Detective Niko Hamada glanced up through the bars of her fingers to see her boss, Captain Paul O’Doule, standing on the other side of her desk with a wry grin on his pockmarked face. She slammed her hands down to her lap in alarm, then immediately brought one back up to adjust her glasses. “Sir! Hi. No—well yes, the Lindsey case is—“
“Relax, Hamada. Jeez, like I beat you guys or something. If only.” The pot-bellied captain dropped an overflowing file on her desk with a heavy thunk . “Suspicious death, 4584 Springfield. You two are up.”
“So… then what’s this?” Niko flicked open the folder and was greeted with the first page of an extensive rap sheet, complete with a mosaic of mugshots showing the age progression of a white male, blonde, green eyes. 5’ 9”, 180 lbs.
“That’s your victim’s file. Have fun.”
Her partner, Jimmy Morris, groaned as the captain strolled away with a chuckle.
“Charles Paulson, 37,” read Niko aloud before closing the folder and shoving it in her bag. “My turn to drive.”
That earned her another wordless protest from her partner, but he slid his feet off his desk and stood to gather his coat and scarf. The walk from just the station to their department vehicle was short, but the air was frozen and the wind howling—Niko’s teeth were chattering before she’d made it halfway there. They had to wait for the car to defrost, using the idle minutes to fiddle on their phones. Niko had a couple Messenger notifications from her wife, Greta, and her brother Sora. She opened the latter first, greeted with a cat meme about existential dread. Typical. Greta had sent a grocery list and a reminder about their dinner party that evening to celebrate her recent promotion to museum director for the Hilltowne Historical Society. Also typical.
“How’s the missus?”
Niko glanced over at her quite unmarried partner, who was smirking and sipping coffee from a huge styrofoam cup. “I bought you a tumbler so you stop using those. They don’t kill polar bears and they have lids .”
Jimmy shrugged, spilling a little bit on his shirt and proving her point, though he kept his face defiantly casual even as he dabbed at the splash with a napkin. “I forget it at home all the time. Don’t change the subject. Greta Hamada-Smith, status update.”
Pianoing her fingers on the steering wheel, Niko huffed out a breath. “She’s great . Been really happy about the promotion, even if old Botts had to literally die for her to get it. Good pay raise. She—we’re great. So great.”
“Uh huh.” Her fellow detective was searching her face intently, as detectives do. “Right. You make a strong case for the married bliss thing.”
In lieu of a response, Niko threw the car into reverse and headed south. Truthfully, she and Greta weren’t great per se, but they’d made it through worse periods in their five-year relationship, the last six months of which they’d spent officially married. There’d been more snipping at each other over the last month or so, less affection, more silence. They just needed to get back in sync—in the past, that usually included a high volume fight and some epic makeup sex, which after a six-week dry spell would be quite the welcome development. Maybe the wine and good company tonight would put them both in a better mood…
“You know, you can talk to me about that stuff if you want.”
Niko kept her eyes forward. “You’ve been divorced twice.”
“Exactly. I’m getting better at the divorce warning signs each time.” Despite his explicit teasing, Jimmy did sound genuine enough. “Just, yanno… partners and all that. Supporting each other.”
She had to give him credit for trying.
Despite numerous arrests for violent and smuggling-related offenses (well, or perhaps because of them), Chris Paulson owned a two-story brick McMansion with a manicured lawn and custom stone driveway, elements of orderly beauty that totally belied the brutal scene inside.
There was blood everywhere , floor to ceiling, in thick oblong shapes of solid contact fanning out into thinner splatters, as if Paulson’s body had been swung around like a baby with a rattler. His mangled body gave further evidence of the excessively rough treatment, limbs folded unnaturally under his bloodied torso. Surprisingly, the sheer extent of the damage wasn’t the most striking feature of the body—that award went to the oak crucifix protruding from his mouth, the two shorter arms half buried in the flesh of his cheeks like a Joker smile.
“Very… specific,” muttered Jimmy as he knelt by the man’s head, where his neck twisted too far to one side. “How much of this was he actually alive for?”
The medical examiner hummed in thought for a few seconds before offering, “Totally unreliable educated guess--this guy didn’t die until the cross lacerated his jugular. It’s hard to say for sure, but if you look at the puddle under his body, it’s pretty small, so I think that was done… last.”
“Yikes,” muttered Morris with a sympathetic whistle.
“Detective,” called one of the techs. “In here.”
Niko carefully paced into the kitchen after the voice. “What d’you got?”
“I… don’t know.” The tech—Niko thought her name was Zelda—was pointing at the ceiling with a gloved index finger.
Resisting the urge to wince, Niko slowly raised her eyes. There was a symbol burned into the plaster, a three-leafed polygon with a circle around it, and some kind of lettering that looked like... maybe sanskrit? She Googled a sample, and the script was similar, but not definitely sanskrit. The burn itself was perfectly uniform, as if a single stamp or brand—but the whole thing had to be at least two feet by three, and that would be a ludicrous prop to bring to a murder. She considered the three-pointed flower shape and circle. It tickled something in her brain, a hazy recollection of… what? Maybe a previous case? She drew it in her notepad despite the crime scene photos, wanting to do some more research and contemplating later.
While she stared at the symbol, Jimmy materialized next to her, observing the brand for a few seconds before launching into an almost subconscious summation: “Obviously, we’ve got overkill and a unique… pointless MO. Could be a crime of passion, but maybe more due to the killer getting hyped than whatever was between them and the victim. Doesn’t seem like Paulson fought. This message… I guess it’s just a big question mark until we figure out what it says.”
“So this all tells us absolutely nothing.” Niko pushed her glasses up her nose and looked at Zelda. “Make sure you try to remove this as one piece, if at all possible.”
The tech nodded even as her dark brows knitted with concern at the task.
Back in the living room, Niko and Jimmy circled the body a few more times before fanning out to look around the house. Upstairs, Niko found three bedrooms, each with a modest bed and a single chest of drawers. The air was musty and still, the scant furniture covered in a layer of dust. Obviously, Christopher Paulson didn’t have a lot of guests. She found mostly clothes in the drawers, but also two handguns and a rifle wrapped in shirts—all three with the serial numbers filed off. Lovely.
In the upstairs bathroom, she poked around empty drawers for a few seconds before popping open the medicine cabinet, which was filled with unopened toiletries. She moved a couple bottles of Nyquil aside and peered closely at a hole in the back of the hanging cabinet. Swallowing her body’s natural protest at the unknown, Niko stuck her finger in the hole and pulled. The backing gave, and she quickly removed the contents of the cabinet to pull the false wall out completely. Stacks of cash bundled in saran wrap, at least $30,000, lined the inside of the cabinet.
“Not a robbery then,” she muttered to herself, placing an evidence marker on the bottom shelf. More cash hid in the back of the toilet, perfectly dry within several layers of Ziploc freezer bags. Niko shuffled back into one of the bedrooms and crawled under the bed, predictably finding more stacks stuffed into the box spring. She was pretty certain the floorboards and walls would have some fun surprises too.
The scene was way too noisy, too full of half-formed implications that could take the investigation in wildly different directions and too lacking in anything that seemed singularly important. While cryptic messages would undoubtedly be fodder for social media, and the cash grab would get the interest of the feds, there was no clear murder weapon and a scene that spanned an entire household. That type of mess typically chewed up and spit out its helpless primary detectives, unless the techs turned up something really good on the forensics side.
Sitting back on her heels, Niko rubbed the bridge of her nose and allowed herself an indulgent, brooding sigh.
“Whose house party is this again?”
Perry Trudeau glanced over at her clearly nervous girlfriend with a grin. “It’s a dinner party, fancy and the like. No pong. That’s why you’re wearing that stunner, remember?”
Unconsoled, Mel Vera played with the hem of her above-knee Little Black Dress as she slouched in the passenger seat of Perry’s Wrangler. Mel and the green-eyed, fade haircut Perry, CrossFit trainer, had only been “dating” (see: exclusive) for two weeks of their eight weeks of having sex, and meeting the friends seemed like a big step. A too big step. A stumble, maybe. Right? Mel was no good at winning over an established friend group, almost as bad as she was at letting people into hers (though that part had some obviously heavier implications given what happened last time). Adding to her stress, Maggie and Macy had been nose-deep in the Book when she left, working on some new protection charms that she really wanted to be there to—
Perry’s warm hand came to rest over hers on the center console, giving a slight squeeze. “It’s gonna be fun, I promise, but if you’re not feeling it we can leave, totally. Good?”
“Yeah!” Mel replied too quickly, breathless. “I mean, how scary can a bunch of lesbians really ever be?”
“What if we have a secret escape sign? Like tug on your ear or something?”
“Right, because that’ll look so casual. And it’s not the first thing everyone suggests in every sitcom, ever.”
Laughing softly, Perry brought the hand to her lips and gave a soft kiss to Mel’s knuckles, eyes still on the road. “Don’t worry about them. Just try to have a good time—I promise I won’t let anything bad happen to you.”
“ Nothing bad?” Mel raised an eyebrow, plucking at a wrinkle in Perry’s shirt as they pulled up to a well-timed stop sign. “Not even if I ask nicely?”
Perry leaned over for a not-so-quick kiss, long enough that the SUV behind them gave a frustrated honk. “Shush, or we’ll never make it.”
And of course that had absolutely been Mel’s hail mary intention. Alas. Within a few minutes, they arrived.
The house was a modest one-story with white siding and a burnt red door with a lattice window. Muffled music and laughter drifted out into the chilled night air, and Mel caught just a whiff of a savory, enticing smell that was hopefully dinner. As Perry knocked on the door with the hand that wasn’t holding their gift offering, a bottle of blackberry wine, Mel just happened to look over the driveway. There were three or four cars crammed close together on the concrete patch, a couple sedans, a van, and… an El Camino. Candy Black. Whitewall tires.
Icy tendrils bloomed in her chest, shutting out the actual icy temperature of the air as adrenaline raced through her veins. She knew that if she checked the car’s glove compartment, she would find a secret stash of Jolly Ranchers, because—
The door opened, and Mel froze everything in a fit of panic.
Detective Niko Hamada stood smiling from ear to ear behind the glass weather door, mouth slightly open in the start of a greeting. Niko Hamada, owner of that stupid car that she loved so much. Niko Hamada, who the witch had only just finally managed to move past enough to date again, but who still managed to wriggle her disarmingly sweet, gorgeous face into Mel’s mind on a daily basis and as a bonus, every time she heard sirens. In a college town, that was a lot. And Niko looked so good . She wore a fitted pastel blue button down with white collar, the top two buttons open, rolled sleeves showing off her biceps and forearms.
Next to Niko stood Greta, who in the past timeline had nearly come to blows with Mel in an impromptu grocery store confrontation, before the manager had shoved himself between the women and had plump, bored security guards throw them out. The insults tossed at each other over metal carts had been predictable and hateful, blazing a forever negative impression in Mel’s mind… but this woman was entirely different, smiling so warmly through the glass that she almost seemed like a separate person. Her blonde hair fell in perfect curls over her shoulders, her blue eyes rounded with friendly affection. Greta, to Mel’s dismay, was also wearing a Little Black Dress, high-necked with lace down to the bust and over the bodice, like she was Heidi fucking Klum or something.
They were holding hands tightly.
Mel’s heart lurched. What was she supposed to do? Turn tail and run? Just fucking vanish? Because that wouldn’t be suspicious at all. She regretted tut-tutting the emergency exit ear-tug with Perry. Briefly, she considered calling her sisters. No. All she had to do was act natural. Definitely easier than vanquishing demons, right?
They hadn’t just wiped Niko’s memory; they had changed time . There was a zero percent chance Niko would recognize her, because they had literally never met . She secretly suspected they might cross paths again at some point given the size (or lack thereof) of the queer community in town, but somehow it hadn’t even occurred to her that Perry would be the bridge (even though she was one of those people that had like a thousand Facebook friends, as if any one person could keep up with that many people). Focus .
“Okay. Okay. You can do this,” Mel said out loud just because she could. “We’re strangers. No feelings here. Okay.”
Knowing she she couldn’t just leave them like this forever (as much as she wanted to), Mel took enough time to calm her breathing, and when she was ready, she released the freeze. Act natural, get through the evening, don’t call attention to herself. Ready.
“Per!” hooted Niko immediately, popping open the door. “Jessa and Rachel are already here. Thanks for the wine.”
When Perry moved to enter the house, Niko’s eyes flicked over to Mel. The witch held her breath. “Hey guys,” greeted the trainer breezily, hugging each host.
A tiny, muffled voice inside accused her of wishing reality wasn’t the case, that some sort of timey-wimey magical residue would make Niko’s eyes flash with confused, vague recognition— “Have we met?” But when it didn’t happen, the devastation that gripped her chest in an icy fist proved that little voice right.
Because Niko’s eyes held no familiarity at all. In fact, they quickly moved on from hers after a polite nod in greeting. It felt like appropriate penance that Mel could still clearly remember those same brown eyes gazing at her with open longing over coffee dates, curling with her smile as they watched One Day at a Time on a rainy Sunday, or looking up at her, hooded and dark, from between her legs...
“Mel? You okay?”
The witch startled and focused on Perry’s furrowed brow. “Yes! Sorry. Just thinking about something… I read earlier.” She cleared her throat. “Are you going to introduce me to your friends?”
“Yeah…” Perry was still frowning, but dropped it. “This is Greta and her wife Niko. We went to college together. Hamada-Smiths, this is my girlfriend Mel.”
“Perry’s told us a lot about you,” offered Niko helpfully, but blandly.
Greta held out her hands, palms up. Her lips, perfectly painted a bold red, were curled into an unsettlingly friendly smile. “Let me take your coat.”
Mel did so with reluctance, unable to shake the visceral memory of just how intimidating Greta could be during the heat of a shouting match in the ice cream aisle. “Thanks for hosting, and uh—didn’t one of you get a promotion? Congrats!”
“Greta’s Hilltowne’s newest museum director. The first woman to hold that position in the 200 years it’s been open,” clarified Niko with seemingly genuine pride. Greta put a hand on the detective’s forearm, smiling bashfully, and leaned forward for a kiss while Mel tried to look anywhere but at them and Perry made joking disgusted noises.
Mercifully, they next moved into the dining room, where the other couple awaited them: Rachel, willowy and redheaded, and Jessa, who had a septum piercing and a gorgeous afro. Another couple arrived after Mel and Perry, two mid-fifties, solidly Second Wave women who apparently worked in the fire department, Sarah and Stephanie. They sat at a long white table with a burlap runner hanging off both ends, held down with natural-cut wood platters sporting Christmas-y flower arrangements, all red berries and deep green garland.
The house was small, but cozy, and very IKEA—all brushed silver and white with flashes of color. The walls had actual art on them, but also pictures in simple blondewood frames. Niko and Greta smiling together on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Niko and Greta eating street food in what looked like Singapore. Niko and Greta in front of their house. Niko and Greta in a tight embrace in a forest during snowfall. What, do they bring a professional photographer with them on every trip?
Niko and Greta kissing, each wearing a white wedding dress under a floral archway of white roses. Oh. She gulped several mouthfuls of prosecco, wincing at the cold as it dragged down her throat.
It was all so very perfectly Pinterest. Other timeline Niko would’ve been making fun of it with her quietly, mouth hidden by a beer bottle, not a glass of wine. Somehow, the dissonance helped calm her nerves.
Knowing no good could come of further examination of the aggressively happy home, Mel tried to focus on the meal, which consisted of a large communal cheese and meat plate to start ( “Charcuterie” Greta had announced in a very pleased tone) , then a salad, and steak that was honestly so good she felt somewhat better for the precious five minutes of eating it. There was also, of course, plenty of wine.
The friends seemed predictably tight-knit, covering past shared holidays together and making near constant inside references ( ”Not like that time in San Diego, am I right Per?” or “I’m no expert on that, unlike Jessa over here”) that made the conversation somewhat difficult to follow, but also provided the perfect cover for Mel to mostly stay out of it. Given the apparently historic connections between the other women, she idly wondered why she’d never met any of these people in the old timeline, never heard their names or saw them tagged in old photos.
Except, the answer was obvious, and it danced alongside old demons; Niko must have lost them in the breakup with Greta, given that the detective had been the one to carry on an affair and leave months before their planned wedding. Not many people got to keep the crew in that split. While that realization tightened her chest with regret, the next thought loosened it again. Just another wrong dealt by Mel that was righted by her absence, another affirmation of the decision she’d made. Right? A good thing. Yep.
Luckily, the conversation veered into something she could understand and enjoy: true crime gossip.
“So Hamada… We heard on the scanner about that murder out south. EMTs said it was… unique,” began Stephanie, ignoring Sarah’s elbow in her ribs. “Was it Satanists?”
“Ah, you know I can’t—“
“Just a little,” begged Perry, who was on her fifth glass of wine. “It’s, like, rude for you to not tell us now.”
“Because Steph brought it up?”
“The news is gonna have most of it by now already,” added Jessa, eyebrows wiggling. “Can’t be anything worse than I’ve seen before.”
Mel mentally rewound through the earlier conversations for a context clue, recalling that Jessa had said something about being in a surgery all day.
“It was… something ,” conceded the detective, leaning back in her chair.
“Was it sexually motivated?” asked Rachel conspiratorially.
“Isn’t everything?” countered Niko with a noncommittal level of seriousness.
“Twitter says the guy was folded like origami.”
The collective table made disgusted noises at the redhead as she held up her phone. “Also saying there was kind of weird message, huh? Cult? Serial killer? It’s the Zodiac, obviously.”
“Oh, obviously !” laughed Sarah.
Apparently unnoticed, or perhaps just ignored, by everyone but Mel, Greta looked increasingly unhappy as the friends carried on. Mel remembered Niko complaining in the old timeline that Greta had always hated her job, had said it was not only dangerous, but a waste of her brain power and college degree. She suspected that the thought process had classist roots more so than out of concern for Niko (especially when there were so many legitimate reasons to take issue with the institution), and seeing elegant Greta pearl-clutching over the conversation with her perfect lip stain and stemless-wine-glass dinner party… Yeah, that’s exactly what it was.
“ All I can tell you, dear armchair quarterbacks,” sighed Niko, her voice thin but still breaking through the overlapping jokes of the friends. “Is that it was incredibly violent, and the killer left a message, just like it says. There’s only one crime like this on the books, so no, technically it isn’t a serial killer. Boom.”
“What message?” Apparently Stephanie just couldn’t help herself, her tone taking on a distinct teasing edge. “Like a manifesto? Threats to the rest of us? You gonna save us from this psycho or what, Hamada?”
“Maybe everyone but you.”
“Better not fuck it up or you’ll look bad on the podcast in a few years—“
“Dessert!” announced Greta in a shrill, breathless tone as she practically jumped to her feet. “It’s time for dessert! I made oreo cake.”
Mel hid her smirk behind her wine glass.
“Oreo cake and murder , the best dinner party,” crowed Perry, who was swaying slightly in her seat. “Ever.”
Earlier, the trainer had rested her hand on Mel’s knee like the attentive girlfriend she was, but now that warm palm was sliding up over the smooth fabric of her dress, making it that much more difficult to concentrate. When fingertips brushed against her inner thigh, Mel grabbed the offending limb under the table and squeezed, meeting her girlfriend’s smirk with her own. “Hands, Per,” she warned quietly, a little more breathlessly than she expected.
“Sorry,” muttered the taller woman, leaning back and continuing to smirk in a way that suggested otherwise. She gave the muscles under her palm a good squeeze, and Mel was honestly relieved to feel a corresponding flash of anticipation at the pressure. The rest of the table kept on chatting, moving to the oh so fun topic of presidential 2020 candidates, and thoughts of penance veered wildly towards a flare of righteousness.
“You’re not sorry, ass,” teased Mel, brushing her fingertips along her girlfriend’s cutting jawline. Perry’s top shelf anyway. Look at those shoulders in that blazer. “Behave now, and we can have fun later .”
Perry hummed happily and leaned over for a kiss, indulgent and laced with promise.
“Gross,” complained Rachel, causing the two to part. “In the cutest way, of course. Like little babies.”
“You’re a lucky asshole, Per,” added Stephanie, winking at the shorter woman. “Mel, you know there are other, smarter, and better looking women out there, right? Don’t be fooled by those quads.”
Mel couldn’t help but grin back at Stephanie, who had spiky blonde hair and, of all things, an eyebrow ring. Truly a sign of their generational gap.
“Dessert!” announced Greta as she appeared in the formal dining room with aforementioned cake in hand.
The dish was admittedly delicious. Mel managed to politely ask Greta for the recipe, giving herself a mental high five for the most basic interaction. She took an opportunity during a lull in conversation while everyone chewed to surreptitiously check her phone.
7:34 lil sis: how is your gay party
7:51 lil sis: pride banquet
8:03 Macy: Sorry about… Maggie.
8:04 Macy: Harry says a demon killed someone today. Are you staying at Perry’s tonight?
Mel responded: 8:48 she’s not even punny & probs not
8:49 Macy: Text me when you leave
8:49 lil sis: i can see u texting macy and not me >:(
Mel quickly slipped her phone back in her dress pocket when the dinner seemed to have come to a conclusion without her. The women stood and began gathering dirty plates to hand to Greta, then they all moved into the living room. After getting comfortable around the various low couches and wide armchairs adorned with exceedingly soft knitted blankets, Niko remained standing with her wine glass in her hand. She lifted it and took a breath, looking around at each guest, and then to her wife.
“I just wanna say babe… I’m really proud of you. You worked hard and totally deserve this. I love you, and I’m so looking forward to our goal of being a super power lesbian couple. To Greta!”
“To Greta!” came the echoed cheer.
It occurred to Mel that she had never actually been with Niko and Greta in the same room in the old timeline, having met the detective on her own and suspecting that she would have never been able to continue their affair if she had to look Greta in the face. They, as a partnership, made more sense in person than just from the one-sided stories of discontent and fighting that Niko would sometimes whisper after another night where they’d inevitably gone from we shouldn’t to harder and again. Greta had an easy beauty in that white Instagram influencer way—breezy, fun, and on-brand, with blonde hair cascading perfectly over her shoulder as she gripped Niko’s arm, blue eyes shining with affection. All night, despite a flew flickers of human emotion, Niko and Greta had been consummate hosts, ensuring wine glasses remained filled and the conversation flowed. The detective’s controlled, bright energy meshed with Greta’s antsier, insistent one in a model, balanced partnership. The witch felt a little sick.
“Mel?” Perry’s confused voice jerked her back to her body. She grasped Mel’s hands in her own, brushing her thumbs over her knuckles in tiny circles. And Mel felt a new pang of emotion now—guilt. Perry was a little arrogant, a little dumb, but so, so sweet. Earnest. And she was clearly worried, like a good girlfriend would be, but maybe not for the correction reason… which is that her girlfriend is still pining after her married friend. Classy . “Are you feeling okay? You seem kinda… out of it.”
Seeing the out on a silver platter and unable to continue down this road of dual torture, Mel grabbed it enthusiastically. “You know, I’m really… maybe I’m getting sick?” She put a hand on Perry’s chest before she could reply: “And you are drunk. Let me call a Lyft, hmm? I don’t wanna be a drag on your night.”
Perry gave her an airy, droopy-eyed smirk, and then leaned forward for a kiss, her hands tugging lightly on the front Mel’s dress.
“Wait, I don’t want to get you sick,” she protested just before their lips met, remembering she was trying to leave and putting a finger to Perry’s lips.
“Mmm, well we have already kissed like, a ton, today, so I think I’m fucked no matter what. And we should keep kissing. And now that I say it out loud... fucking sounds good, too.”
Then the trainer was leaning forward again, catching her mouth with a playful growl. In spite of herself, Mel wrapped her arms around that muscular neck and thrilled to feel her body respond with a heavy throb of pleasure, to feel something good amid the misery of the night. There. See? Not so difficult to enjoy her proper girlfriend. Enjoyable, even. She sighed happily into the kiss, grateful for the port in a storm in the form of a warm, firm body that made her laugh a lot.
But when she pulled back, Niko was standing nearby, grinning at them as she sipped her wine. “Okay, you guys are pretty cute. I approve.”
“Shhhh,” admonished Perry, holding up a sluggishly bobbing finger. “Mel’s s-sick. She’s going home. I can’t drive.”
Niko’s brown eyes slid over to Mel’s, both amused and concerned. “You all right?”
Okay, maybe she still had some work to do, because all she could think was: Don’t look at her lips, don’t look at her lips, don’t— “Yeah, just need to sleep to get ahead of it, I think. Orange juice. And sleep. I called a Lyft.”
“Well, it was nice to meet you.” Niko extended a hand. “Not a hugger, but thanks for taking such good care of ol’ Per Bear here. Nice to see her happy.”
The witch accepted the shake, wishing she could ignore the way her whole being still felt drawn, like gravity, to the tall woman wearing those stupid glasses again. They were a painful, physical reminder that this wasn’t her Niko. This was safe Niko. Niko who still had a chance at normal and happy. She put on her bravest smile as their hands fell back to their sides. “Your house is lovely. I appreciate the hospitality. This was so great. Usually it’s just my sisters and me, and my sister Macy is a great cook, not like I’m complaining, but, uh, this was so new and fresh and your friends are so nice, so… thank you.” Smooth, Vera.
If Niko judged her for the rambling, she didn’t let on, her expression remaining maddenly kind as she reached for the doorknob. “Let’s do it again sometime soon. Don’t be a stranger.”
Four drinks down, floating in that special space called buzzed, and Mel was feeling much better about GA Night Out than she had before it started. They’d hopped three bars in as many hours and were wearing matching blue t-shirts that said HILLTOWNE U ENGLISH DEPARTMENT. Inspirational, but at least the university had sprung for one drink ticket at each location and taxis home. Mel hadn’t been able to catch and hold onto the names of the coworkers dancing around her, but hey—the fact that she’d even joined them was a win in itself. Her mom said she needed to ‘put herself out there’ and whatnot, as if finishing up her master’s degree left so much time for making friends. But like always, when her mom suggested something, Mel could be swayed enough to give it at least one shot. Marisol had yet to be wrong (but she would never admit that to her mother’s face).
As the club swelled with the “fashionably late” crowd, Mel felt, rather than saw, eyes on her while some of the GA group broke off for refills. Nothing that made her instincts shout danger, but something… magnetic. Like searching for a word on the tip of your tongue, maddeningly close, like you’d be frustrated all week if you never found it. The DJ was announcing the lineup for the midnight drag show, so she had a moment to stand and catch her breath while casually sliding her eyes over the crowd for the source of that primitive tickle at the base of her skull.
Her gaze eventually settled on a raucous group of preppy twenty-somethings wearing paper birthday party hats and fingering jello shots into their mouths. Next to the suspected birthday girl (demarcated, apparently, by a bright purple dildo tied to her head like a unicorn horn) stood a brunette wearing a fitted maroon t-shirt and black jeans. Definitely the source. Her half-moon eyes locked with Mel’s, and her heart-shaped face spread into a smile with half a dimple on one side. Mel found herself grinning back, and in a rare moment of who-gives-a-fuck-ness, wiggled a finger at the woman. She then turned her back, letting the fates decide what happened next as a new song started. She would be fine either way.
One of her coworkers whispered something along the lines of “You’ve got a friend”, and then a warm hand touched the back of her arm. The mystery woman was taller up close than she expected, leaning slightly over Mel when she turned to face her, and the realization sent a jolt of anticipation down her spine. She lifted a hand and brushed two fingertips along the jawline that sat at eye level, thrilling at the nervously flexing movements under her touch.
“Hi. I’m Niko.” The stranger’s voice rumbled with a natural low timbre, unreasonably enticing against the overly loud music and press of other people on all sides.
“Can I…?” ‘Niko’ looked down and Mel followed her gaze. The tall woman had unfurled her hand near Mel’s hip, palm hovering calmly, waiting for consent. She put her own smaller hand over Niko’s and pressed it to her side. Instantly, Niko’s other hand came up in a mirror grip, but she still paused to search Mel for any type of negative reaction.
So Mel waited, curious. The stranger wavered between the swaggery confidence of the woman who’d been staring back at her, unabashed, and the woman who, despite consent being already given, stood frozen to the spot for a solid twenty seconds before finally , her hands tugged their hips flush with each other. Mel liked seeing the little cracks in each character, and it made her feel strangely at ease. She could feel Niko breathing hard, pupils dilated as they started moving together to music that was helpfully meant for nothing below a PG-13 rating. Niko smelled like jasmine under all the whiskey. A beauty mark sat very distractingly just slightly right of center on her chest, where Mel could also see the tantalizing ripple of muscles under smooth, golden skin.
She abruptly had the urge to slow this down, her body embarrassingly keyed up just from the adrenaline and brief contact, in no small part due to the fact that Niko’s knee had slipped between her own--Fuck, when did that get there?
“Axe murderer?” she blurted, eyes squeezed shut, not caring that it sounded breathless. Her hands wandered a little, smoothing across a wide back.
Niko’s laugh was an unexpectedly whole-bodied thing, hearty and earnest, and it made Mel’s eyes slide back open to see the smile accompanying such a comforting sound. “Only on Sundays.”
“So... I have until midnight. Like some sort of Cinderkiller.”
That earned her another laugh, Niko’s eyes creasing just slightly at the corners, and Mel found herself leaning forward, seeking more, suddenly resolved to do whatever she could to again draw that sweet sound, and many more, from the stranger’s mouth. “You’re lucky I don’t mind really, really bad puns. Or, I guess you might say I like beautiful women more.”
It should have been off-puttingly cheesy, really. It was cheesy. Right? But those words from that mouth in that Scarlett Johansson voice? Unfair. Mel realized and simultaneously accepted that she was a goner. She slid one hand back up to Niko’s shoulder, skimming the other over the neck of her shirt where defined collarbones peeked out. She had to rise to her tiptoes to say into the shell of her ear: “Next question: You were staring pretty hard back there. Was there something you want from me?”
Without pause, Niko seized the challenge, smirking as she gently but insistently pushed on Mel’s hip until the shorter woman turned, and then she tugged her backwards again. Mel swallowed a groan as she felt firm breasts and a taut stomach pressing into her back, but more distractingly, hot breath against the crook of her neck. “I think you know what I want.”
Oh. Her knees may have deserted her, but Niko’s strong arm was holding her waist, and Oh god Mel could imagine the firm body behind her doing so many other, more satisfying things than grind slowly against her back to Syd’s dulcet tones and the heavy beat.
The stumbling trip to the bathroom was a blur. Mel could only register the warm hand holding hers as they needled through the crowd, to a dark hallway, and then into a dimly lit restroom. She’d already taken a step towards one of the stalls when Niko suddenly tugged her back.
“Jackson? Is that you?”
Another stall door opened to reveal a smirking redhead. “Hey, Nik. What, uh… what’re you doing?”
“Who’s your frien—“
“Get out,” Niko practically barked, and she locked the main door after the still cheeky-looking woman finally obeyed.
Mel stared for a few seconds before deciding she was more turned on by that little show than nervous.
They crashed together in a tangle of lips, teeth, and hands, Niko greedily swallowing Mel’s groan as they pushed against each other. Everything had that fiery haze of novelty, two people testing out the landscape of each other’s bodies... in the most delicious way. Mel was a kinetic learner, after all. A nip there. A squeeze here.
She nearly yelped when Niko’s hand slipped under her dress to her bare thigh, rough fingertips just grazing along the soft skin.
“Is this okay?” whispered the taller woman before kissing down Mel’s neck, which was very distracting, and rendered Mel helplessly silent for long enough that Niko lifted her head and asked again, louder: “Mel?”
“Y-yes!” she got out, her hands twisting in the stranger’s poor V-neck. “Green. Very green.”
Niko gave a sharp nod of understanding, and that was all the warning Mel got before her hand was there , slender fingers pushing past her panties to slide along the join of her legs.
“Fuck,” she groaned into Mel’s skin, breath hitching before she seemed to come to a decision. Using her hips and shoulders, she crowded Mel backwards, somehow executing a spin move so that the shorter woman’s back hit the door. Mel herself could barely form words against the rush of urgent heat radiating to her limbs.
There was no more talking.
Bracing her free hand against the pressed wood, Niko captured Mel’s mouth again in a rough kiss right as her fingers found home, pausing for a few wet swipes before slipping into her, drawing gasps from both of them. With one more vigorous nod from Mel, Niko latched onto her neck, teeth worrying the skin as her arm settled into a quick, merciless rhythm that had Mel’s back thumping obscenely against the door. Her rough palm eventually angled just right , and it was just a few more rough strokes, Mel’s body tightened like a bow and released. She had to bite down on her fist to avoid shouting her pleasure to the entire club as cold heat flared from her belly and blood roared in her ears. Niko stayed tucked inside, massaging the pulsing muscles to help her ride it out until eventually, Mel was laughing and softly slapping her hand away. The taller woman smirked, wiping her fingers on Mel’s thigh and fuck why was that so hot, sending a little aftershock through her core.
Mel lifted her head from the door and her lips found Niko’s skin sweaty, dark brown hairs sticking to her forehead. That made her feel a little better about the probably three-minute encounter. If she hadn’t felt so blissfully giddy, she might’ve spared a thought to be embarrassed. “That was… Fuck.”
“I want to do that again,” gasped Niko, eyes somewhat unfocused.
A sharp series of knocks on the door and someone yelling SECURITY would stop that from becoming a reality, but they exchanged phone numbers and met up two hours later at Mel’s apartment. Niko got to do it again.
“You smell like wine.”
“What, do you want me to shower? I changed my clothes already.”
“I’m just saying, you reek —“
“Why are you even talking right now?”
“Cut it out,” interrupted Macy, pinning her sisters with a glare. “Focus.”
Mel clenched her jaw, knowing the flare of anger she felt was due to the situation with Niko, not her sisters. When she felt she had a handle on it, she apologized and slumped down in her spot on the couch. Probably better to lay low until she figured out if there was any reason to rock the boat at all. Which, she was pretty sure there wouldn’t be. Yep.
“Okay. Now. While you were off supping , we got ahold of this picture from the scene.”
Mel looked at Macy’s phone, grabbing her sister’s arm so she would stop waving it. The photo showed the Charmed Ones symbol, the triquetra, hovering above some ancient text. She couldn’t quite make out how it had been written, but it appeared to be attached to a large chunk of wall or something. “What does it say?”
“It’s a taunt,” answered Harry, his jaw doing that flexing thing it always did when he was worried. “It says, roughly, ‘I come for your loved ones. I come to destroy. You will fall before me, power of three.’ Absolutely unimaginative and droll as far as threats go, but more importantly, it tells us nothing about the demon who murdered this citizen.”
“The choice of language doesn’t tell you anything, either?”
“Just that we’re dealing with someone who studies tongues, which isn’t uncommon for beings who live for millenia. Based on the simplicity of the language, I would guess it’s a smokescreen. That’ll at least keep the humans preoccupied for a bit.” Harry clapped his hands in front of his chest. “Now, if you ladies are ready to go?”
He apparated them into the living room of the house, where Maggie gasped softly at the fanning splatters of blood everywhere. “Did Pebbles Flintstone kill this guy?”
“You mean Bam-Bam,” corrected Mel without thinking, earning herself an exasperated eye roll from her sister.
“What are we looking for?” Macy asked Harry.
“Since we don’t know exactly who we’re dealing with, this is more of a know-it-when-you-see-it situation.” Harry tried to offset his annoyingly vague answer with crooked grin, but Macy was having none of it as she launched into the inevitable round of 20 Witch Questions with him.
“How was dinner?”
Mel turned to face at her shortest and nosiest sister, who was trying and failing to look only casually interested as she considered the victim’s vinyl record collection. “Fancy. Cheese board and whatever. It was nice.”
“I’m just glad Perry dropped outta the sky onto your lap. I wasn’t sure you’d ever…” Maggie’s eyes widened with panic as she trailed off of the obvious: I wasn’t sure you’d ever get over Niko. “...ahem, find someone who would put up with you.”
“Uh huh, nice save,” muttered the older sister.
Harry’s suddenly raised voice inadvertently rescued them from the awkward, heavy moment. “The victim was a Mr. Christopher Paulson. He was an antique dealer who managed to get his hands on more than a few magical artifacts over the years, though he never knew that particular feature or else he would’ve paid much more for them, obviously. Though you could say he paid the ultimate price for whatever did this to him.” Only Harry gave the slightest nervous chuckle at his pun, though he didn’t seem the least bit ashamed. “As you might imagine, he’s a known element to the Council, so this one definitely has their full attention.”
“But why him as your opening sonata?” Macy wondered aloud. “He doesn’t have any connection to us, if that’s whose attention you really want.”
“What if he accidentally unleashed the demon from something in the house?” Mel eyeballed an Egyptian bust of Tiye on the fireplace mantle; it looked genuinely old, not like a Romancing the Stone knockoff.
“It would need to feed quickly to gain strength.” Harry hummed in agreement and decreed that they would split up to search.
Mel was grateful for some precious few moments alone, even if it was while looking for some literally cursed object. This was like throwing yourself into work, right? Totally. Despite all that the sisters had accomplished so far, they were not even close to the full potential of their powers, and every new battle was an opportunity to get better. Stronger. They were supposed to be the most powerful witches in history, damnit.
She hovered her hands over cans of paint in the garage, the nice Buick still parked there, and a large woodworking bench pushed up against the front of the garage. It featured plenty of dangerous-looking power tools, but those carried very little chance of demonic possession, so she quickly moved on to the storage area. Eventually, she stumbled on a large cardboard box sitting half-open in front of some shelves. It was marked “SORT”, like some sort of comically bad bait setup in a horror movie. If the guy was dealing in artifacts, this was probably his latest Antiques Roadshow haul.
“Maggie!” she called her sister from the kitchen, having watched enough horror movies to know better than to proceed alone.
Maggie arrived in short order, and together, they peered suspiciously into the rumpled cardboard box. It contained maybe a couple dozen knick-knacks and small sculptures, all of them dirty and dull, some broken or cracked. One by one, the sisters began removing items, weighing them in their hands for a few seconds before placing them in the floor.
It wasn’t until Mel’s fingers ghosted near a large, curved drinking horn that she felt the palpable tingle of something —that new energy that matched the spark in her hands and chest whenever she used her powers. She closed her hand around the smooth surface and carefully dragged it into the open. A rotting strip of leather hanging limply off one side had probably once been a strap for carrying the horn, which was gray at its wide base, but transitioned to black at the sharp, slightly curled tip. A bit of rusted wire hung uselessly from the mouth, attached to a wooden cap with a broken wax seal around the sides. It wasn’t hard to figure it out from there.
“Nice,” muttered Maggie, and Mel had to slap her hand away as she reached to touch it. “What?”
The older sister quickly grabbed a shop towel and wrapped it around the horn. “You just never know.”
After making sure nothing else magical was hiding out in the box, they headed into the living room and called for Harry and Macy.
“Looks… Norse, perhaps,” murmured the whitelighter as he turned the horn over in his hands. “This horn belongs to the ure breed of cattle, now extinct, but native to Europe and Asia.”
“And that’s just, what? A little tidbit you have for Whitelighter trivia night?”
“I’ll have you know, Maggie, there would be no modern domestic cattle without the dear ure of old—the classic longhorn steer being a prime example.” Harry put the horn in his bag, looking affronted.
“But does it tell us who came out to play?”
“Not yet. I’ll take it to the Elders and see if they can suss out anything. I think we are done for the evening.”
“Babe… wait—you… it’s okay, it’s okay.” Niko had one arm gripping the pillow next to her head, the other loosely fisting a handful of her wife’s golden hair. Her entire body felt tight, like a drawn bow, too close to snapping. “It’s the alcohol, really, I’m fine.”
“Nik, I…” Greta’s eyes were watery as she dropped her cheek against Niko’s thigh.
“Just some whiskey dick,” the brunette huffed, trying for her best comforting expression as she gently pulled her wife back up her body. “Sorry babe. My fault.”
“I can try—“
“It’s okay. I’m tired.” She wanted to get off. She truly did, the ache of it still burning low in her belly even as she called things off. Greta had been dutifully trying different tactics for more than thirty minutes. Not even feeling the blonde lose herself around her fingers, which usually left her hovering at the edge, had helped. That coiled pressure sat tight and insistent in her gut, worsened by Greta’s attempts to unwind it, and now she was just an overstimulated mess.
The blonde slumped against her, face buried in her sweaty neck. “I’m sorry.”
Niko twisted around to look down at her face and tapped a pale shoulder until their eyes met again. “Baby. It happens. Don’t worry. We have plenty more nights together. All of them, in fact.”
Greta sniffled, curling a hand over Niko’s hipbone. “It’s just... been so long since we’ve done this, Nik. Even tried .”
Letting her her fall back on the pillow, Niko sighed, considering the ceiling intently. Fuck. This should not have been happening. Women would bite off their own arm to be with her wife. Greta was a vision , clothed or naked—all soft, creamy skin and generous curves in the best places, the kind that other people got implants to achieve, along with toned muscle underneath from where she did CrossFit with Perry at least five times a week. Greta looked like fucking Blake Lively for chrissakes, and yet Niko was laying there naked against her, dry as the Sahara. Fuck. Her mind wouldn’t stop racing, like a View-Master at lightning speed, and goddamnit wasn’t alcohol supposed to help with this kind of thing? She pinched the bridge of her nose with her thumb and forefinger. What was the matter with her?
Unbidden and unwelcome, the memory of Perry kissing her new girlfriend into a puddle earlier popped into her mind. Stupid charming, nice, Ruby-Rose-looking, gym trainer Perry would never have bedroom problems in either direction. Perry oozed that languid soft butch energy, had since the day they’d met, where it’d taken NIko three weeks to even get Greta’s number. The new girlfriend (Mel?) had been quiet and aloof all night, but she’d practically fallen out in their entryway at the kiss. It was the most life Niko had seen out of her since she’d shown up looking like a prey animal about to bolt. At the very least, Mel was undeniably intriguing, despite her awkwardness. Truthfully, Niko had been a little taken aback by her instant, wildly inappropriate attraction to the stranger, and it had taken a lot of concentration not to stare over the dinner table all night.
Because come on, those lips—
Niko nearly startled at the brush of skin against her cheek, coming back down to her body. Greta’s hand hovered cautiously, fingertips just barely touching her cheek. “Where’d you just go?”
Oh nowhere, just lusting after our friend’s girlfriend. “Thinking about work.”
Greta worried her bottom lip, clearly suspicious. “Are we okay, Nik?”
“Yeah, baby. Of course. Just a little hiccup.”
“Are you sure? Nothing’s wrong? Did I do something?”
And here was the difficulty. If someone held a gun to Niko’s head and asked why they were struggling, she wasn’t sure she would be able to put words to it. Even though they were pressed tightly together, skin to skin, Niko felt the yawning chasm between them, cold and heavy in her bones. But she was tired. And she had no words. So she just said:
“Nothing’s wrong, baby.”