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Three Shades of Steele

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When she walked into her room in her mother's house, eager for a nap after a five-hour flight, Ana wasn't expecting to see purple smoke flow out of an air conditioner and re-shape itself into a short, plump, dark-haired and olive-skinned woman in what most people would describe as a pink harem girl costume, but that was what she got. And she especially wasn't expecting a woman who appeared to be ancient…fortysomething, at the very least!

"Anastasia Steele?" said the woman, plucking a clipboard from…well, nowhere.

Dumbstruck, Ana nodded.

Frowning, the woman consulted her clipboard. Ana couldn't help but notice that while she otherwise resembled—well, anyone from around the Mediterranean—her eyes were made of orange-red flames. "Anastasia Rose Steele?"

Ana swallowed. "Yes. Who are you? What are you doing here?"

The woman sighed. "Excuse me, but I need to change." She snapped her fingers and was suddenly dressed in a red paisley headscarf, a white tunic whose neck and wide cuffs were embroidered with gold leaves, and black slacks. "I was oathbound to wear the outfit, at least at first, so that you'd have a clue as to what I am, but frankly, I'm much too old to be dressed like Barbara Eden, and it's insultingly stereotypical."

The name "Barbara Eden" made Ana dimly recall a syndicated TV show she'd seen occasionally as a child. "You're a genie!"

"Jiniri," the woman said firmly. "A female jinn."

Ana stared at her in incredulous delight. "You're my genie?"

"No!" snapped the jiniri. "Your mother found the signet ring in which I was bound when she was golfing with her husband Bob, and she consulted with your friend Kate and her brother Ethan, since they're far more experienced with magic than she is—"

"What?!"

The jiniri sighed. "Yes. They're witches. Well, your mother calls herself a witch—or a practitioner, sometimes—and Kate and Ethan call themselves wizards. All that means is that they were born with the talent while your mother is acquiring skill through sheer effort."

A look of dazed joy swept across Ana's face. "Does that mean that I could—"

"No. You're the magical equivalent of tone-deaf. But you're half right…because each of them got a wish for freeing me. And each wish was about you."

"Me?" Ana mulled that over. "But why? Why didn't they wish for something for themselves?"

The jiniri looked as if she was refraining from saying something very impolite. "Trust me, they did. Kate wished that you'd become so smart that graduating with a 4.0 average despite being computer-illiterate, horrible at research and unwilling to read anything published before 1801 or after 1950 would prove no effort at all. Ethan wished that you'd finally find something entertaining to occupy your time—and let me tell you, that was a very difficult wish to fulfill, because you don't like much."

Ana couldn't imagine how that had been fulfilled. And the jiniri's description of her was so strange! She liked hundreds of things! She liked Christian Grey, and sex, and orgasms…and…hmm. Touching Christian? Sleeping beside Christian? More sex?

She shook her head. She just couldn't focus properly; that was the problem. She was too jetlagged to think straight. No wonder the conversation seemed so surreal. "And the third wish?" she asked, wondering if she had really asked this or was only dreaming.

"This is the third wish. Your mother wished for you to stop being of two minds about everything…though now that I see you, I think that 'three' would be more accurate." The jiniri peered at her. "Do I have your permission to amend the wish? I think that doing so would be truer to your mother's intention."

Ana rolled her eyes. "Sure! Why not?"

The jiniri grinned. It was not a nice grin.

And that was the last thing that Ana remembered until several hours later when she awoke to find two other women in her room—women who looked exactly like herself.

***

Ana noticed the first woman immediately; it would have been difficult not to, since she was leaping, dancing, cartwheeling and doing gymnastics exercises all over the bedroom. Her look-alike was also, Ana was embarrassed to note, stark naked.

"Will you please get her to stop?" The speaker sounded rather aggrieved.

Ana glanced around…and, to her horror, spotted a second look-alike sitting at her MacBook. Her MacBook! Her special and private laptop that she only used for sending emails to Christian! This—this wasn'tright.

No. Not just sitting. Typing. This woman was typing something on her MacBook. What if she sent an email to Christian? What if she read the emails from Christian? It would violate the non-disclosure agreement! He would be so angry. Ana flinched. Christian scared her when he was angry. And so many things that she did made him angry.

"Who are you writing to?" she demanded, though a bit more loudly than she'd intended.

The second woman turned around to face her, and Ana realized that she was wearing glasses like John Lennon's. Granny glasses. That's what they're called.

"Relax," the woman said. "I'm sending an email to Kate and Ethan thanking them for their wishes. And I went downstairs and talked to Mom—is she your mom or our mom, do you think?—about what happened with her wish, because I was totally not going the Parent Trap or Comedy of Errors route. That might work if we were going to pretend that there's only one of us, but there's no point in that, is there?"

"Isn't there?" Ana said in some confusion. "I mean, you're only here until the magic wears off, right?"

The woman threw back her head and laughed. "Oh, honey. You weren't listening, were you? Our mother wanted us to stop being of multiple minds about everything, and now we have. There was nothing in the wish about this being temporary. Like it or not, you now have two identical sisters…even if one of them is an idiot."

"I'm not an idiot," the naked look-alike said petulantly as she continued to dance. Ana thought that it looked like a weird combination of a jitterbug and a waltz. "And I wish you'd stop saying that."

"I wish that you'd put some clothes on."

The naked look-alike glared at the bespectacled one. "Prude."

The one with the granny glasses pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes. "You're sharing a room with two other people. Ana turns red if she even thinks of anything remotely embarrassing. And as for me, I could take my clothes off and stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror if I wanted to look at my twin's breasts and vagina."

The naked version clapped her hands over her ears and began to wail—though she didn't stop dancing for a moment. "'Down there'! It's called a 'down there'!"

"And you call me a prude? At least I know the names for things—and I'm not afraid to use them!" She turned to Ana, who was watching this interplay with her mouth hanging open. "Speaking of names, I wish we had some. We can't go on being 'Ana's subconscious' or 'Ana's inner goddess' anymore. And I kind of sucked at being a subconscious, given that you were conscious of me. Got any in mind?"

Ana shook her head, not in negation but in disbelief. This can't be real. I must still be dreaming.

"Meh. No problem. I can find a name from the Internet." She backed out of Gmail and into a Google search as if she'd been doing this for decades. Ana couldn't remember ever being that at ease with computers.

After a few minutes, she looked up. "How about Elizabeth Jane Steele? You should like that, Ana. It's very Austen. Very Hardy. And you can call me Liz, for short."

Austen? Hardy? Ana had no idea what she was talking about. "Okay…Liz. But what are you going to call her?"

"Lydia Catherine," Liz answered calmly. "Or Catherine Lydia. It depends on whether she'd rather be Lydia or Kitty."

The naked look-alike beamed. "Oh, Kitty! Kitty with an I! It's ever so much cuter than Lydia, and so much sexier! Besides, what woman doesn't want to be a sex kitten?"

"I don't," said Liz pointedly. "And I bet that Ana doesn't, either. Not anymore."

Ana thought about this. She didn't. Then she tried thinking of Christian—his grey eyes, his lips, his huge hands that spanned her hips.

Nothing. Thoughts that had once produced breathlessness and blushing now caused no reaction at all. Between falling asleep and waking up, she had ceased to lust for Christian Grey.

She glared at Liz. "What's wrong with me? Why don't I want him now? Why doesn't he make me melt anymore?"

Liz sighed and spoke to her in a very slow, patient tone. "You were one person; we were part of you, though we had separate personalities. I'm no expert on Dissociative Identity Disorder, but you seemed to be dancing, if you'll pardon the expression, close to the edge. That's probably why Mom wished what she did.

"But now…well, I got the brains and the common sense. And she"—Liz jerked her thumb in Kitti's direction—"got the uncontrollable sex drive." Liz gazed at her seriously. "What did you get, Ana?"

***

It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair.

Ana stomped down Tybee Island's shore, heading away from South Beach to the Curve. She didn't think she could stand the presence of people right now, and since she couldn't think of one part of the beach that was completely deserted, she would have to make her way to one of the less popular areas.

Liz had explained what had happened. "You tended to shove certain traits onto us. If it was intellectual, that was my job. That's why you always pictured me with glasses or envisioned me reading huge tomes. And morality—making you refrain from doing what you wanted to or telling you that society wouldn't approve—was up to me as well. I was basically the superego. A really, really smart superego. Problem was, none of what I could do mattered to you once you started crushing on and Kitti became attracted to Christian Grey."

She had looked at Ana sympathetically. "I think that's what you got. Emotions. And…well, not a lot else. You gave so many traits to us that you don't have much left to make into a new you."

"A new me?"

Liz's face was a picture of worry and concern. It oddly resembled Kate's the last time she'd asked if Ana was sure that she was safe with Christian. "Right now, we're one person, subdivided. Think about Kitti—the only things on her mind are screwing Christian and having orgasms. She's going to need more than that. But at least Kitti has an interest in something. She could become a sexologist. Or a sex worker. Maybe she could direct pornos or…or even sell sex education videos. What do you care about, Ana?"

And that, really, was the problem. She couldn't think of anything that she cared deeply about, not now. Reading and studying had long since been the subconscious's province, which meant that Ana could barely recall anything she'd learned for at least a decade. She had a mountain of student debt and her degree was worthless. Liz had the knowledge and the skills—including a talent for computing that Ana had never suspected she'd possessed. It seemed unjust to realize that you had once possessed a talent after it was irrevocably gone.

Even worse was the fact that she didn't love Christian any longer. Kitti insisted that love and sex were intertwined; if Ana couldn't feel desire, she couldn't fall in love.

"That," said Liz in a coldly furious tone, "is heteronormative bullshit. Asexuals—and no, I'm not saying that you're one, Ana—can and do fall in love. The only reason Ana isn't in love now is that she didn't love him in the first place. She just liked his looks, his smell and having sex with him. That's not the same thing."

That had been the point at which Ana had bolted. Perhaps it was ridiculous or immature, but she didn't think that she could handle any more of this. These…these former pieces of her were more whole than she was, which made Liz's merciless intelligence and Kitti's unashamed sexuality nearly intolerable. The same words kept slamming into her brain like a sledgehammer. That was me once. Or that could have been me. And I gave it all up. I threw every particle of myself away.

***

Liz waited for Ana to come back, figuring that she'd just gone off to have a good cry in the downstairs bathroom. All right, this situation was the very definition of awkward, but they had to think about what to do, didn't they? That was certainly the only thing keeping her semi-rational. Up until two hours ago, she'd only been a portion of a human being's mind. She was only two hours old. She had no life experience to fall back on, no memories that were her own, no emotions except fear of disapproval, fear of danger and the impulse to preserve her own life.

She was winging this. A virus could have seen that she was winging it. And she was dreadfully certain that she was going to make a suggestion of pure mule puke that would destroy her life. Hell, all their lives.

And she couldn't allow that. She was the one who kept things together for all of them. Well…she always had kept things together.

"I think that she wants to be alone," said Kitti, slowing her dancing for a moment. "She's scared. And you aren't helping."

Liz felt as if the top of her head might be coming off. "I'm trying to!"

"I know, but…maybe she's having a hard time thinking right now. After all, you always did it for us."

That made more sense than Liz wanted to admit. Reluctantly, she had to concede that Kitti had a point. This in itself was enough to make her boggle. Overly horny former ids/libidos were not supposed to draw logical conclusions.

She's starting to adapt. Which means I'd better start, too.

"Okay," she said to Kitti in a quiet tone. "Then do you have any suggestions? Because I'm fresh out."

"We could leave her alone for a while. And in a half hour, maybe, I could go look for her."

"And do what?" Liz genuinely wanted to hear the answer.

"Well…" Kitti spun around in a circle, knelt down and somersaulted flawlessly, and did a split. "I could give her a hug. She likes hugs. And I could tell her it's going to be okay."

"Things," Liz said glumly, "are a very long way from okay."

"I know," Kitti replied. "I know."

It wasn't a wonderful idea. Liz knew that. But it was an idea—the first one Kitti had ever had that wasn't related to fucking, Christian Grey or both—and one that might work. It was worth a shot.

"All right. We'll wait until half-past, and then you go looking for her. Only…" Liz's voice crept an octave higher. "For the love of God, will you please put some clothes on first? This isn't a nude beach."

Kitti grimaced, wrinkling her nose. "Prude." But this time her tone was half-affectionate. At least, Liz thought that it was. And, having said that, she immediately made a beeline for Ana's suitcase, which Liz had picked open earlier to find attire of her own.

"By the way," she said, rummaging through tank tops and shorts, "what did you think of my triple axel dismount?"

It was on the tip of Liz's tongue to say that triple axels were spins in ice skating, not in dancing, and that you couldn't use an ice skating spin as a gymnastics dismount. But Kitti just looked so damned proud of herself for that spin-somersault-split.

"It was very good," she said, choking down her snark. "Hey, maybe when we get back to Seattle, you should start taking dancing lessons. You never know; you might be able to make a living from dancing, one way or another. I think that you'd enjoy that a lot more than trying to work for a publishing house."

Kitti gave her an astonished but delighted smile.

***

Once Kitti had gone—and Liz seriously hoped that she wasn't going to end up arrested for indecent exposure —Liz noticed Gmail's icon telling her that she, or rather Ana, had some mail. Christian Grey. Again.

Ana had never used Internet access for much, and so far as Liz was aware, only Grey had her email address. At least, that had been the way things were until today. Liz had had a very good time using her brand-new hands to create emails for herself and Kitti, as well as a new one for Ana that Grey didn't know. And that was before she'd found some very active sites and forums about BDSM. She was learning a lot that hadn't been in Wikipedia's article on BDSM submissives.

Liz hesitated a moment before opening the email. It wasn't her mail, after all. But Ana wasn't in any state to deal with anything, and Liz recalled quite clearly how she, Kitti and Ana had all reacted to Grey's response to Ana mentioning getting a massage in a first-class airline lounge:

I know what you’re trying to do – and trust me – you’ve succeeded. Next time you’ll be in the cargo hold, bound and gagged in a crate. Believe me when I say that attending to you in that state will give me so much more pleasure than merely upgrading your ticket. I look forward to your return.

Christian Grey
Palm-Twitching CEO, Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc.

Ana sure as hell hadn't liked that. She'd been scared. She'd been so desperate for reassurance that she'd secretly used her BlackBerry right before the plane took off, begging Grey not to scare her that way. Grey's response had been to threaten her with a severe beating for endangering herself and the rest of the passengers. Because beating up a girl who barely knew that computers existed would really make her understand that trying to use Wi-Fi during takeoff was a bad thing.

Ana had emailed him again during the stopover in Atlanta, telling him honestly that she feared being hurt physically or emotionally, that she didn't feel she was a submissive, that she didn't even enjoy the idea of being beaten, and that she wanted to think very seriously about what "more love and affection" meant in a relationship like this. It had been a very rational email, and Liz was quite proud of that. Getting Ana to think rationally about Christian Grey would count as a major victory for any semi-independent entity.

And now there was yet another email from Grey. Liz scowled. Ana needs time to think. She needed that before she was burdened with sisters. She came out to Georgia to think about this guy and his rules and his punishment, and he just won't leave her alone.

She opened the email and scanned it. My God, this is long. Certain lines, all angry, arrogant and entitled, leapt out at her, berating Ana for being more articulate in writing than in person, for feeling that he was paying her for sex with his expensive presents, for believing that a man who used his hands and his cock to punish her would also shove her, bound and gagged, into a crate. There were a couple of paragraphs at the end where he blathered on about how he was caught in her spell and how she disarmed him completely…but to Liz, it reeked of insincerity and manipulation. He only flatters her when he's afraid that he won't get his own way.

For a moment, she considered replying for Ana. It would be enormously satisfying to deal with the bastard the way he deserved. But then she shook her head. No. That wouldn't be fair to Ana; he'd just get mad, the way he always did, and punish Ana for Liz's words.

She compromised by removing it from the inbox and shoving it into the drafts folder. Ana wouldn't see it tonight, at least. And she'd talk it over with Ana and Kitti tomorrow or Thursday. Sometime before their…no, before Ana's flight back to Seattle. She and Kitti were going to need identities and money before they could go anywhere.

Signing out of Ana's email and logging into her own, she composed a brief message to Kate. I realize that this is nervy of me, since we haven't technically met yet—but how do you go about creating a new identity from scratch? I'm hoping you've run into a how-to article about that.

The reply came back instantly. What do you need?

***

Despite Liz's best intentions, she and Ana didn't discuss Grey's email the next day; in fact, she didn't get a chance to mention it, being too busy creating false identities with Kate. And their mother took Ana and Kitti out clothes shopping on the grounds that the new "triplets" needed clothes that had not been borrowed from Kate Kavanagh.

"And I expect you to meet us later," she told Liz in the kitchen before they left. "All work and no play, you know. If you can't come to the beach this afternoon, meet the three of us in this hotel's bar." She named the most costly hotel in Savannah. "I thought that we'd see how the other half lives for one day, at least."

"I'm not sure Ana will want me there," Liz admitted. "I'm…a little too blunt for her. And I said some things yesterday that upset her a lot. I didn't mean to, but I did. I was just trying to get her to think about the situation logically. It didn't work very well."

Carla chuckled. "Well, you may have gotten off to a rough start, but you're still sisters. Don't forget that."

"How are you getting Bob to go along with this? He knows that you don't have three daughters."

"He knows that I do now," Carla said with just a touch of smugness. "You three are hardly the strangest thing that's happened since I took up witchcraft. Considering all the magic that was involved, this was almost straightforward. Someday you should ask Bob to tell you about the badger, the Formula One race car and the cinnamon doughnuts. Now that was weird. "

Before Liz could so much as react to this, Carla glanced toward Ana, who was standing outside looking morose and shell-shocked. "What's wrong? I've asked Ana, but she won't tell me much except that she had to come here to think because her boyfriend overwhelms her."

"Her boyfriend scares her," Liz snapped, striving to keep her voice down; Ana didn't need to know what she was saying. "Hell, he scares me. He claims he's into BDSM, and he just loves hitting her—he'd say spanking, but she calls it hitting—for the smallest offenses. Like…saying no to his fingering her in front of his parents. Or rolling her eyes when he says something that she considers dumb. Or saying no to BDSM relationships, period. She'll tell you that was a joke, but she was absolutely shocked by one Wikipedia article on the subject. She hasn't even looked at anything else. Did you know that he handed her a contract and a non-disclosure agreement on their first date? Or that she signed the non-disclosure agreement without reading it?"

"What?! That's ridiculous!"

Liz sighed. "She thought that it would show him how much she trusted him. That's why she won't talk to you about him—why she won't talk to anyone about him. She thinks it's forbidden. And he's already told her that if the NDA is violated, that's the end of their relationship. Until this trip, Ana was still hoping for him to suddenly give up the spankings and the threats and want to be loving and affectionate. Maybe she was even hoping he'd start to listen when she says no." She laughed bitterly. "Ana thinks that arousal and orgasm are the same thing as consent."

Carla's face was oatmeal-grey, and she looked as if she'd been slapped. "Dear God. How long has this been going on?"

"Well, she met him about six weeks ago," Liz said. "Kate was sick—really sick, because she'd been trying to get that interview with Grey since last September—and couldn't budge from the couch to interview him. I guess everyone else on the student newspaper was busy with term papers or preparing for finals or something, because Kate begged Ana to do the interview on the day of, and Ana wasn't even on the paper.

"But after that, he just kept showing up. Suddenly he had a desperate need to buy building supplies at the hardware store where she worked—half a state away. And he sent Ana books that cost fourteen thousand dollars…never mind that she's not comfortable with a present that costs that much, or that she's tried several times to give them back. And pulling her out of the path of a bicycle and then pouring on the charm and telling her that no, no, alas, they could never possibly be together, for he was no good for her, didn't she understand?" Liz flung her left arm melodramatically over her forehead.

"He left her be for a while, but then Ana drunk-dialed him when we were out at a bar celebrating the end of finals…and he came to the bar to pick her up. This probably would have come across as a lot creepier if her friend José hadn't decided that Ana being drunk was the perfect opportunity for him to start trying to make out with her. She kept shaking her head and saying no, and he kept paying no attention.

"Then Grey showed up and got rid of José—which made Ana feel that she'd been saved by the proverbial knight in shining armor. Then Ana blacked out. And when she—well, we—woke up, it was the next morning and she was in his hotel room. Half-undressed, I might add. Oh, he said that her clothes were spattered with vomit, which was why he undressed her. And they probably were; Ana was pretty sick that night." Liz's voice hardened. "But that doesn't explain why he felt the need to share the same bed with an unconscious woman after he stripped her. And yes, he told her he'd done this."

The stunned look on Carla's face spoke volumes. "Didn't she realize that how wrong this was?"

"For about two seconds," Liz replied with a sigh. "Then he assured her that he'd been a perfect gentleman, and she just…believed him. I don't know why. Maybe because not believing him would have been too scary after what happened with José. Or maybe because he's handsome and rich and she likes the way he smells; I don't think that she'd have believed him quite that fast if he'd been ugly and poor and had reeked of garbage."

Carla closed her eyes and groaned.

"After that, though, he really started rushing things. He took us home around…oh, around noon on Saturday, I think. And then, on the same day, he picked her up after work for a date. He took us to his penthouse apartment in Seattle. By helicopter. Then he showed her his, and I'm quoting, 'playroom' filled with whips and ceiling karabiners and bondage furniture, and, while Ana was still reeling from that, took her to the living room and handed her the NDA and a three-month submissive contract. Well, really, more of a slave contract; as far as he's concerned, submission doesn't end in the bedroom. He wants to be able to tell her what to eat, what to wear, how long she has to sleep, whether she can look at him…and to punish her any way he sees fit if she disobeys."

Liz bit her lip and gazed at Carla's horrified face. "That was eleven days ago. He's kept up the pressure to sign—and the sex—ever since. Ana still hadn't signed the contract when she came here. But he keeps acting like she already has. And I can't influence Ana and Kitti now, especially if he gets them alone. They don't think very clearly when he's around. Kitti isn't much for thinking, period."

There was a long, long pause—long enough for Liz to feel a pang of regret for breaking Ana's trust. It didn't matter that two of them were less than two days old or that all of them sadly needed help and support. Ana hadn't wanted— Mrs. Adams? Her mother? Their mother?—to know any of this, and Liz knew that damned well.

"I see," said Carla in a highly displeased tone that made Liz's heart sink. "Well, thank you for telling me. I can't say that I'm delighted, but I'd rather know…and before I give any more romantic advice. Ana told me that he was 'moody' and 'mercurial', and I gave her advice based on that. Not this."

"Anything you could do to help would be welcome," Liz said fervently. Then she glanced at Ana, who was still drooping despondently outside the back door. "Well, maybe not welcome. But necessary."

"I just have one question. How do other people react to him? Are they afraid of him or—"

"No," Liz replied, shaking her head. "Just the opposite. He treats most people rudely—or at best, with indifference—but somehow, everyone seems to love him and trust him. Well, I don't. But I haven't really met him face to face yet, so maybe I shouldn't say that. Kate hates him most of the time, though."

"Only most of the time?"

Liz started to answer, and then paused, frowning. "You know, I hadn't thought about it before, but yes. Just most of the time. She can be talking about what an awful control freak he is and how he has a million commitment issues and then switch mid-conversation to saying that he's both generous and smitten, and that Ana needs to get together with him. It's bizarre."

"Maybe not quite so bizarre," in a soft voice. "There are a lot of handsome monsters in the world."

"I doubt if there's anything supernatural about him," Liz said. "He's probably just a creep. A human creep. And there are plenty of those around."

"You're a woman who was magically created when a female jinn fulfilled the wishes of a very new witch and two natural-born wizards," Carla said dryly. "I don't think that you should be too skeptical. I just wish that I had more experience with magic; I have no idea what he could be."

"Aren't you done yet?" Kitti called from the car. Her voice, Liz realized, was just a fraction more high-pitched than Ana's. "I thought we were going shopping!"

"We are!" Carla shouted back. "Just as soon as I find my keys!"

"That should hold them," she added as Kitti grumbled in audible but irked assent and Ana's shoulders slumped even more. "Maybe I can even manage to cast a spell of protection before we leave—though it'll have to be a short one. I'll see if I can do more later."

Liz blinked in confusion as Carla decorated the whiteboard's grocery list with a complex doodle—a magical sigil, she supposed. Carla was sounding and acting far too practical, and that just wasn't right. Carla was the kind of person who became enthusiastic about new fads every other week. She was bubbly and disorganized, the kind of scatterbrain who…

…who pretended to keep losing her keys so that people wouldn't ask any questions.

As if reading Liz's mind, Carla gave her a conspiratorial grin. "We'll talk later. You sure you don't want to come? I'm pretty sure you wouldn't pick the same clothes as Ana or Kitti. And the spell can cover four women as easily as three."

Liz shook her head. "No, sorry. Kate and I are kind of in the middle of…" She fumbled for a euphemism. "Um…creating character sheets. And it involves a lot of detail. But thanks. And I'll see you at the bar later."

***

By dinner time, the four of them were sitting in an elegant (and extremely pricy) cocktail lounge, sipping drinks and talking. At least, Ana reflected bitterly, that's what my mother and the two fake mes are doing. She herself was checking two days' worth of emails on her BlackBerry and trying not to chug her second Cosmopolitan, because Christian had sent bushels of emails to her and she hadn't answered any of them. And this had made him very, very angry.

His messages were like the build-up to an avalanche. Why hadn't she responded to his last email? Why was she ignoring him? Hadn't he told her that she had to learn to communicate with him openly and honestly? As her Dom, he forbade her to defy him this way—and if she persisted, he would punish her very severely. Did she have any idea how furious he was right now? Didn't she realize that this was against all the rules? How dare she demand love and affection in this relationship when she was treating him with such contempt! And after all the compromises that he'd made, too!

Interspersed with the enraged emails were a few pleas for her to answer because he was worried, because she was so vulnerable, and because he couldn't help wondering what disaster had separated her from him. The final message—little more than a Post-It Note written last night—had curtly informed her that he was going off to have dinner with an old friend. Which was strange, because Christian had told her that he didn't have any friends.

Really, if it had been anyone but Christian, Ana would have thought that he was trying to make her jealous. But Christian wouldn't do that. He wasn't the kind of man who…he didn't take advantage of….well, he just didn't do that kind of thing!

If she'd been answering his emails one at a time as she usually did, she probably would have thought that he was just joking. Testy, at worst. But when she looked at the hours and hours of messages, each one angrier than the last, Christian didn't seem nearly so funny. And—a heretical thought—his fussing seemed silly. After all, she'd come to Georgia to get some space so that she could think about their relationship without his presence confusing her. She'd told him this before she left Seattle. Yet he was infuriated that she was doing what she'd said, instead of making him her first priority.

Or rather, seemed to be doing what she'd said. After having been magically twinned—or should that be "magically tripleted"?—realizing that she was little more than a fragment of her former self, wondering how she was going to re-grow the portions of her psyche that were missing (or even if she could), wondering what kind of future she had now that she'd lost most of her education and would never get it back, wondering if that also meant that she'd lost much of her ability to think, hating Ethan and Kate and her mother for causing this, loathing her fake twins for existing, longing to punch the world for compelling her to act as if everything was perfectly all right when she felt as if she was unraveling, and both fearing and feeling that someone like herself, a splinter from a human being's mind, didn't count as human…

…after all that, concerns about her relationship—or whatever it was—with Christian seemed relatively unimportant.

She still cared. Of course she did. That was what she was, right? The emotions? She had to care. It was just that compared to her problems, Christian's seemed tiny. And that last message about a dinner that sounded suspiciously like a date felt extremely…petty.

She glanced over at her mother, who had just said something that had made the two fakes laugh. The slime. They weren't having an identity crisis. Well, why should they? They had talents. And her mother—her mother, of all people—liked them. Ana supposed that she should applaud her mother for coping so well with the situation, but she couldn't help but feel that Mom was coping a little too well. Couldn't she have distrusted the fakes a little, instead of being so welcoming that Ana felt she'd been replaced by two shinier, better daughters?

Just as Christian had hinted in his last email that he'd replaced her—at least for the night—with a shinier, better Ana.

And when she thought about it that way, Ana knew who the "old friend" had to be—the only person who even vaguely filled the role. His ex-domme and present-day business partner. The woman who'd raped a fifteen-year-old boy and kept him as her secret submissive for years and years. Mrs. Robinson.

Ana glared at her BlackBerry. He knows how I feel about her. He knows. And he still went to see her when I was out of town. I'm supposed to be here thinking about committing to a submissive relationship and signing a contract that gives him complete control—and he's fooling around with her.

Her fingers fairly stabbing at the device and a red haze playing before her eyes, Ana composed and sent a brief reply to Christian's last message.

Mrs. Robinson is not just an old friend.

Has she found another adolescent boy to sink her teeth into?

Did you get too old for her?

Is that the reason your relationship finished?

Then she looked up and saw her mother walking toward her. Wasn't she sitting and talking to the twins a couple of minutes ago? She must have gone to the powder room when I wasn't watching.

"Ana," her mother said gently. "You're so pale. What's happened?"

Ana gave her an incredulous look, glancing toward the twins in what she hoped was a highly significant way before shaking her head and replying. "Nothing. Let's have another drink."

Her mother frowned, but she signaled one of the waiters and then pointed at her glass, Ana's and Kitti's. Liz, Ana was displeased to note, was still nursing her first glass of Scotch. It figures that she wouldn't want to relax. And Kitti was on…what? Her fourth Brandy Alexander? Or was it her fifth?

Oh, it didn't matter. She couldn't deal with either of them tonight. Sullenly, she turned back to her BlackBerry—and discovered that she'd just received another email from Christian.

This is not something I wish to discuss via email.

How many Cosmopolitans are you going to drink?

Holy fuck.

"He's here," she said, her quavering voice interrupting the others' conversation. "Christian's watching us. He's here."

***

Christian appeared barely two seconds later, striding through the crowd toward them, his eyes alight with fury, his mouth little more than a grim, thin-lipped slash. There was really no excuse for Kitti to leap up, cheering.

"Will you sit down?" snarled Liz. "You're embarrassing me!"

"But he's so beautiful." Kitti clasped her hands to her breasts and sighed dramatically. "And he came here to see me."

Ana never knew what Liz would have said next (though her scowl spoke volumes) because at that moment, Christian reached their table. A perplexed expression swept across his face at the sight of her twins, but he managed to refrain from asking questions until Ana squeaked out a greeting (sounding, to her mind, like the missing Chipette) and to introduce him to "my mother, Carla. Mom, this is Christian Grey."

Christian favored her mother with a smile that Ana had previously thought was of heartbreaking beauty. Judging by the reaction of Kitti and—oh, no, Mom, not you, too!—it still was. She just having trouble connecting this smiling man to the one who'd been sending her furious and frequently threatening emails for the past two days. There was no reason for him to be smiling.

"Mrs. Adams, I am delighted to meet you." He could not have sounded more sincere.

"How did you know her name was Mrs. Adams?" Liz asked, frowning and laying a hand on—well, Ana supposed that she had to say "their""—mother's arm. "Ana just said 'Carla'."

Their mother blinked as if coming out of a daze. "Yes, I'd like to know that, too, Mr. Grey."

"Ana told me." Christian was still smiling, but the smile seemed to be a bit frayed around the edges. "I can't remember when, but she must have."

Kitti's forehead creased in evident puzzlement. "But we never talk. You nag me about eating, you scold me for doing things you don't like, or you hit me. Or we fuck. That's all."

"Ana, Kitti," said Liz in a strained tone. "You mean that Christian nags and scolds Ana."

"No," Kitti said with serene unconcern. "It's nearly always been me. Ana just comes along for the ride."

Christian gave Ana a look that made her tremble—and not in a good way. "I was not aware that you were one of triplets. So you thought it amusing to deceive me?"

"Oh, no," Kitti said cheerfully. "Ana didn't deceive you at all. It's just I'm her and she is me and we are all together. Well…we were."

Liz buried her face in her hands. "Thank you, Kitti. That was very helpful."

Ana took a deep breath. "You'll have to forgive my sister," she said in a voice that shook very little. "She's having a bit of an identity crisis. And I certainly have not deceived you—Kitti and Liz have never been west of the Mississippi in their lives."

"Well," Kitti said thoughtfully, "we have mentally."

"But not," Ana said through gritted teeth, "physically." And before anyone could say anything else that she'd have to explain away, she turned to Christian. "What are you doing here?"

Christian blinked, looking remarkably innocent. "Why, I came to see you, of course. I hadn't heard from you for days, and I was becoming concerned."

I told you that I was coming here to think! Ana raged. Why don't you listen?

"Awww, how sweet," said her mother in a syrupy tone that Ana knew meant exactly the opposite. "So you just dropped everything to come find Ana?"

"No. I had some real estate negotiations to conduct."

"Oh, you're a realtor?"

"No." This was said in tones of pure liquid hydrogen. "I'm the CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings Inc."

Her mother looked puzzled. "Don't you have people who specialize in real estate purchases and property law?"

"Of course."

"Then couldn't you have just stayed in Seattle and let them conduct the negotiations?"

"I make the final decisions about everything in my company! Me! Not my staff."

"I see," said her mother, and the tight control in her voice was such a change from the syrupy tone that it made Ana turn toward her in amazement. "So what you're telling me is that you, a chief executive officer of a corporation with many responsibilities and duties, dropped all of them to come to Savannah to perform real estate negotiations that could just as easily have been done by your staff because you aren't willing to let anyone but you make a decision. That also seems to be why you're pestering Ana instead of simply letting her think. And she already told me that's why she came here. To think. To decide. In private. Goodbye, Mister Grey."

Ana gaped at her. This? This is my scatty mom?

Christian looked as if he'd been slapped. Against her better judgment, Ana found her heart twisting in sympathy. He looked so wounded—like a child that had been hurt but didn't know why. "Anastasia, please. If I could just talk to you in private, I could explain everything."

"When he looks as adorable as that," Kitti said with a romantic sigh, "I forget all about him spanking and fucking me for rolling my eyes, and I just want to cuddle him."

Liz gazed askance at her sister. "You need therapy."

"Some people like being hit," Kitti retorted. "And there's nothing wrong with that."

"Yes," Liz said patiently. "Some people do like it. But you don't. None of the women at this table do. This started because of desperation, remember? I can still see you jumping up and down, telling Ana, 'Please do this…otherwise you’ll end up alone with lots of cats and your classic novels to keep you company.'"

Her mother took her hand. "Oh, Ana. That's a terrible reason for getting together with anyone."

For a moment, Ana considered dying of embarrassment. Then she closed her eyes, counted to five, pulled away from her mother's hand and stood up.

"Look," she said to her mother and the twins, opening her eyes and trying very hard not to cry. "I know you're worried about me. I know that you just want to help. And I know that two of you don't like him. But this is my business. If he shouldn't decide for me, neither should you."

Liz spoke gently. "We just want to be sure that he doesn't push you into anything."

"I don't think you can make sure," Ana said in a small voice.

Truthfully, she didn't know what she wanted to say; Kitti had been quite correct when she'd said that she and Christian didn't have conversations. Either he was angry and giving her orders or he was in bed and giving her orders. And judging by Kitti's reactions tonight, Ana had spent most of her time with Christian blushing, gasping and staring at him in starry-eyed adoration.

It was humiliating to realize that she'd been, not Christian's lover, but Christian's fangirl.

Belatedly, she realized that Christian was speaking.

"—want to talk to me, I'll be in Room 612." And he began to walk away.

"No."

It was difficult to say 'No'; he looked so vulnerable right now. It seemed most unjust, therefore, that he continued to walk away as if he hadn't even heard her.

She raised her voice, "I said, 'No', Christian!"

That got his attention, for he came storming back. "I'm not comfortable talking like this in a public place. If you wish to speak to me, you can do so discreetly and in the privacy of my room. If you're not amenable to that, I'll leave."

"I'm not talking in your room," Ana insisted. "I'll walk in and stare at you, and then somehow we'll end up in bed, and we won't discuss anything."

"Do you really think that there's any purpose in discussion?"

"Yes. And I'd rather not be distracted."

"Really?" he said, leering at her. "I would. And I know you, Anastasia. You'd love the distractions I have in mind."

"We could talk about Mrs. Robinson and your emails here, if you want. I don't mind." Ana could scarcely believe that she'd said that. The cocktails must be talking.

Muttering something about how he couldn't wait to get her back in Seattle and deal with that smart mouth of hers, Christian grabbed her by the hand and dragged her over to a corner table. Once there, he scowled and pointed at a chair. "Ask me."

Ask you what? If you like the chair? If it is a chair?

"Ask me."

Ana stared at him. "I don't—"

"Ask me, damn it!"

Ana fumbled for some questions. "Did your company make the chair? Did someone famous sit in it once? Is it an antique? Did you donate it to the bar?"

Evidently none of those questions suited him, for he was turning brick-red and a vein was pulsating in his temple. "Your sarcasm is not appreciated, Anastasia. I wish that we were somewhere less public than this so that I could strip you naked and give you the hiding you deserve."

Inwardly, Ana quailed, but she forced herself to answer. "This is why we need to talk instead of just having sex. You always do this. You always expect me to know what you want me to say or do, and if I don't, you get mad. Or I'll have an opinion that you don't agree with, and you get mad. Or I won't stuff myself the way you think I should. Or I'll tell you that I don't want expensive presents. Or I'll talk to a guy—any guy. Or roll my eyes at you. Or say no."

She swallowed several times and then went on. "It never stops, Christian. And since you getting angry generally means that you hit me or—or use sex as a weapon or both, I'm scared most of the time. I feel like I'm walking through a minefield. I never know what I'm going to say or do that will set you off. "

"All you have to do is obey me. That's all I ask. That's all I want." He sounded both baffled and sad, as if she was going out of her way to make life unpleasant for him.

And once again, Ana felt an impulse deep within to agree to his wishes, rather than hurting him again as his birth mother had. He needed love and understanding, not arguments. She knew that. Why was she fighting with him?

Christian Grey smiled seductively at her. "Now, Ana," he murmured, "I think that you and I should speak more privately than this, don't you? What would you say to a nice walk along the Savannah River?"

Ana struggled to think. She knew there was something she didn't like about that suggestion, but she couldn't remember what.

Hesitantly, she nodded. She didn't want to…but it would make Christian happy. And it was such a little thing, after all.

Such a very little thing.

***

Kitti stared after Christian longingly for what felt like forever while Liz and Mumma bickered.

"I should try sneaking closer to their table," Liz was saying. "You know, to hear what they're saying."

"I'm sure that he'd notice someone who looks exactly like Ana trying to sneak up from a table facing theirs, even if he is preoccupied with Ana at the moment," Mumma said patiently. "Just use the BlackBerry. See if you can get in touch with Kate."

"I'm trying! I've sent seven messages already. She's not answering. Maybe the Kavanaghs went out to dinner or something." Liz gazed at the BlackBerry in fear. "We spent the whole day creating names and backstories for Kitti and me—good enough so that we can get decent documents later. Maybe she said to herself, 'Fuck this! I'm in Barbados!' and went out to have fun."

"Leaving anything vaguely phone- or Internet-related at home?" Mumma said, her voice and her expression dubious. "I didn't think that anyone of your generation, aside from Ana, could even breathe without having a cell phone or iPad nearby."

"Guys," said Kitti, noticing some movement over at Christian's and Ana's table.

"I can't believe these emails," Liz muttered. "He keeps harping on the same thing—obedience. Do everything he says. Do whatever he wants done. Follow wherever he goes. Or there will be punishment. Terrible punishment." She forwarded each one to multiple addresses: her own, Carla's, Ray's, Kate's, Ethan's.

"Gu-uuys…" Kitti was standing up now, looking anxious.

"Why did Kate send Ana?" Mumma almost wailed. "If she hadn't gone on that interview—"

"Guys!" Kitti was staring at the bar's exit. "They're gone." And she pointed at the table, which was indeed empty.

"That's impossible," Liz said in flat, this-is-utterly-ridiculous tones. "They couldn't just disappear."

"Of course he could," Kitti snapped, giving her a disgusted look. "He'd just need to be magic. But he didn't use magic to disappear. He just ran out of here, half-carrying Ana."

"Why didn't she scream, then?" Mumma demanded.

"And why," Liz said, still sounding skeptical and crossing her arms over her chest, "didn't we see them leave?"

"She looked kind of…blissed out, so I guess she didn't want to scream." Kitti shrugged. "And maybe you weren't paying attention. Or maybe he didn't want you to see them leave. He knows you don't like him much."

"Did you notice anything else? Any clues?"

"You really expect her to notice anything beyond 'Christian is beautiful'?" Liz said under her breath, stabbing the keys of the BlackBerry.

"I heard that! And no, not really. He just said that everything would be all right once they got to the river." Kitti couldn't repress a joyful smile. "He did look beautiful, though."

"The Savannah River," Mumma said, turning pale. "We have to go."

At that moment, a tall young woman with strawberry blonde hair materialized in the center of the bar, a duffel bag slung across her chest. She was at their table a half-minute later.

"All right. Where's Grey? And where's my Ana?"

***

Unlike in the movies, they couldn't just run out and follow someone. Kate had to charge their drinks to her credit card first. Another delay.

"We're never going to catch up with them," Kitti whimpered.

"Yes, we are," said Kate, waving her hand at the side of the hotel and saying something that sounded jaw-breaking. "And there's our transportation."

"Bicycles?" For that was what Kate had conjured up—four racing bicycles in red, yellow, blue and green.

"Yeah," Kate said, picking the yellow one. "They're smaller than cars, they're maneuverable, they can go around traffic or on the sidewalk if they have to, and they're fast. As fast we need them to be. I made sure of that."

A few minutes later they were speeding down the street with Kate in the lead trying to track Ana and Carla in back casting protection spell after protection spell on the four of them. Liz and Kitti rode in the middle, scouting the sidewalks for anyone who even looked like Ana or Christian. Liz was still grumbling about how neither of them should be able to keep their balance, as they were only two days old. They'd never learned how to ride racing bikes.

"Liz," Kitti said, smirking a little, "it's magic. You don't have to explain it."

The countless wharves and docks and bridges and buoys around the Savannah River—so many that they made Kitti dizzy—bought them time. There simply was no place so close to the port of Savannah for a monster who wanted to drown and eat a woman and then plunge beneath the river's polluted waters unnoticed.

When at last they caught up with Christian, he was standing on a small deserted dock, gripping Ana's upper arms and gazing at her intensely. It almost looked romantic. Almost.

"Let us have no more of this," he was saying in a tender voice. "Come back with me, Ana. Please. I…I've missed you. I want to take you home with me. Please say yes."

"Damn it!" Kate whispered to the other three. "It's too late. He's asking the Three Questions. Pray that Ana doesn't say yes to any of them, or no magic will be able to save her." She clenched her fists and a flash of blue-white lightning tore across the still-bright evening sky. "I hate the rules sometimes."

"I'm her mother," said Carla, gazing at her daughter and Christian as if the very sight nauseated her. "I kept urging her to trust him, to stop thinking about this situation. If you mean that I can't do anything to make up for that now…"

"You can't," Kate said quietly. "I'm so sorry, but you can't. None of us can. For good or ill, we've given her all the input we can. It's up to Ana now." She gazed at Carla with suspiciously wet eyes. "And if we interfere, it's the same as if she chose wrong. I'm not doing that to Ana. And I won't let anyone else do it." The last word came out in a thready gulp, as if she was trying very hard not to cry.

For a moment or two, Ana said nothing. When she finally spoke, she sounded doubtful. "Christian…you don't want me. You don't even want to listen to me. When I try to talk, you get angry. Or you pick me up and run out of a hotel bar. I don't know where I am with you!"

"I could compromise," he said, and his tone nearly made Kitti melt. "Please. You tempt me so much, Ana. Where I live doesn't feel like home without you any longer. Don't think about this. We belong together. Please come with me."

"I don't know…" Ana said, biting her lower lip.

A growl burst from him. "You know what that does to me." He bent low as if to kiss her…and Kitti saw his face shimmer, as if it was starting to become something else.

Ana stepped back. "You've promised compromises before, you know, and you haven't followed through. Why should I believe you this time?"

"That's not true!" Again, he favored her with the wounded look he'd given her in the bar. "I will do anything if you'll come home with me, Ana. Just say yes."

"Anything?"

"Anything at all."

"Then let me touch you."

The sheer raw horror in his face had the force of a physical blow.

"I've touched you before. When we were…you know. Doing that. I even slept on you as if you were a pillow, once."

"That's different!"

"Why?"

"Because that's the way sex works. You have to touch people to get it done. It's necessary. But this…" Christian backed away, his face as pale as frosted glass. "If you touch me now, it's all over. Just…just say that you'll come with me. Please."

Ana shook her head. "You say that you'll compromise, but you won't. You promise you'll let me think, and you stalk me here. You say that you'll listen to me, but you don't. You say that you'll try to treat me with love and affection—you promised that, too—but you don't even want to touch me if you can't hit me first. You certainly don't want me to touch you. I love…doing that…with you, and I thought I loved you—but I don't love being the one who gives in all the time while you always get your way. And I don't like going into this knowing that no matter how I feel, this is going to be temporary. No, Christian." She gently ran her fingers through his red hair. "It's over."

Then she grimaced, jerking her hand away. "What have you got in your hair? It feels like wet plants."

Christian did not reply. Instead, he vanished, only to be replaced by a handsome grey horse with wet seaweed entwined in its mane. Its red eyes regarded her sardonically.

"Run, Ana!" Kate screamed. "Don't ask questions, just run!"

***

It was the panic in Kate's voice that got Ana moving, for Kate never showed fear. Even as she was still thinking, A horse? My boyfriend was a horse?, she was stumble-racing down the dock as hooves thundered after her and something that felt far too strong to be a horse's jaw nipped at her shoulder. As she slipslid across the damp riverbank to her family and Kate (and when had Kate gotten here?), Kate reached out, caught her hands and pulled Ana against her.

"I'm sorry," she murmured. "I'm so sorry. If I had known he was an each uisge, I never would have sent you to interview him. I thought that there was something off about him, but not this."

"An ech ooshkya?" Ana echoed. "What's that?"

"A Scottish shapeshifter," Kate explained. "They aren't human—or horses, really. They're closer to faeries than anything else." She glared at the red-eyed horse standing at the end of the dock. "And they eat people. Some say that they prefer to eat children."

Ana thought of how much Christian had loved her to wear pigtails, and winced. "But why did he go through all of this instead of eating me?"

"To be precise," said the each uisge, "—and really, when were you ever precise?—I haven't eaten you yet. I'm very old; I can remember the world when your Yahweh was only a tribal god worshipped by a handful of shepherds. I have to take my amusement where I can find it. And rarely have I seen anyone so eager to fall into my jaws. I imperiled you a thousand different ways, and you did not shrink from me. And then, quite suddenly, you did. Was that your doing, little wizard, or that of the pathetic witch near you?"

"Does it matter?" Kate said, still holding tight to Ana. "She said no. She refused you three times. According to the rules, she's no longer your prey."

"Yes," said the each uisge thoughtfully. "However, as Ana can attest, I've never been one to obey anyone's rules but my own." So saying, it leapt from the dock toward the group, moving so fast that it seemed to be flying…

…and was flung backwards with a flash of purple light.

Carla stared at the each uisge, then at her hands, and then at the each uisge again. She burst into an incredulous smile. "It worked! My spell of protection really worked!"

The each uisge stood up somewhat shakily. A large wound resembling a complex spell circle had been burned into its chest. "Just for that, I shall devour you along with your slut of a daughter. Fools are almost as delicious as corrupted virgins."

"Wow, Kate," said Kitti, staring. "You really hurt him."

"She did not do this, you wretched clodpate," replied the each uisge with disdain. "Another wizard did, nearly twenty-four years ago when I was hunting in Detroit. She managed to injure me somewhat, but I got her in the end…and her squalling spawn, too."

Kate understood immediately. "Grey's mother. The real Christian Grey's mother."

"She was a very stupid girl," said the each uisge. "Barely out of her teens, burdened with a spoiled brat, an equally spoiled pimp, and power that she scarcely could control, much less understand. Really, I did her a favor by killing her."

Kate wasn't listening. Instead, she was staring very hard at the wound on its chest. "That's a binding spell. She didn't just run into you when you were hunting, did she? She hunted you. What's more, she captured you, because a wound like that would take time to inflict. And then she bound you. She took away some of your power. Maybe a lot of it. Enough so that when you disguised yourself as a human toddler, you were stuck that way. You had to grow up as a human. And no one is supposed to escape your kind after they touch you near a river or a lake. And that was twenty-four years ago, so she did some serious damage. If you can't drag your victims under water, you can't feed." A broad smile sprawled across her face. "I think I love that woman."

Ana was plainly confused. "But he told me not to touch him."

"I guess that in a few thousand years, even a monster can learn reverse psychology."

"We have talked," said the each uisge, "for long enough. I am weary of witches and wizards and vain, shallow humans. Tonight, I shall have a banquet."

What followed was…frustrating and lasted a long time. The protection spell held up well, but it in no way wounded or tired the creature. It seemed to be a Mexican standoff.

Kate glanced around for something she could use as a weapon. Red-hot hooks of iron were supposed to be the way to kill each uisges, but she didn't have any hooks or any fire to heat them, so that method was useless.

Or was it?

She invoked a spell of wind—almost a typhoon, really—praying that it would be strong enough to bring her what she needed. And it did. The gods were on her side, it seemed. That or they approved of magical vandalism.

"An anchor?" whispered Liz. "What are you going to do with an anchor?"

"Kill him with it, I hope. I just need a distraction."

"I can do that," Kitti whispered, and before Kate could refuse, she slipped away from the group and began dancing in front of the monster. Not seductive dancing, either. Kate could see the confusion in the creature's eyes; Kitti's actions made no fucking sense.

No time to waste. She focused most of her power on the anchor, calling down the strongest lightning strike imaginable while simultaneously trying to block their group—and Kitti—from electrocution.

The sheer force of the lightning was enough to knock them and the each uisge down.

Swiftly, as echoes of thunder pounded in her temples, Kate banished the lightning and called up the typhoon yet again. She couldn't lift the anchor very high this time, but then, she didn't have to. Each uisges were akin to the fae. If she could just wound it with iron and fire…

The anchor slammed into its left side and out the other, and the creature screamed, revealing a mouth filled with cruel, spike-like teeth. Blue-green blood spurted from the wounds. Then it slumped down on the sand, the body collapsing, shrinking in on itself and finally vanishing, leaving nothing behind but patches, here and there, of what resembled jellyfish.

Kitti scrambled back from the remains and burst into tears.

Ana reached out and hugged her with one arm, hugging Kate with the other. "I'm sorry," she said. "I know you loved him. What you thought was him, anyway." She looked at Kate. "I didn't know that they made shining knights who were girls."

"It's okay, Ana, " Kate said gently. "You don't have to—"

"I know. And…I don't want to rush things. I want to take some time to get over my boyfriend being a horse-shaped monster who wanted to eat me alive. And, well, the genie left Liz and Kitti and me with a few problems, and we have to fix those, even though I don't know how." Pausing, she glanced at Kate's face. She couldn't read the other woman's expression.

"But…if you still want to—I don't know, go out? I don't know how being a girl's girlfriend works—"

"Same as being a guy's girlfriend," said Kate. "Trust me. You can ask Elliot. If he's still talking to me after this, that is."

"…oh." Ana had no idea why she was so disappointed.

"Ana. Polyamory is totally a thing. And it can work. For all of us."

"I…I think I'd like to try. If you can put up with someone who needs to grow a new sex drive or something." She blushed, realizing that her mother and sisters had been listening. She could just imagine what they must be thinking.

Or maybe she couldn't. Because that was when Kitti spoke up. "Aren't you going to kiss her, Ana?"

"Kitti," groaned Liz.

An odd look swept across Kate's face. "Do you want to?"

Ana nodded.

It wasn't like kissing Christian. It wasn't psychedelic fireworks. It didn't give her a shattering, mind-blowing orgasm. It wasn't exciting. It felt familiar. It felt as if she was surrounded by understanding and compassion. It felt like love.

Ana leaned up into the kiss, feeling, for the first time since she'd landed in Savannah, that she had truly come home.