It was really only when they were no longer on the run from Whispers and BPO, and as safe as they were going to get, that Amanita realized, shit, I’m sharing my girlfriend with seven other people . Or my girlfriend is also seven other people? Am I in a relationship with eight people? She paused in her book shelving and frowned as she considered the best way to conceptualize the whole sensate, part of a cluster thing. A patron looking for the latest YA hit about “mermaids or vampires, or maybe it was mermaid vampires?” interrupted her musing, and from there the rest of her day was taken up with the daily trials of working retail.
Going back to working in a bookstore was something of a comedown from taking on an evil global conspiracy, but Amanita had to admit she was grateful for it now. She’d had more than enough excitement for the year, and she knew how lucky she and Nomi were to be able to return to some semblance of their pre-Whispers life. They’d been living in one of those schlocky airport conspiracy thrillers, or no—a superhero comic. Her girlfriend had goddamn superpowers, and they’d gone up against a full-on evil supervillain. Amanita couldn’t help but grin to herself as she imagined the whole crazy situation as a comic book. Daydreaming up superhero outfits for the cluster got her through setting up the new bestsellers display, and then she spent her MUNI ride home coming up with increasingly outlandish possible superhero names that she was definitely going to regale Nomi, and by extension the rest of the cluster, with as soon as she got home. The comic book analogy only went so far though. The thing was, superpowers didn’t disappear when you were finished fighting a supervillain.
Amanita got used to Nomi having conversations with seemingly thin air pretty quickly. It was basically like watching her have a phone conversation after all, and once Nomi and the rest of the cluster took to keeping a bluetooth earpiece or earbuds in, anyone who saw them assumed they were just on the phone.
“Good thing we live in the 21st century, any other time and we’d have been sent to an asylum or burned at the stake for being witches or something,” Nomi had remarked wryly.
Still, it was weird to walk in on Nomi having a conversation with thin air, a sight Amanita came home to more often than not nowadays. Tonight, it looked like Lito had stopped by for a visit.
“Oh my god, no way. That’s—that’s so inaccurate, oh my god. I know it’s a telenovela, but you’d think they could do some research!”
Amanita hung up her coat and bag, and swung by the kitchen table to give Nomi a hello kiss. “Hi babe, hey Lito.”
“Lito says hi. Oh, I made dinner earlier! I left a plate for you in the fridge.”
“You are the best girlfriend,” said Amanita, detouring to the fridge instead of their bedroom as Nomi continued to chat with Lito about whatever tech thing was horribly inaccurate in his latest project.
“Maybe you can pass off all your hacker knowledge as just being a really method actor or something,” said Nomi, clearly in response to whatever Lito had just said.
Amanita sometimes got a kick out of trying to reconstruct Nomi’s conversations with other members of the cluster with only one half of the conversation to go on, but more often than not, she wished for the sensate equivalent of putting the phone on speaker. Well, Nomi would tell her whatever was important or interesting enough. And Amanita at least never felt like Nomi was actively shutting her out of these conversations. She’d see what bits of their conversation she could put together while she ate dinner.
When she spotted the plate waiting for her in the fridge, Amanita was startled into one of the sweet and thrilling living-with-a-sensate moments she was slowly getting used to. It was a delicious looking curry with naan and some other Indian food she couldn’t readily identify, but that looked amazing. Undoubtedly Kala’s work, or at least Kala’s skill filtered through Nomi.
Nomi laughed at whatever Lito must have just said, while Amanita stuck the plate in the microwave.
“You can tap me in if you really want to impress the writer, I guess. Say hi to Hernando and Dani for me!”
With Lito’s visit apparently over, Nomi joined Amanita in the kitchen and gave her a more thorough hello kiss. They only pulled apart when the microwave beeped. The rich scent of spices filled the kitchen as soon as she opened the microwave door; she could smell it a little on Nomi’s skin too.
“Are you getting cooking lessons from Kala?”
“Not sure if it counts as a lesson. I was just thinking, ‘I should get started on dinner; Amanita’s always starving after closing,’ when Kala visited. Said she knew just the thing for a long day at work.”
Amanita took a bite of the food, too impatient to wait for it to cool down. The complex spicy flavors bloomed in her mouth, and the warmth that filled her wasn’t all from the food. Her eyes fluttered closed and she let out an involuntary little noise of appreciation.
Nomi smiled at her, pleased and delighted. “Good?”
“Oh my god, so good. Tell Kala I said thank you!” said Amanita, and then she was too busy eating to keep talking. Amanita may not have been sensate, but as she ate the food, she couldn’t help but feel like Kala was with her. She imagined Kala and Nomi, or maybe Kala-in-Nomi, cooking the food together, just because they knew Amanita would be hungry when she got home. The warmth of the small kindness lingered for far longer than the pleasure of the food itself.
Similar small kindnesses popped up more and more in Amanita’s life as the cluster settled into the equilibrium of a BPO-free life. Amanita had gotten so used to the other members of the cluster only popping in for fighting-supervillains reasons that, perversely, the handful of tiny, sweet gestures from the rest of the cluster were more thrilling.
She’d open the music app on her phone, and find there was a new playlist on it titled “From Riley! Xoxo,” and it would be full of stuff she’d never heard before but liked instantly. Or she’d get photos from Nairobi texted to her, snapshots of funny little moments like a small child facing off solemnly against a chicken, or more often moments of bright, unexpected beauty like the rush of sunlit green leaves whipping past Capheus’s bus, or the grace in a woman’s arms as she hung up her laundry; bits of Capheus’s life that Nomi must have felt fully, and which Capheus and Nomi shared with Amanita the best way they knew how.
Lito’s gestures were more extravagant: on her birthday, he’d sent her flowers at the bookstore, a gorgeous riot of orchids with a card signed by Lito, Hernando, and Dani. Nomi had grinned and shaken her head fondly when Amanita brought it home.
“Lito is so much smoother than I am,” she had said. Her own birthday surprise for Amanita had been cupcakes and tickets to a Neko Case concert, which wasn’t exactly slacking in the good girlfriend department. But the orchids were really nice.
When Amanita had complained to Nomi about not knowing how to get the cops to take her seriously about the asshole pickup artist serially creeping on women in her bookstore, Will had sent her an email the next day with tips, and Sun had shared with Nomi to demonstrate the best way to dickpunch a man.
Wolfgang was the most standoffish of the cluster, mostly keeping to himself, but even he made his presence known in ways that made Amanita smile. His fondness for karaoke disseminated any number of earworms through the cluster, and the impromptu singalongs were fun no matter how terrible the song.
“It’s okay, right?” Nomi asked her one night as they were getting ready for bed. Amanita had just told her about how Will’s advice had ended up working out, no dickpunching of the creeper required.
“Yeah, the cops finally had a word with the guy, and—”
“No, I meant—the cluster. Them being in touch with you, I guess. You don’t think anyone’s crossing any lines, do you?”
The cluster was still working on that, on testing out the lines and borders between them, when and how it was and wasn’t okay to visit or share now that they weren’t living in a state of emergency. The accidental psychic orgy conversation had been…illuminating. And awkward. But necessary, if all of the cluster and their non-sensate loved ones were going to have a shot at keeping their relationships healthy.
So Amanita gave the question the consideration it deserved before saying, “It’s okay. The others, they’re a part of you now.” Amanita paused. That was what it came down to: seven more people in her girlfriend’s head. It was a lot to get used to. “It’s kind of like they’re family, you know? Only not like how most of your biological family is total garbage. I like the cluster better.”
Nomi smiled wryly, and they both got into bed. “Yeah, me too. Just…tell me, tell us, if anything bugs you? This is kind of a first for all of us after all.”
“No, I think if I have a problem, I’ll just write the most confusing letter to an advice columnist ever.”
“Oh my god, what would that even be like? How would you even—?” Nomi and Amanita dissolved into a fit of giggles as they both imagined it.
When she recovered a little, Amanita mused, “I think diagrams would need to be involved. And we’d just come across as the most over-complicated, globe-spanning poly relationship ever. Dan Savage would have a field day.”
“Will wants you to know he just burst out laughing, by the way,” said Nomi, snuggling down under the covers.
“Oh no, we didn’t wake him up, did we?” Amanita always forgot about the vast expanse of timezones the cluster was spread over.
“No, he’s on patrol tonight with Diego.”
Amanita slung an arm over Nomi’s hip, wondering if Will could feel it too. “Well, stay safe Will, we’ll stop distracting you now.”
Amanita hated being stuck in airports. Well, who liked being stuck in airports really, but Amanita really, really hated it. TSA agents always side-eyed her and made gross comments, and no profiling her ass, because she always got pulled aside for an up close and personal check. This time around, she got a bonus dick comment about whether she was hiding anything in her dreds. Plus, when she was stranded thanks to delays or cancellations, no matter how polite she was, airline clerks always gave her the brushoff when she tried to get a different flight that got her home in a reasonable amount of time.
This time, she was stuck at O’Hare thanks to her connecting flight back to SFO being delayed by weather, and according to the stone-faced airline clerk, she was looking at least another 20 hours before she could get a flight out. She was probably going to be spending the night sleeping on the airport floor. Amanita didn’t regret going to New York for her old college roommate’s wedding, even if Nomi had had to say behind to make a deadline for her latest contract job, but she was definitely reminded right now of why she didn’t like airports or flying. She pulled out her phone to call Nomi and let her know she’d be back later than expected. Maybe Nomi could work some internet magic and get her a flight out of O’Hare.
“Hey Neets! Shouldn’t you be on your connecting flight right now?”
“Hey babe. I wish. Looks like I’m gonna be stuck at O’Hare for a while, my connecting flight is delayed thanks to weather. Earliest flight they can give me is late tomorrow.”
“Ugh, seriously? Let me see if I can find you a better flight...” Amanita heard the faint sound of Nomi tapping away at her keyboard for a minute. “Yeah, no joy. It’s too windy for flights to get off the ground, sorry.”
Amanita sighed. “Yeah, I figured as much. Thanks for trying. I’m just gonna stake out some space on the terminal floor and wait it out. It’s not even worth getting a hotel room.”
“No way, you’re in Chicago! Will can—hold on a sec—Will, can you—?”
Well, Amanita guessed this had just turned into a conference call. She knew Will was in Chicago, but it wasn’t like he could get her a flight. Still, she’d take what help she could get. She hoped Nomi wasn’t interrupting Will while he was out on patrol though. Her airport woes weren’t worth Will driving his cruiser off the road or getting shot.
After a couple minutes of one-sided (to Amanita) back and forth with Will, Nomi said, “Okay, so Will’s helping his dad with something right now, but Diego can come pick you up from the airport and you can spend the night at Will’s place.”
“Oh no, I don’t want to impose—”
“Diego offered! And seriously, sleeping on Will’s couch has got to be better than the airport floor. Will says he can take you back tomorrow for your flight.”
Will’s couch did sound way better than the terminal floor. Plus, she’d finally get to meet him in person. Amanita knew what everyone in the cluster looked like, and had talked to them all through Nomi or in some cases on the phone, but she had never really met any of them. “Will’s okay with it? You’re sure?”
“He’s definitely okay with it.” Nomi paused, then offered tentatively, “Family, right?”
Amanita smiled. “Right. Okay.”
So that was how Amanita ended up getting a ride from Diego Morales, who she had never met before, to stay with Will Gorski, who she had also never officially met before. Not in his own body, at any rate. She’d spoken with both of them, sure: Diego had been brought in on the fight against BPO, and Amanita had coordinated the cluster’s efforts with him a couple of times. And Will had visited and shared with Nomi plenty of times. But she’d never met either of them in person before, and pseudo-family or not, it felt a little weird to impose on them now.
Her anxiety eased some when Diego greeted her outside the airport terminal with a wave and a smile. He didn’t look like some fratbro cop or paunchy authority figure: he just looked like a good-looking Latino guy in a parka. He was Will’s partner, she reminded herself, and Will trusted him and Nomi trusted Will.
“Hey, Amanita, right? Nice to meet you in person!” He grabbed her bag to put in the trunk of an SUV parked in the terminal’s loading zone, then held out a hand for her to shake.
“Yeah, hi. Thank you so much for doing this, I hope I’m not putting you out too much.” She ducked into the car quickly, already shivering from the frigid wind. Diego slid into the driver’s seat, and after a sideways smirk at her obvious shivering, turned up the heat.
“Nah, it’s cool, I offered. Honestly, I wanted to meet you in person.”
“Yeah. Just—there’s Will and his—cluster, right? Who are all pretty cool, like, I’m not complaining when Sun stops by to help deliver an ass kicking, or Nomi helps us with tech stuff. My partner basically has superpowers, I’m down with that. It’s just he has all that going on, and then there’s us norms tagging along, trying to keep up. And shit, I do not feel like I’m keeping up.”
“Uh, excuse you, us norms are pretty great. Who got those BPO guys off Wolfgang’s trail that one time? And who made sure those BPO thugs got arrested so they couldn’t get Will? We did.” She held up a fist for a fist bump, which Diego indulged with a grin. “What do you mean you’re not keeping up though? You seemed pretty all in with helping out with the BPO fight.”
“Well yeah, but that was kind of just another case. Way beyond my paygrade, but--it was sort of part of the job, part of having my partner’s back. It’s the shit that’s not part of the job that’s weird. You can’t tell me you’re not weirded out by your girlfriend sharing her brain with seven other random people, and, like, talking to people who aren’t there. I mean, jesus, I walked in on Will making out with thin air, this shit is weird .” Diego frowned out at the traffic he was carefully navigating.
Weirder than an inadvertent psychic orgy? thought Amanita. Will probably hadn’t told Diego about that.
“Yeah, it’s weird,” said Amanita slowly. “But I like weird. And…” She paused, thinking of the panic and anxiety of those days when Nomi had disappeared into the hospital. “Weird is better than thinking my girlfriend has some sort of brain tumor, or her having some evil doctor give her a lobotomy.”
Diego glanced at her for a moment before turning his attention back to the road. “Good point.”
“Plus, this shit might be weird, but I like the rest of the cluster. Don’t you?”
“Riley’s great, a real sweet girl,” offered Diego immediately. “And your Nomi is a lot like Will, I like working with her. Everyone else...it’s just a lot.”
“Give them a chance,” said Amanita, unsure if it was a plea or an order.
Diego took a deep breath, and let it out in a sigh. “Yeah, alright.”
Diego let her into Will’s apartment, and told her to make herself at home until Will got back. Amanita texted Nomi to let her know she’d arrived at Will’s place, and proceeded to make like Nancy Drew and snoop around. Will knew Nomi, and Nomi knew her, so really he should expect it. It was a tidy, mostly spare apartment, decidedly manly. There was a nice entertainment center with a small collection of DVDs shelved away. Not many books, but Will did have a little collection of vinyl that was a mix of old and new stuff. The fridge and kitchen were kind of messy, but in that minor, lived-in way that said a normal, flawed human lived in the apartment, rather than some robot or control freak.
All in all, it was a nice apartment, if lacking in any real color. She settled down on Will’s couch to read until he got back. She lost track of time reading about mermaid vampires (seriously, what was with YA and its increasingly niche supernatural creatures?), so the sound of Will opening the apartment door caught her by surprise.
“Neets?” called out Will, or maybe it was Nomi-in-Will. Amanita thought maybe she should be able to just tell, to divine some intrinsic Nomi-ness in Will’s voice, but she couldn’t.
Amanita shoved the thought aside and sprung up off the couch, suddenly feeling awkward. There wasn’t exactly a rulebook for meeting one of the people your girlfriend was psychically bonded to. This was the kind of thing that was easier when you were in the middle of a fight against a big bad. There was no time for small talk then.
“Hi!” she said, with a stupid little wave. Will just smiled, bright and wide, and oh, he was adorable . And somehow, instantly familiar. Any awkwardness melted away, and Amanita moved in for a hug that Will returned enthusiastically.
“Thank you so much for this, Will.”
“Seriously, it’s nothing. I’ve got a couch, and you shouldn’t spend the night in an airport if you don’t have to. Mi casa es su casa. Pretty sure that should be a cluster rule.” His eyes flicked over to the empty space to her right in one of the unavoidable tells of the cluster. Someone was visiting, and Amanita thought she could guess who.
“Hey, Nomi wants to say hi,” said Will. Something subtle shifted in his face and eyes, and then it was undeniably Nomi looking out at her and Nomi’s crooked smile on Will’s lips.
“Whoa. Hey babe.” This, Amanita had to admit, was kind of eerie.
“Hi. I missed you.” Nomi—Will—Nomi-in-Will stepped closer, and moved in as if for a kiss. “Is this okay?”
Amanita answered by closing the gap between them. So sue her, she was curious what this would be like when it wasn’t part of an inadvertent psychic orgy. The kiss was simultaneously strange and familiar: different lips, same kissing style. She could be into this, thought Amanita, and set the possibility aside for later. A thought suddenly occurred to her and she pulled away from the kiss.
“This isn’t weird for you? In a guy’s body?” Amanita didn’t mind either way, but if it messed with Nomi….
Nomi-in-Will frowned thoughtfully. “You know, not as much as you might think. It just feels--natural, I guess. I’d freak out if it was me , but. I know it’s not. It isn’t weird for you?”
“Not as much as you might think," parroted back Amanita with a smile. "But oh jeeze, I don’t want to monopolize Will’s apartment and his body.”
Nomi-in-Will laughed and said, “Alright. Have a good sleepover, Neets. See you tomorrow.” And then it was just her and Will, who was blushing a little now.
“Uh, sorry if that was—um, I hope that was okay? Nomi misses you.”
“It was okay. And that kinda wasn’t the first time for you and me, was it?” teased Amanita, and pecked him on the cheek. Kinda-sorta dating eight people at once had some perks.
The rest of the night was a little like reconnecting with an old friend and a little like a first date. Amanita was thoroughly charmed. She doubted she’d ever have met Will in the course of her old life; he was a white, straight-ish cop, a demographic that was wholly unrepresented in Amanita’s social circles. She liked him though, and it was more and more evident how he and Nomi got along so well. They were both problem-solvers and caretakers, and fundamentally empathetic people.
When Will dropped her off at the airport the next day, Amanita was grateful her flight had been delayed. It would have been worth a lot more inconvenience to meet Will and Diego.
“Seriously, why is this show still on? Are there any singers left to discover in this country?” Nomi flopped next to her on the couch, gracing the TV with a truly impressive stink-eye.
Amanita was indulging in her love of cheesy singing competition shows, a habit she could never seem to totally kick. Every time she thought she was sick of the predictability and artifice of the likes of American Idol or The Voice, some small moment of beauty or total weirdness drew her back in.
“Hey, some of them are really talented! And sometimes you get these moments of, like, transcendence, okay?”
“And in the meantime, you have to deal with looking at the over-the-hill Ken doll that is Carson Daly. Wait, now you’ve got Wolfgang interested.” Nomi paused, looking at the other seemingly empty spot on the couch, where Wolfgang was presumably sitting now. “Really, Wolfgang?”
Amanita gasped in delight. “Oh my god, does Wolfgang agree with me? Like, intense, gangster Wolfgang loves singing competitions? Wolfgang, stick around, watch The Voice with me!”
“Wolfgang is sticking around,” relayed Nomi, after she snorted at something Wolfgang must have said.
He ended up being the perfect partner for watching The Voice with, because he got into it. He had strong opinions that he expressed with blunt hilarity, and he dissected performances with total seriousness. Nomi eventually got bored playing go-between and left her with Wolfgang-in-Nomi after giving her a kiss on the cheek and telling them to have fun. Wolfgang-in-Nomi immediately tensed at her side, but Amanita just snuggled close. He seemed like the kind of guy who could use some cuddles.
“Nomi’s gone to visit with Capheus,” he told her, starting to pull away a little.
“Oh, he’s on his morning round of driving, right? Tell him hi!” She rested her head on Wolfgang-in-Nomi’s shoulder. “Don’t move away on my account,” she said, shooting him a sly look from under her eyelashes.
“You don’t have to do that. I’m not Nomi.” Filtered through Wolfgang, Nomi’s voice was flat, and he was tense against her side.
“I know that. I’m enjoying hanging out with you though. Nomi hates these shows, she doesn’t get the appeal. But you’re my kindred soul in trashy singing competition watching!”
“You’re not obligated to like me, you know. Just because I’m part of the cluster--”
Amanita sat up to look at Wolfgang properly and narrowed her eyes at him. “I’m sorry, are you trying to tell me how I should feel about you? Because that’s not your choice to make, buddy. Anyway, it’s too late, now I know you have a secret passion for singing contests, and that means I like you. You’re not gonna talk me out of it.”
Wolfgang studied her for a moment, then huffed out a breath that was almost a laugh, and finally relaxed against her. Amanita settled back against him happily. Yeah, she liked Wolfgang, scary intense gangster or no.
When Nomi got back after the show was over and Wolfgang had left, she kissed Amanita long and sweet. “I love you, you know that?”
“Love you too. You plural, even.”
That brought Nomi short, and with some tiny shift in Nomi's eyes, Amanita knew the rest of the cluster was listening now too.
"Yeah?" Nomi's voice was thick and husky with tears. Amanita cupped her face with her hands, willing everyone in the cluster to hear her.