Trade All the Stars
At this exact moment, everything aligned to make daylight in New Coyoacán the brightest it could be. In another twelve minutes, the Ring would face Ceres’ dark side and the ambient light would dim, if only by a few dozen lumens thanks to mirrors and reflective particles far too high up to see. As she looked up at her self-chosen namesake right now, though, Bright Sky had to squint. That was good. It centered her enough to suppress the growling. “What happened to taking all the time I need?”
She wasn’t running the call with video; she wanted the freedom to walk around her mother’s house, even out onto the back porch. She didn’t need it, anyway. The stammer in Kirk’s reply gave her a perfect image of his little fox ears folding back. “You still can, Sky. I know it’s only been a week since Judith’s funeral and you have a lot to do. Have you gotten Gail squared away?”
“I’m supposed to be at the RJC in an hour to get an update.” The Ring Judicial Cooperative had started tracking down Gail’s father last week, even before the funeral. She’d thought by now either he’d be taking the next ship from Earth to the River, or Gail would be packing for the reverse trip. Finally an RJC mediator had left a message this morning, asking her to come to the office in person.
“I didn’t want to sound like I was giving you a hard deadline. It’s just—you’re a third of the team, and frankly, we get less trouble when there’s a two meter tall wolf woman hanging around.”
“Was there another break-in?” She walked back inside the house. Even though the wolf totemic had lived there less than five years, this was the only place that had ever felt like home. For the last six months, though, she’d been on her own, renting a tiny efficiency on Lariat Station. Everyone, even Mom, talked about it as a great step, the freedom of being adult. Had they all forgotten she’d fled Earth and come to the River on her own when she was twelve? She’d been an adult for that year. It hadn’t been much fun.
“No, just petty vandalism. But two cisform people were following Kathryn yesterday. She’s pretty rattled.”
Sky sighed. “That’s what we all signed up for.” They weren’t the only three transform humans on Lariat, but they might well have been the only three full totemics, completely remade as animal-people. They’d moved there to open an office for the River Totemic Equality Association; it wasn’t popular with most locals.
“I guess I just didn’t expect the hostility. I’m used to Panorica, and Lariat isn’t Solera, you know?”
She knew. Panorica was the second biggest settlement on The River, an arcology station with nearly two million residents. While it had a reputation for being statist compared to other platforms, totemics didn’t face the challenges there they did where the Purity movement had a hold. “Look, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“I know, Sky. We just miss you. And you know everyone’s so proud that you’re following your mother’s path, even after this.”
As Kirk talked, platitudes tumbling into a meaningless drone, Sky’s gaze settled on the cloth dolls her mother had set on the mantelpiece. Judith Simmons hadn’t been much for knickknacks, but she’d always treated this set of simple figures as heirlooms: bright Spanish-style dresses, simple faces. They had to be handmade. Were they from her mother? Should Sky hang onto them? No, they should go to Gail. She was Judith’s daughter by blood, the daughter who would inherit the bulk of her estate. Given their simple lifestyle, the size of the inheritance had startled Sky. She knew Mom had come from a well-off family, but hadn’t realized how much so.
Maybe the dolls belonged in a museum. They might have some cultural significance. Built on a ringworld four AUs from Earth, there was little Mexican about New Coyoacán beyond its name, so every scrap of heritage became a point of pride. Judith herself was a point of pride, one of their most famous citizens. Now their most famous martyr.
Kirk had stopped speaking. What had he just said? Something about taking her time, and about how much time did she think that would be—another couple of weeks? “Uh, maybe. After the trust for Gail’s all settled, I’ll need to store or sell the furniture, get the house cleaned up. I need to be going now, though. I want to meet Gail at school and head over to the RJC together.”
“Alright. Just let us know what your schedule is.”
She disconnected the call and took another look around the house, tail drooping. Maybe it all belonged in a museum. Maybe this already was a museum, everything left just so, just as Judith—Mom—had last seen it. The trip to Solera hadn’t even been meant as an overnight. Gail had wanted to go, and Mara’s Blood, Judith had let her. She’d taken her daughter to see the protest, to be there, to see her mother speak, to watch the bomb underneath the stage explode and shatter it into shrapnel.
Sky closed her eyes against the blurring of tears, clenching her hands into fists hard enough to drive her claw tips into the pads, and hurried out of the house. She didn’t have time for tears yet. With any luck, she’d stay busy enough and angry enough that she never would.
The Ring Judicial Cooperative’s building designers hadn’t settled for mere windows: they’d installed transparent walls. When Sky had come here three years ago she’d loved the symbolism, but she’d never been inside for more than a few minutes at a time. Today the transparency made her feel like a zoo animal.
She turned away from the street outside, back to the mediator. “Yes, I’m listening to you. I just—Mara’s Blood. I don’t know what to say.”
He sighed, tilting his head. “I understand. I didn’t mean to push.”
He was what Mom privately called a toy totemic: touches here and there on his body to suggest being a tiger, but no commitment to the species. Pointed ears, feline nose, stripes that might as well be tattoos. How long had he been like this? Was it just a trial run? Did he think he might go back to being cisform?
She leaned forward in her chair, holding her head in her hands, canine fangs bared. “How is he allowed to say no to taking his own daughter? I thought you couldn’t do that under Earth law.”
“I…don’t know Earth law, Ms. Simmons. But just because Mr. Simmons lives on Earth doesn’t put this case under his country’s jurisdiction. We can’t force him to take Gail if he refuses custody, and he’s refused.”
“Judith was Ms. Simmons.”
“In our records—”
“Your records are wrong.” She locked her eyes on his. In the balance between striking young woman and werewolf, most days she aimed for striking young woman. Some days, though, she needed werewolf.
He looked down after a second, furred orange tail lashing. “I’ll make a note.” He scribbled something on his smartpaper. “So, uh, Sky, in the end where Gail goes is her decision, so—”
While he might have been aiming for a sympathetic expression, he landed on patronizing. “I understand that. Is it possible for you to take her yourself?”
“To Lariat?” She couldn’t stop a despairing laugh from bursting out. “I barely have enough space there for me. And the work I’ve started with the RTEA…” She shook her head. “Even if Gail wanted to go I wouldn’t take her. She needs to live with people who aren’t putting themselves in danger.”
“I understand. We can recommend foster agencies to you. We don’t recommend adoption agencies, but the foster agency will, and they should be able to help Gail through the process.”
“It only took my mother and me a few days once she decided to adopt me.”
He nodded. “Your case was—unusual, you know, though. You were already Ms. Simmons’ boarder.”
“If I hadn’t been, I’d have been homeless.” She sighed. “Surely you pay a…a stipend to the foster agency or household, though. She’s a Ring citizen by birth. If Gail was my age, she’d be getting a basic income.” Any adult living in a household that paid land rental on the Ceres Ring received a modest flat monthly payment. Sky had received exactly two of hers before moving to Lariat. Starting soon she’d receive her small inheritance as a monthly stipend. She would much rather have stayed scraping by if it meant keeping her mother.
“Yes. As long as Gail stays somewhere on the Ceres Ring, her foster agency will get compensation. She’s lucky to be a Ring resident. Most other places out here…”
He noticed her hard stare and trailed off, then cleared his throat. “So, I’d recommend Cherubim. They have an excellent record. Now, I’d consider paying a little extra to get Gail into an individual home instead of a group one. If you can’t afford to make up the difference between their fee and the Ring stipend, Cherubim has a good charity network to get grants with a minimal number of attached conditions. Gail doesn’t have to make a decision immediately, but she should before the end of next month, when the grace period for staying in Ms. Simmons’s home expires.”
“You keep saying it’s her decision.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t understand. Isn’t it mine?”
He looked surprised. “You’re her sister, but she’s old enough to understand what’s happening, isn’t she?”
Sky swallowed and nodded. Given her own history, she could hardly say otherwise.
The mediator went on. “On the Ring—anywhere on the River I can think of, even Panorica—that makes her old enough to be responsible for her own decisions. She’s almost thirteen, after all. We don’t have any right to coerce her.”
Sky clamped her jaws shut before any acidic words dripped out. “Yes. Almost thirteen.” She stood up, steel rod straight, leaning forward to make her looming as physical as possible. “I’ll show myself out.”
The mediator’s pointed ears proved real enough to fold back as he looked up, but he managed a professional smile. “If you need any advice, don’t hesitate to ask anyone here at the RJC, Sky. You know we all loved Judith.”
She nodded without responding, and made her way back out to the lobby. You know we all loved Judith. Everyone did, everyone at the Judicial Cooperative, everyone at the Equality Association. Everyone except the hecklers. And the bomber. And the medics who let her bleed to death, with the excuse that their hospital “wasn’t equipped for totemics.”
Gail didn’t look up when her big sister stepped in; she was too engrossed in a holographic board game with a rabbit totemic woman. The rabbit, though, immediately looked over and smiled. “Your sister’s back, Gail.” She wore the blue and white cloisonne pin that marked her as RJC staff, but she couldn’t have been much older than Sky’s eighteen years.
The rat girl looked over at that, whiskers twitching. “We can finish next time.” She’d undone her ponytail, letting her long blond hair form a tangled waterfall interrupted by big rounded ears. It made her look startlingly like her mother.
“Sure.” The rabbit pressed a button on the display card projecting the game; it flickered out of existence, and she slipped the card into her pocket.
Gail shoved her chair back from the table and walked over to Sky. “So is Dad coming here, or am I going there?”
Even though Sky forced a smile, her tail drooped. “Let’s get dinner on the way back home and talk about it.”
Gail’s ears folded down and she nodded, taking Sky’s hand rather than scampering ahead like usual.
The Magnolia Cafe stood on a corner less than a block from the RJC building. Mom had never liked chains, and Magnolia had dozens of locations across The River. Most were completely automated, but some, like this one, blended automation and table service. That was a calculated move to fit the New Coyoacán aesthetic, which had only made Judith more skeptical. Now that Sky was an adult she understood why, but both she and Gail still loved their chicken sandwiches.
As they stood in line for the next available order screen, Gail looked up, waiting. Sky still hadn’t thought of what to say, so she ducked the unspoken question. “How was school?”
“Okay, I guess.” She shrugged. “Everyone looked at me like I wasn’t supposed to be there.”
Sky grimaced. “No one was mean to you, were they?” In a sense, Gail wasn’t supposed to be there; like many students, she’d taken first stage for her required out-of-home schooling. Mom had planned to teach her at home and then send her back to out-of-home for her fifth and last stage, like she’d done with the wolf. But Sky wasn’t equipped to take over teaching duty. She’d taken her friend Terrie’s suggestion of putting Gail back in out-of-home third stage, with the thought that it’d be temporary. Now it might become permanent.
Gail shook her head, but her voice became even more hesitant and subdued. “No.” She changed the subject by leaping to the screen almost before the cisform man in front of them had stepped out of the way. “You want a chicken sandwich, too?”
Sky laughed. “Of course.” She let Gail fill in the order, only adding a quick press of her finger pads to the glass as identification when it came time to pay.
They headed off to a free table, toward the back of the restaurant. When they both sat down, she took a deep breath. “So. About your father.” She’d called him Dad, too, at first, but as the fights between him and Mom had grown worse she’d stopped. Judith would always be Mom, but Dennis had become only Dennis. “The RJC found him, and they told him about everything that’s happened.”
As Gail’s bright eyes fixed on hers, she faltered. “He…your dad sends his love, and he’s really sorry, but he isn’t in a position to have someone live with him now.” God, how much of that last sentence was a lie? Dennis had never been more than friendly with Sky, had never made her feel like his daughter, but she was sure he’d loved Gail. Was he sorry he couldn’t take her, though? If he’d apologized to the RJC mediator, it hadn’t been passed on to Sky.
For a few aching seconds, Gail’s expression remained frozen, fixed like one of the cloth dolls. Then her ears folded down, her gaze growing unfocused. “He doesn’t want me to live with him? Why not?”
“I…” She put her hand on Gail’s. “I don’t know, Rattie. He just told them that he can’t take you.”
“Oh.” Gail looked down at the table, whiskers drooping. “I wanted…I wanted to see the stars overhead, like you do on a planet.”
Forcing her lips into a smile felt like pushing a great weight. “You can see them on Lariat when you visit me there, you know, right? The station’s a huge cylinder. One side is the settlement and the other side is all glass.” It was the same transparent metal the RJC’s outer wall had been made of, not glass, but close enough.
“That’s not the same.”
“No.” She squeezed her sister’s hand. “But it’s beautiful. It’s something I missed from Earth. It’s one of the only things I really missed.” She gave silent thanks she hadn’t already given the rat a pep talk about how cool Earth sunsets were. “And on Earth you can only see the brightest stars. Out here you can see every single one.”
Truthfully, Lariat’s glass roof was nothing like a planet-side sky: the stars moved so fast it felt like living under a planetarium dome, and while it was beautiful, you could get motion sickness from it. Worse, the design left far less usable space relative to the amount of resources required to maintain it. As far as Sky could tell, it only survived through its tourist industry—an industry which, thanks to long-standing demographics, largely shut out totemics. Part of the RTEA’s mission there was to teach cisform merchants that, since becoming a full transform wasn’t cheap, totemics often had a lot of spare income. Ironically, most who worked full-time for the RTEA were more like Sky than Judith: not on the edge of poverty, but hardly with money to burn.
“No, you can see all the stars.” Gail sighed. “I can’t see any.”
The waitress came by, setting down their plates and drinks. Gail sank down lower in her seat rather than taking her sandwich.
“So.” Sky took a deep breath. “We’d talked about foster care already.”
“But that was just if Dad was coming here to pick me up, while I had to wait.”
“It’s the best way to take care of you when I go back to Lariat. You’d end up staying with another family here for a few years, until you were out of school.”
Gail picked up her sandwich, but she didn’t say anything. Sky’s ears folded down. They ate in silence.
By Ring standards, this was a cool fall evening. The seasons were as artificial as the day-night cycle; little more than fifteen degrees separated the lowest low of winter and the highest high of summer. But the weather system felt as natural as Earth’s to her. Scattered clouds had moved in during dinner—it might rain tomorrow.
“Could I go live with Terrie and Jen?” The look of pensive sadness on Gail’s face transformed to hopefulness.
“What?” It took Sky a moment to even process the question. She brushed her hair back and looked down at the rat. Terrie wouldn’t have suggested that, would she? She and her wife had two kids of their own, and she’d never mentioned anything about taking Gail on as a third to Sky.
Gail waved. “Terrie’s been over all the time since…the last week.”
“She didn’t say anything about this, did she?”
“No.” Another shrug, ears sinking down. So much for the hopefulness.
“I don’t think they could, Rattie.” She thrust her hands in her pockets. “They have their hands full with their own kids.”
“I just don’t see why I should go live with someone I don’t know.” She threw her hands up in the air for added drama, then brightened, bouncing ahead of her sister on the sidewalk and turning to walk backward. “Couldn’t I go live with you on Lariat? Then we could both see the stars!”
“Where I’m living is barely big enough for me.”
“We could move somewhere bigger. You’re getting money from the will. We’re both getting money from the will. I’ve got a big inheritance.”
“Your money’s going into a trust, remember? You don’t get it until you’re my age.”
Gail’s brow furrowed and she fell silent again. When they reached the front door, though, she perked up, pointing at the house as if it were a divine revelation. “Why should I go live with someone I don’t know? I can just stay here!”
Sky stopped in her tracks, running a hand through her hair. “By yourself?”
“Mom could barely manage this place. How do you think you’re going to do it as a kid?”
“I can pay people!”
The wolf sighed. “Rattie, you won’t have the money yet.” She started walking forward again. As the security system recognized them, the door unlocked and swung open.
Gail ran inside. “But the will made you my…con…consuh…”
“So you can give me the money, right?”
“No, I can’t, even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. I can only access your money early if there’s an emergency, and you staying here won’t count.”
She groaned, dropping onto the couch. “Because it isn’t an emergency, alright? You need to live with people who can take care of you.”
“Why? When you were my age you were living on your own! And you had a lot of money, didn’t you?”
“I had enough money to get away from Earth, come here and become…me.” She shook her head. “But that was it. If your mom hadn’t taken me in when I showed up at the RTEA’s door, I’d have been in a lot of trouble. And your mom said you don’t get your money for another five years, and that means somebody else is going to take care of you so you’re not in a lot of trouble.”
Gail’s voice rose. “My mom’s not around to care!”
Sky stared at her sister, then narrowed her eyes. “Well, I am, and you’re—”
“No, you’re not.”
“What do you mean I’m not here? I’m sitting right in front of you. I’ve been staying here the whole time!”
“Only after Mom got killed!” She’d moved from a loud voice to an accusing yell.
Sky opened her muzzle, then closed it again, clenching her fists. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’re not staying, so why do you care where I live?” She stomped into her room and slammed the door.
“Gail!” Sky ran after her and tried to open it. Locked, and Mom had never given her the override code. Judith believed both of them needed to have their privacy. “Open this door!”
“Go home!” Gail shrieked.
Sky pounded on the door, shaking it, and snarled. Unfortunately, unlike bureaucrats, inanimate objects didn’t flinch when facing angry young wolf women. “Dammit, Gail!”
No response. She could hear sobbing, though, as pillow-muffled as it was.
Oh, this wasn’t fair of her little sister. Right now, this was her home just as much as Gail’s. She paid for that crummy efficiency week by week. Since the bombing, Kathryn and Kirk had packed her possessions up and stored them in the half-built office for her. When she returned to Lariat, she’d be starting over from zero. The stipend she’d get over the next five years would cover the rent of a nicer studio, though; if she was careful, she wouldn’t even have to draw a salary—
All at once she was crying, too. Damn it all. She retreated to her own room, dropping onto the bed.
Her own room, yet not. Mom had converted it into a secondary office and “guest room.” The bed was still hers, but everything else had changed. In a way, she’d felt more at home on the first night, when they’d rushed back to New Coyoacán from Solera along with injured survivors. That night she’d slept in the rat’s room, both of them holding one another.
The last two nights, she’d slept with a plush wolf toy Judith had bought her when she was thirteen. She’d found it stuffed against the closet’s back shelf. On Lariat she was too old for toys, but here, now, she wasn’t. She hugged Lobo to her chest, closing her eyes.
Was Gail right? Sky had lived on her own at the rat’s age. But she’d had tremendous help. When she’d confided her escape plans to her grandmother, the older woman had given her enough money for both her travel and her transformation. She’d never asked for an explanation; she knew her stepson better than her daughter did. When Sky had arrived, the heroine she’d traveled four AUs to see had refused to be placed on a pedestal by the young new totemic, stepping off to become not just her mother but her best friend.
Setting down Lobo, she forced herself up to her paws, wiping her muzzle with a tissue. “More help” was the whole point of getting Gail into foster care, wasn’t it? Between her father walking out a year and a half ago and her mother’s assassination now, she’d been through more than any child should. And there were plenty of reasons Sky couldn’t just take Gail back to Lariat with her, and God, part of it was that it was just nice to be living all on her own.
When she passed by Gail’s door, she paused. Should she knock again? She didn’t hear any crying now. But no—her sister would come out when she wanted to. Biting her lip, she walked into the living room, started some soft background music, and punched up a coffee from the dispenser unit. This late, it would keep her awake, but she didn’t expect to sleep anyway.
“And, if we go past the recreation center, this is the theater room.” The vixen pointed ahead as if giving Gail and Sky directions, but they all stayed in place while she thumbed the control pad she held. The holographic projection surrounding them shifted position, letting them look into the group home’s theater. “It’s open every day until twenty-one o’clock. Your room will have a personal video system too, Gail, but sometimes the bigger displays are a lot of fun, and we have weekly shows at the theater.”
“And how many children live at this home?” Sky glanced down at Gail, who looked more enthralled by the enveloping hologram. It felt like gliding through the actual home—or at least taking a tour of it before it opened. She couldn’t imagine it had stayed so pristine for more than a day or two.
“Only twelve, and each child has their own private room.”
“This is in Tenango?” Tenango el Aro was a much smaller town than New Coyoacán, nestled in the mountains against the Ring’s north wall about two hundred kilometers spinward.
She nodded. “Yes. It’s a lovely village.” She tapped the control pad again, and the view blurred, changing to one on the home’s front porch, looking out and down on the town below. The view took her breath away. The construction echoed centuries-old Spanish architecture, even for the rail station at the village’s base, and the curvature of the Ring blossomed into a panorama. How high were they? A full kilometer up? Sky started to feel cold. She bet it would be several degrees cooler there, at least.
“You don’t have a group home here in New Coyoacán?”
“Not one with space right now, I’m afraid.” The vixen spread her hands, then addressed Gail. “We can move you into a home back here from Tenango when we have an opening, but from what you and your sister have said, you’d like to move into family foster care when you can, wouldn’t you?”
“Um.” Gail froze, then gave a firm nod. “Yeah. That’s living with a family, right? Just me, not a bunch of other kids.”
The vixen smiled. “Cherubim tries to place foster children with families that already have a child of similar age and gender. So you’d most likely get a new sister.”
Sky forced her ears up straight when she felt them flatten.
“Oh.” Gail nodded again, although in a more subdued way. “So how long would that take?”
“Usually it’s less than two months.” She turned off the projections and motioned for them to follow her back to the reception area.
That made Sky’s ears lift naturally. “That fast?”
“Yes. There’s no guarantee, of course, and the more restrictions you put on the search the longer it takes. But the median is seven weeks.” She motioned for them to sit on one of the sofas under the Cherubim Foster Services logo, a stylized swoop Sky guessed represented an angel wing. She sat down in a chair next to them.
Gail’s whiskers quivered. “Restrictions?”
“Yes.” The vixen spread her hands. “For example, if you only wanted a totemic family, or specific kinds of totemics. Families that apply to foster or adopt children usually have their own preferences, too.”
“Oh. I don’t think I have any. I mean, my family is—was—mixed. My old family.”
“I know. Everyone here knew about your mother.” She smiled and patted the rat’s shoulder. “Your openness should make you easy to place, Gail. There are two families I know of on Panorica looking for girls in your age range.”
Sky frowned. Panorica? Judith wouldn’t have wanted that. And it would cost her more. She didn’t think she would get the Ring stipend there.
Gail seemed doubtful, too. “Panorica?” One of her ears flagged. “I thought you worked with families around here.”
“Cherubim works with families all across The River. If you want to stay here on the Ceres Ring, we’ll see what we can do, but it might leave you in group care substantially longer. There’s fewer openings on the Ring per capita, and clients here are more likely to request specific totemic species. Although the…circumstances you’re in, and who you are, might very well change that.” She spread her hands. “I’ll see what I can do. But don’t be afraid of moving off the Ring. We live in the most vibrant place in the solar system—every platform is its own political experiment. You’re living on Lariat yourself now, aren’t you, Sky?”
“Yes.” She kept her tone level; the lapse into brochure-speak rubbed her fur the wrong way. This was becoming more complicated than she’d wanted, but she should have expected that, shouldn’t she? “But I don’t know if it’s going to be a permanent move.”
The vixen nodded. “You’re setting up the Equality Association office there, yes. My brother’s done some volunteering with the RTEA. What you’re doing is brave work. I’m sure Judith was very proud of you.” Her smile seemed sincere.
“She was.” Brave work: such an odd phrase to use instead of likely to get you killed, a deft flip of admonition into admiration. “So it’s possible for Gail to stay on the Ring, even if it might take her longer to move out of the group home.”
Gail looked up. “Could I go to Earth?”
“If that’s what you’d like, we have agencies we work with in certain countries there, but I’ll be honest. That can take years.”
“Oh.” The rat girl sighed. “Can’t…” She spread her arms. “I want to stay in New Coyoacán, then. If I’m gonna finish school out of home I’d rather do it with people I know. Maybe I’ll move off the Ring when I’m as old as Sky.”
The vixen’s long-lipped smile grew strained. “Even if we can place you with a family back here, it’s unlikely we’d be able to get you into the same school district, and that would increase the time you’d spend in the group home in Tenango.”
“You said I’d get to set my own restrictions.”
“You can, sweetie, and we’ll do our best to match them. But you can only choose from who we have openings with and where they live. Does that make sense?”
“Oh.” Gail’s ears lowered, but she nodded. “Yes.”
“It’s not so different from any other family.” Her smile became more sincere again. “None of us choose our relatives, our parents and brothers and sisters. You’ll have more input than most of us get.”
Sky rubbed her forehead. Was the woman suggesting Gail was lucky to be blessed with such an opportunity? No, that was too cynical a reading. The cold from a few minutes before had deepened, and she couldn’t stand to stay in Cherubim’s office any longer. She had to dash outside, to run through the warm, bright air, to run until her legs gave out—
The vixen had handed Gail a smartpaper signature pad and a pen. “Sign on both of the blue lines.”
As Gail touched the pen to the paper, Sky yanked the pad out of her hand. Both the vixen and the rat stared at her.
“I’m…” She swallowed, heart pounding. “Gail, let’s go for a walk? Before you sign anything.”
The rat looked between the two canines. “Okay. Um, I guess we’ll be back.”
Sky handed the pad back to the vixen, who’d acquired a stiff, forced smile. “Sorry.”
“I understand how emotional this can be. Take all the time you need.”
She took Gail’s hand and rushed back through the lobby, outside and down the sidewalk, only slowing down when Gail yanked her hand away. “You’re dragging me, Sky!”
Her tail drooped. “I’m sorry. I just…I couldn’t…” She shook her head.
“What’s wrong with you?” Gail’s ears had gone flat. “We’re doing what we’ve been talking about! You were right, I can’t just stay in our old house alone. Not when you’re gone, too.”
“But she’s wrong!” Sky stamped her foot, as if she were the pre-teen. “Dammit, I…”
She dropped to a crouch, putting her eye level just below her sister’s, and put her hands on Gail’s shoulders. “None of us get to choose our relatives by birth. But I did choose my family. And they chose me. Our mother chose me. You chose me. I’d never have become your sister if you hadn’t said yes.”
Gail looked uncomfortable. “I wanted you to be my big sister. You’re…you’re cool.”
“Would you choose me again now?”
“Sure.” Gail’s eyes widened. “Wait. Sky, you want to adopt me?”
“I don’t know if they’d call it that. But—Mara’s Blood, they want to send you away from New Coyoacán, maybe away from the Ring.”
“I was going to go to Earth!”
“But that was with Dad. I mean—I’d have hated not seeing you, but you’d be with someone…” Someone who loved her. Right now, if she saw Dennis, she’d slap him with her claws curved in. “But like this…I don’t know if…” She took a deep breath. “Everyone keeps telling me it’s your choice. And I know it is. I just want you to know that if you want, I’ll find some way to make it work.”
“I can’t go with you to Lariat. You said your place is way too small.”
“No. You can’t. I don’t…I love working to help the RTEA, but maybe following Mom’s footsteps isn’t the best thing for me to be doing, Rattie.”
Gail’s voice became softer. “I don’t want them to go after you, too.”
Sky drew the rat into a hug, holding her tightly.
Five people in the new living room made it feel cramped. Not all of the furniture they’d brought from the old house fit well in the small flat; in a few months maybe Sky could sell the sofa and get something a bit sleeker.
Sky, Terrie and her wife Jen all sat on that overstuffed sofa, all finishing glasses of wine. Even though the ocelot and genet were closer to Judith’s age, they’d never made Sky feel any less than adult—something she felt immensely grateful for right now. Gail and Jessica, their cisform daughter, sat on other chairs, each with ginger apple sodas.
Terrie set down her empty glass. “Have you tried the RJC?”
The ocelot looked exasperated. “What were we just talking about?”
“Employment?” She laughed. “As what?”
“A mediator,” Jen said. “You’re as fearless as your mother was, and as level-headed.”
Terrie shook her head. “No, way more level-headed. You know you’ll get good references from everyone in the RTEA.”
Sky snorted. “Except the only one who actually supervised me.” Kirk hadn’t been rude, but he hadn’t tried to hide his displeasure at her not coming back to Lariat. She set down her empty glass, too.
“He’ll get over it.” Terrie collected the glasses, sweeping them off to the recycler unbidden. Sky wondered if she’d develop that reflex herself over the next year or two. “And I imagine between both the Ring stipend and the one from your inheritance, you won’t need to rush out.”
That wasn’t true. She’d run through the numbers and, if she’d been living just on her own and had moved into a one-bedroom place, she’d have enough passive income to survive on. Even though the rent here was much less than taking over Judith’s lease, though, she wouldn’t have enough left over to feed both herself and Gail. And she hadn’t even tried to budget for any other consumables, like clothes or material spools for printing kitchenware. “I’m not going to have much time to sit around.”
Jen stood up, too, motioning to Jessica. “If you need anything, give Terrie or me a call.” She gave Sky a hug, her huge tail enveloping both of them a moment. Terrie hugged, too. Then all three were gone.
When she sat back down on the sofa, Gail joined her. “First night in the new place, Rattie.” She sighed, leaning her head back and looking at the ceiling. “It doesn’t feel much like home, does it?”
“No, it does. It’s all our stuff.” She waved at the coffee table, the rickety dining set, then to the cloth dolls, now perched atop hanging cabinets. “And it’s us.”
She laughed. “I guess so.”
“But you don’t get the stars, though.”
Sky lifted her head and straightened back up, looking down at her sister. “What do you mean?”
“Seeing all the stars on Lariat. You said you really missed that from Earth, and now you’re back to not being able to see them.” Her ears had folded down, and she looked guilty.
“True.” She sighed, and smiled. “But I still think I got a good deal.” She pulled Gail against her side. The rat’s ears came up, and she nestled in, smiling and closing her eyes.
© 2016 Watts Martin · CC BY-NC-SA 4.0