it was near impossible to recognize us. And the slaver would focus on the scent anyway, not sight. Adrenaline surged through me. I hoped the disguises would hold.

We left the bathroom without incident just behind a giggling group of teenage girls (they all wore way too much perfume), and I dragged a much happier Cece through the mall and into the food court, where we could blend better. I didn't spot the slaver, which worried me. Slavers didn't give up that easily.

I couldn't leave the mall until I'd dealt with him, so we stayed, even though every alarm bell in my head screamed at me to take Cece and go.

Cece and I ate lunch and chatted, mostly about her dancing. Cece was a born dancer, her movements graceful and elegant from many years of training. When not on the dance floor, she could be a complete klutz.

She also had magic, and she hid it well even though she wasn't properly trained. Her particular skills would make any slaver salivate. It was frightening that one had found her already. As her protector, it was my job to keep her safe. In this case, keep her hidden, even from her own family.

Cece had been kidnapped as a baby and nearly sold to a very powerful Magus. Something had happened and the sale went awry. A week later a nice couple had adopted Cece instead. Then I'd stumbled upon her while she was in high school and I knew what I had to do. It hadn't been difficult to pretend to be a teenager and admit myself into the school. Cece didn't know about any of it, and for now, it had to remain that way.

"...earth to Rashelle." Cece's moving lips caught my attention and I only saw the last of what she said as she waved a hand in front of my face. Signing, she said, You okay?

Fine, I responded, giving her a wan smile. I had to stay alert, look for that slaver. He wouldn't be far behind.

"Did you want to go?" she asked.

I almost said no. I wanted to draw him out so I could neutralize him, but guilt forced me to forget that idea. Cece was not bait. I wouldn't leave her vulnerable, but I also couldn't keep her with me. The girl had a Bachelor's degree in criminology and a minor in arts and performance, and she was thinking about going back to school once she had enough money. My friend was a brainiac. She knew something was wrong and soon she'd plague me with questions and I couldn't afford that.

No, I signed. I think I forgot something in my car. You head into JC Penny's and I'll meet you there. Divide and conquer.

"Did you want me to go with you?" she asked, concern drawing her eyebrows down.

No, you go ahead.

Cece shrugged and, reluctantly, left. I watched her disappear into the crowd. Apprehension pushed my spine straight and made my eyes focus on everything at once. No sound reached my ears, but my eyesight made up for that lack.

A shock of orange jumped into my sight and my focus intensified on the hat. My eyes narrowed, but I stayed in my seat, wary. If it wasn't him, then no reason to get up. After all, lots of people wore similar baseball caps. But if he was sitting around here, watching, waiting to see what I would do, then this was a trap and I had better not jump the gun and corner a random guy with the same hat. Slavers were smart. He might have figured out my ruse and changed his appearance too.

The game was on.

Orange Hat guy walked past my sight and I chewed on a few cookie crumbs. He was too tall, for one, and the tat was missing from his cheek. This guy wasn't my slaver.

I adjusted my position in the metal chair, keeping my muscles loose. I brought my cup to my lips and drank the watery Coke, surveying everything around me. It was possible the slaver followed Cece back down the walkway, but I didn't think so. He had no way to know if that was her or not, her appearance and scent had been changed just enough.

I was a little more obvious, though, with my signing. You didn't see too many ASL signers around here, which made me stand out all the more. I should have spoken, but I was still too uncomfortable with it. Perhaps that mistake would ruin everything.

Inhale, exhale. I wasn't going to find him with my eyes, not this way, not when I hadn't gotten a good look at his face. I had to assume the tattoo and the hat were out as identifiers. I breathed in deep through my nose. If I was going to find the slaver, it would be through his scent. Even around all these people, the stink of a slaver overwhelmed.

Patience.

I closed my eyes and just breathed.

A bitter metallic scent clogged my nose and mouth and I nearly choked. The scent was suffocating and my gorge rose. Gotcha.

He had gotten rid of his ridiculous hat and now sported sunglasses, replaced his jacket with a hideous sweater. Smart.

But I was smarter.

The slaver's eyes were intent on the crowd. Then suddenly he stood and stomped down the path. Anyone stupid enough to be in his way was mowed over or shoved aside. I bit the inside of my cheek. Crap. I hurried to catch up with him, weaving in and out of random passersby.

Hands in my pockets, I followed discreetly behind him. I saw the bathrooms up ahead to the right and I increased my pace, coming up on his right side. I linked my arm through his and smiled widely. Cece would have been suave, maybe even a little flirty, but then, she was a better actress than I was.

I thought about saying, "Hey, handsome," or something, but I went with the direct approach instead.

"Unless you want to catch everyone's attention, you'd better come with me." I felt the vibrations in my throat and made sure to speak carefully. Revulsion crawled up my throat.

Disgust was written all over his face, but he complied. Even slavers understood the advantage secrecy gave our world.

We passed the lobby, where they kept a few chairs, and reached the men's bathroom. Hardly anyone was around this little pocket of space. Just before we entered, I altered my appearance with a glamour. Nothing fancy, just a subtle shifting of my clothes and hair, face and body. It helped that my body type was already a bit on the boyish side, so I didn't have to change it much in the visual spectrum.

I shoved the slaver inside. Adopting a man's stride, I swaggered into the men's room. It looked very similar to the women's restroom, with light green tile hugging the walls and the light green countertop. The stalls were off to the left instead of the right, shining metal doors either closed or swung carelessly open. The urinals were nearest the sinks. Gross.

Luckily the bathroom was mostly empty. Only four other men were in here; the women's bathroom was usually full in comparison. I didn't like the odds, but I didn't have a choice. This was as good a chance I was going to get. I closed and locked the main door, preventing anyone from interrupting us.

My attention flew to the slaver in front of me. He tossed something at me and I dodged, throwing a kick to his knee. The slaver danced out of the way, all lethal grace and cunning. A punch, then a kick, and then we were moving too fast to count hits and misses. We separated when we realized no one was winning. Took a breath. Circled each other. Sweat dripped into my eyes.

The slaver engaged first, a flurry of punches and kicks. The path was behind me and I flipped backward, giving me more space. One of the guys came out of the stall, a surprised look on his square face. I snapped a kick to his middle and he toppled back into the stall, the door swinging closed. The slaver surprisingly helped in that regard. He flicked his fingers and the stall doors stayed locked, even when the men beat against them. When they tried to squeeze out through the bottom, they hit a wall.

Impressive.

I threw a roundhouse kick and he jumped back but I followed it up with a punch to his kidney and another to his head. He grabbed my arm and whirled me around, slamming me into a stall door. Pain radiated up my back, but I was already moving, dodging a fist and slamming my fist at his nose. I felt the cartilage break underneath my knuckles. Blood flew. My knuckles burned.

We fought without slowing, hardly taking a breath. It was vicious, brutal. Stall doors dented, the tile floor chipped in places. A sink burst and water sprayed everywhere. I could imagine the yells, but I heard nothing. Silence was thick and heavy around me, more so now than ever before.

After several minutes we broke apart, gasping. Sweat dripped down my back. My cuts stung, and different parts of me felt tight and sore. I'd have bruises later.

Lightning fast the slaver took out a whip and let the end fly. It circled around my neck before I could dodge and he yanked it tight. My airway closed and he threatened to knock me off my feet. Magic tingled against my fingers from the whip's rubbery skin, meant to immobilize, but I wasn't fully human, so it only partially worked. My knees sagged and he yanked me forward, dragging me along the ground. I choked and ripped at the whip with my fingers. Who in their right mind would carry a whip?

Something sharp pinched my neck and I gasped. My neck burned -- iron was embedded into the whip. Damn.

My breathing was ragged and I gazed at the slaver's triumphant face. He spoke, but I didn't try to understand his words. Instead, I moved my slowly numbing fingers, wedging a few under the whip's thick coils. I pushed outward, just a little, and I sucked in a breath.

The slaver unsheathed a scimitar, an old weapon, and knelt next to me. His arm flexed and then he drove the sword down. My arm shot up and clasped his forearm. Raw strength kept him from gutting me.

I still had the Taser in my jacket pocket, courtesy of Cece. She'd worried about me, thought I needed extra protection. Precious air leaked out of my mouth as a breathy laugh. If only she knew.

A grunt escaped me. My strength was waning. I angled my fingers into my pocket, clutched the Taser. Yanked it out and touched it against his leg. Pulled the trigger.

The slaver's body seized and he fell onto his side, body jerking uncontrollably. The scimitar sliced my pant leg, drew blood. I scrambled out of the way, tugging the whip off my neck. Soon he stopped moving, his body frozen. I picked up his scimitar and grinned.

I stabbed him in the gut. His mouth opened in a yell. Skin tore and blood gushed as I yanked the sword out and wiped the blood on his clothes. I knelt next to him and waited for him to breathe his last. It didn't take long. I checked his pulse, just to make sure.

Sword safely in its sheath, I tucked it and the whip in his backpack. I searched his pockets, acutely aware of the men forcing their way out of the bathroom stalls. I'd have to look at everything later when I had more privacy. The slaver's items safely stowed in his backpack, I forced my tired, sore body to stand.

I barely caught one man's lips moving as he said, "Dude, call nine one one already." The others just stood there, staring at the destruction we'd caused.

"Please don't. Things will get very messy then." I knew I spoke, my lips moved, but I heard nothing. It felt like my mouth wasn't even attached to the rest of me. Someone else said these words, not me.

Sometime during the fight I'd dropped the glamour, but none of them mentioned how strange it was to see a woman in a men's bathroom. I guessed they had bigger things on their minds.

I stepped forward and caught the eyes of all four men. My eyes glowed softly and magic warmed in my belly. The push wasn't a rarity among half-breeds, but my push had more strength than even most full blooded fey. Power flooded through my system and I swayed, magic drunk. If I was just a little bit high on this power, no one knew it but me.

Power filled my voice and I said, "Nothing strange happened here. You went in to do your business, then you left. Remember nothing else. Now clean yourselves up and leave." This was the only time I could actually hear. The only time I could really hear myself speak. The sounds were so clear and beautiful. It made me crave pushing someone again just to hear my own voice, to hear the sounds around me.

The urge to continue my enchantment lingered, enticing, stroking my sensitive ears. Whispers, light as air, drifted into my ears, promising me I could do so much more, be so much more. If I never let the enchantment go, I could hear forever. The allure was so great, my heart beating so wild at the chance to be able to hear everything, that I almost listened. Greed gobbled down my will until it was a tiny kernel. Crossing that line, snapping it, sounded so good.

Then I thought of Cece, alone. Unprotected.

Ice water wouldn't have been more effective.

I reigned in my power and slowly, painfully, let it die, taking the sounds around me with it. Tears fell down my cheeks as I mourned the loss of my hearing again.

The men blinked. One scratched his head, a dazed look in his eyes. After a few minutes of blinking stupidly and glancing at each other, the men cleaned up at a working sink and shuffled out.

The janitor chose that moment to enter the bathroom with his cleaning cart. He was a short, Hispanic man, dark skinned and wrinkly-faced. His back was slightly hunched over. He spotted the body on the floor and his eyes widened.

My power flooded me again and I ordered, "Stop." A thrill twanged through me, like the sound of someone hitting a violin string.

"Close and lock the door." The janitor did so. "Clean this mess up and dispose of the body. In fact, it's not a body. It's a broken mannequin that you're going to toss. And keep the door locked until you're finished cleaning up. Do you understand me?"

He nodded. It didn't matter what language the other person spoke; the push went past any language barrier.

The elderly man went right to work, cleaning up the mess of a dead body as if it was any other day and he was picking up some lazy customer's trash. The destruction would not go unnoticed, but no one would ever know what had actually happened. They wouldn't know who had been involved.

Again I stuffed my magic back down, where it couldn't bribe me with the impossible.

After I'd cleaned up at one of the working sinks, I glamoured myself and stuffed the agonizing lure down, burying it. Bruises, the cuts, the ruined clothing disappeared, replaced with clean clothes, clear skin. I no longer looked as if I'd just been in a fight to the death. I took a deep, slow breath, willing the hardness to fade from my expression. The watchfulness in my black eyes stayed.

I picked up my bag by the door and left. Knowing I'd catch hell later for taking so long, I hurried down to my car, even though my lungs and throat ached and stashed the slaver's backpack in my trunk. I adjusted my cap on my head as I strode back through the mall, breathing a sigh of relief.

It was over. Until the next one came along.

In JC Penny's I put a hand on Cece's shoulder and she turned. Hey, Cece, sorry it took so long.

She smiled and my world righted itself. This was where I was meant to be. Suspicion tightened the corners of Cece's eyes, but she said nothing about my tardiness. This time. "Did you find what you were looking for?" she asked and signed.

Nah. I looked everywhere but it's gone.

"Too bad." She pulled up a hangar holding a beautiful flowy skirt. "What d'you think? Is it me?"

I gave it the serious consideration it deserved and signed, Of course it is.

My steps slowed as I followed Cece to the dressing room, and a heavy weight settled in my chest. Given the choice, I wouldn't have changed anything. But more would come, sooner rather than later. I'd do whatever I could to protect her. That was what you did for someone you loved.

Cece opened the dressing room wearing the skirt and a nice blouse. What do you think? she asked.

Smiling, I said, It's perfect.

The End


© 2012 Kasidy Manisco

Bio: Kasidy Manisco is currently a college student working on her Masterís degree and is writing a novel for young adults and a few short stories. When she isnít working, doing homework, or writing in her spare time, sheís reading a good book.

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