Authors: Sara Wolf
Tags: #school, #young adult, #sci-fi, #aliens, #romance, #science fiction, #high school, #adventure, #action
are not real. Or at least, not in the empirical sense. Gutters use the term to describe a mated pair who get along very well.
are myths, essentially. Every good Gutter fairy tale hero has an
in the story.”
“How do you find them?”
“You don’t. They just…come to you.”
I raise an eyebrow. The music gets louder, very classic now. This was one of the songs they were teaching us in dance class. Girls drag boys to the floor, couples littering the marble and moving at the same time, clumsy but earnest whirlwinds of color.
“Like I said, they are mythical. A legend, not something that occurs in real life.
are destined mates. But they’re more than just mates. They’re extra limbs, extensions of each other and at the same time, mirror reflections. Two faces of one coin and all that. Even when they’re far away, they’re always with each other. That is how deep their bond is.”
I cock my head. “Do they fight? Have arguments? Go on breaks?”
Taj laughs. “Of course. But they always end up together again.”
“Do you have an
His flush is dark now. “No. Of course not.
don’t really exist.”
For not thinking
exist, he sure knows a lot about them. I don’t say that, though. I see Raine on the dance floor, her bright purple mask unmistakable. The music is lilting and easy, and Taj is obviously uncomfortable after that conversation.
“Let’s dance,” I say.
“What? N-No, I –”
“Why’d we go through those painful lessons then, huh? We have to put it to some use.”
He sucks in a breath and follows. I put my mask on - the silver wings of the moth-shape glittering in the light. I put his hand on my waist, and we slip in at the edge of the crowd. He’s shaking a little. I am too. The whole room’s eyes are on us, maybe not us specifically, but us as a movement, as dancers. He trips over my shoes and I nearly send us tumbling backwards.
“Don’t think so much.” I straighten. “Just go with the music, listen to its beat and melody.”
His grip relaxes. He leads more naturally, now. A Gutter girl in a white dress by the punchbowl waves at him, and he waves back. Her dark hair is straight and short, cheeks round and face sweet. She talks with some other Gutters, her mask in her hand.
“She’s cute.” I smile.
“Her name is Meytari.” He nods, blushing.
“Have you talked to her?”
“Of course. We’ve…we’ve been together during the ceremony of flame, so we know each other a little.”
The song ends. The DJ puts on something more modern, and the EVEs respond to it explosively, jumping onto the dance floor. The lights dim, strobes pulsing from somewhere. The quartet doesn’t leave, so it’s not the end of the stuffy dancing, but for now, the humans get a turn with the music they really like.
“Punch?” I offer Taj a cup of punch from the Gutter-friendly bowl, and he takes it with a smile. I spot Shadus while I’m drinking - standing in a corner, arms crossed over his chest. His group of friends surrounds him, a girl EVE in a pale yellow dress tugging his arm towards the dance floor. He pushes her off playfully, smiling. It’s almost sweet. My EVE organ gives a little spasm of a dark, burning feeling, but I ignore it. Suddenly, someone pokes me in the sides. I whirl around.
“Dakota! Shit, you scared me.”
She smiles. Her reddish-brown dress is modest, hair in a braid. “Y-You look really pretty, Vic.”
“You too. Seriously, who knew you were hiding those?” I point at her chest. She flushes, and Taj coughs and looks away. “Sorry, my inner creepy old man coming out there.”
Ulsi, who is standing beside her in a very short white-and-gold tube dress and looking absolutely stunning, nods to me.
“Your dress suits you, Victoria.”
“Thanks!” My eyes dart from Taj to Ulsi. “Uh, Ulsi, this is Taj, Taj this is –”
“Ulsi. It’s nice to see you again,” Taj nods. Ulsi’s blush spreads across her delicate shoulders.
“Y-You as well. I hope you are enjoying your night.”
“Very much so,” Taj answers, equally stiffly and awkwardly. “I find human dancing tolerable, yet unexciting.”
“They are very eager and passionate, though. There is something to be said for that.” She points to a guy doing the worm on the dancefloor. Taj smiles, but he hides it quickly.
“I’m going to get some food.” He motions to the table, and walks off.
“Look, Ulsi,” I say. “I’m sorry about coming to the dance with Taj.”
“Why?” She clears her throat, a little louder than normal.
“Uh, you like him? So, I’m sorry? You should be the one who -”
“Who likes Taj?” Raine breathlessly chimes as she skips up to us. Ulsi goes pale, and knits her lips shut. Shit. That’s what she was warning me about. But Raine seems to forget the comment entirely, looking Dakota over and clapping softly in approval.
“Taj looks better in his tux,” Dakota giggles.
“Good clothes do wonders. They can make even the densest barbarian seem elegant,” Raine sighs.
“Raine.” I take a sip of punch. “What’s the ceremony of flame? Taj said something about it.”
“My, that straight forward, is he?”
Ulsi goes red down to her toes and tries to pretend the EVE doing the worm is the most interesting thing in the world right now.
“What is it?” I press.
“I don’t know how I can put this delicately,” Raine muses.
She leans in, we lean in.
“Gutters are encouraged to…mingle. Um. Sex. Procreation en masse.”
Dakota pales. “W-What?”
“You’re kidding me,” I laugh. “
the ceremony of flame?”
“More or less. It encourages healthy interaction with the opposite sex, and instructs adolescent Gutters on appropriate sexual conduct. Most of all, it gives us a chance to…um…
with others, before we are mated for life to the one our parents choose. Sometimes, lucky Gutters with more non-traditional parents are allowed to choose who they will, and they often choose those they’ve developed a bond with at the ceremony over the years.”
I stare at Taj’s back. “And here I was thinking the rulebook-thumping purist had never even gotten to first base.”
“Bu-But,” Dakota stutters. “Pregnancies?”
Raine smiles. “Those are medically suppressed with injections until the female Gutter is mated, and then they have a child together.”
“Does it transcend factions?” Dakota asks. “I m-mean, you guys are allowed to date people from other factions, right?”
“Yes, otherwise the genetic pools would become too singular. The male takes the female’s faction on as his own when they become mated.”
“But if you’re in human bodies - “
“We’ll have human-looking babies,” Ulsi chimes in, voice hoarse. “But I assure you, their genetic code and core physiology will be Gutter.”
Dakota and I take it in, our brows furrowing. The thumping music fades, replaced by the classical quartet again. I itch under my mask and watch the couples twirl with a little more grace than at the beginning of the night. Taj’s veered off to talk to Meytari, their conversation genial. Ulsi glowers. Raine entertains an entire circle of people single-handedly. Greg, Dakota’s dancing partner from class, has struck up a tentative conversation with her.
I nudge Ulsi in the ribs.
“So what.” She grunts.
“You like Taj. Why not ask him to dance?”
“I’ve told you repeatedly. He wouldn’t like me. He is
“But, I mean. You don’t have to get mated. You guys can just do the ceremony of flame together.”
“I’ve already approached him with that intent. He turned me down,” She snaps. The force in her voice almost makes me back up, but she seems to realize how harsh she sounded, and sighs. “I’m sorry. It’s…it’s not a pleasant memory.”
“Hey,” I put my hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. Unrequited love sucks. I know.”
“You do?” She looks up.
“Of course! The only dude I ever liked, I liked him for
. Since kindergarten. I asked him out in eighth grade. Do you know what he said to me?”
Ulsi shakes her head. I lean in.
“He said he didn’t date….
Ulsi makes an offended face. “Gloomy? You are hardly that.”
“I used to be. Still am, pretty much. Anyway, then he said I was anorexic and he didn’t date those types of girls either, and he ollied out of my life. Made fun of me behind my back. The next day, everyone knew I asked him out and was turned down. Worst year of my life.”
,” Ulsi hisses. “If it was me, I would have
“I feel you.”
We’re quiet. Ulsi drinks a vial of emotion, then sighs.
“Taj gave no such reasons. He simply denied. I should be thankful he wasn’t cruel, as yours was.”
“Well, rejection still blows chunks. I don’t know much about Gutter courting, but I hope you somehow work it out. Everybody deserves to be happy, no matter what race they are.”
Ulsi looks at me, then her serious face cracks in a grin.
“You are a very good human, Victoria. Thank you.”
I watch her go. The dancing is formal again, the quartet singing in violins and cellos. It’s a freeform dance, so partners are sort of assigned as we go, according to the footwork. I pull my silver mask on and squeeze in the girl’s line towards the end. The boy’s line faces us. The music changes, signifying the start. One step forward. Two steps to the right. We weave between each other as the lines merge and separate again. I watch the girls on either side of me for cues when to turn, put my hand up, separate with the person opposite me. I look up, and Shadus and I are suddenly partners. His black mask has a long bird nose.
I back off and assume a looser stance. His hand on my back is shaking slightly.
“Nervous?” My smirk is small. “Shouldn’t be. Your dancing’s fine.”
He doesn’t say anything. We turn, my feet careful not to step on his shoes.
“Nice mask,” I try. He inclines his head.
“Thanks. I think it looks dumb, to be honest.”
“Not at all. It suits you.”
I go quiet, my cheeks heating with the compliment. I don’t comment on the way his hand seems to fit nicely over mine - like two pieces of a puzzle. The music ends, the couples dipping the girls toward the floor. Some people fall or slip. Laughter resounds. The fallen get up with sheepish smiles. Shadus tips me back, his strong arm supporting me all the way to the floor.
“Nice work.” I straighten out of his grasp and smile. “Ten points to Slytherin for teamwork.”
“I was slithering, was I?” He cocks his head. I laugh.
“It’s an old book. Nevermind.”
His crimson eyes glance outside, and then he looks back at me.
“I could do for some fresh air. Will you accompany me?”
I do a mock-curtsy. “Why of course, your highness.”
Snow dusts the walkways, the lamps glowing with a friendly warmth as they light our path. Other couples mill around, watching the stars or holding each other, and I try to ignore the fact we’re surrounded by people in love. We just wanted some air. That’s all. Security patrols, too, breaking up couples who are PDAing too hard, or shooing kids who wander too far back to the dance.
“The CIA agents look like they want to murder someone,” Shadus motions to the disgruntled looking agents. I smirk.
“Yeah, well. Babysitting isn’t generally in their job description. It’s more ‘taking down bad guys’ and ‘saving the country’. Looking after horny teenagers is practically a demotion.”
Shadus looks confused. “You have horns and you never told me?”
I sigh. “Nevermind.”
“No, this is important. If you have horns –”
“It means turned on, okay? In the mood? Down to clown? Are none of these understandable?”
Shadus’ mouth makes a little ‘o’. “You mean mate-ready.”
There’s an awkward silence. Shadus chuckles softly, and I feel a blush growing under my neck, but I ignore it. I shiver - I forgot my coat. We stop under a tree. He leans against it, and begins rolling his left sleeve up.
“I wanted to show you something.”
I quirk a brow. He rolls his sleeve past his elbow, and then he grabs his finger with his other hand. And he pulls. His skin comes off, and I almost scream, except I realize there isn’t any blood, or red muscle. The skin-glove hangs limply in his other hand, and the hand it was on is dark blue. With scales.
“Is that –”
“The prosthetic sleeve hides it. Fits it, makes it look normal.”
There are five fingers. They have more joints than mine, and the claws are thick and black and blunt on the ends. His palm is still broad, and warm. Small scars scratch his scales, the universal footprints of life and the injuries it inflicts equally. It’s like a velociraptor’s hand, but so much more humanoid. The skin is a dark blue, with paler stripes of green and a light green blotch at the elbow, where his human stump and Gutter arm is grafted together.
“When my mother threw herself on me,” He starts. “She saved me. But she couldn’t save my arm. Neither could the Illuminators. So they sewed my old one on back on, and gave me a human sleeve to cover it.”
“It’s amazing,” I finally work up the courage to say. “I’ve never…I’ve never seen anything this
. It’s like CG but, but it’s real! Holy shit!”
He studies my face, probably looking for the honesty in me. He finds it, because he smiles, the crescent a little crooked.
“It has its advantages. I am much faster with it, and stronger. Of course, no one knows that. Outside of my father and Jerai, who put the arm back on, no Gutters know I even lost it. It’s how I disabled the cameras – the arm is strong enough to open the faceplates, and fast enough to reconfigure the wiring without any security measures going off.”
“A magician is never supposed to reveal his secrets,” I nudge him. He laughs, but it dies as his gaze turns sad. He stares at the arm, as if remembering how it came to be. Remembering his Mom.