Family Of Woman
by glossolalia

Nina's sick of tending bar and pretending to be an artist. Her apartment downtown is closing in on her and her boyfriend hasn't called in three weeks. She's been eating instant oatmeal, plain, not even maple- or apple-flavored, for a week now.

And there's the thing with the sun. Its absence, actually, so it's like the whole city's living inside a planetarium show about eclipses. Creepy as hell and the long shadows like fingers through the gloom are just making her jitters worse.

So jittery and fed-up, she's almost ready to call Jill, make whatever necessary amends she can, ask shamefully for some help. Go back to school, maybe, be a good girl, get a career.

For a couple days now, she's been trying to figure out if the fire raining down was her imagination or not. Effects of K and the purples and brandy gone syrupy after being left open, maybe, if that was even K that Julie gave her.

First step, then, is find Julie and ask.

No, first step is find something decent - clean - to wear, then find Julie, then ask. That way she won't get the whole Julie treatment about keeping up appearances and making an effort.

She does have clean clothes. Somewhere.


"And this would be - what? Loose woman on the prowl, version urban dyke?" Rich knowing voice behind her and Nina turns, her hand still on the door to the club.

A gorgeous woman is standing a little way back on the sidewalk, smirking at her. Bobbed hair that clings to the sides of her face, curving body full and luscious in tight black. But for a moment it's her eyes, wide and shining, and that knowing smile, that capture Nina's attention.

That curving smile, intricate and unreadable as calligraphy. Devanagari, script of the gods, Nina thinks, and presses her hand against her forehead. She should really eat something soon.

"Do I know you?" Nina smoothes her free hand over the waist of the leather jeans she pulled from the bottom of a pile and shakes out her hair.

"Not yet," the woman says and takes Nina's arm. "But you look like you know how to have fun."

That's true. Fun attends Nina in streamers, bright trailing flags and banners that tangle around her legs - trip her, pull her forward - and her neck - choke her, bring her off - and she knows fun like you know how to breathe.

This woman - Cordelia - the loyal daughter, Nina thinks she remembers from AP English Lit, half a lifetime ago, is warm and quick. Impossible to think of her as anyone's daughter, though. She's too beautiful, her eyes too intelligent, her breath too musky-sweet against Nina's cheek to be anything other than herself.

Nina would like to kiss her, taste that smirk, run her palms down Cordelia's flaring hips, tug at each scrap of fabric and peel it off. Only some women this ample, this curvaceous, would ever have the balls to wear something this tight, and Nina likes that. Likes even more how Cordelia carries herself, her movements smooth and easy. Like no one's ever been as comfortable in her own skin as she is.

They haven't even made it into the club yet but Cordelia's tonguing Nina's jaw, the hollow of her ear, whispering husky, indeterminate things. Nina twists away, backs up, laughing, grasping Cordelia's hips.

"You want to dance?"

Swish of silky hair against Nina's cheek as Cordelia shakes her head. "Something - quieter," she says. "More low-key."

"Yeah?" Nina drops her voice, moves her lips down the sharp curve of Cordelia's cheek. She backs up, away from the door, hands full of warm, firm flesh, pulling Cordelia with her. "Want you all to myself -"

Stiffening, Cordelia grabs Nina's wrists. "Don't go in there."

Something rustles, then rattles, at the far end of the alley. Nina whirls, wondering how Cordelia knew, but Cordelia just yanks Nina forward. "Come on!" And they run, breathless, for the street, around the corner, and keep going until they're five blocks away and Nina's lungs are burning and Cordelia's face is flushed and shining under the streetlights.

She leads Nina through a creepy, abandoned store - the longer it stays dark, the emptier the city feels - and Nina keeps her hands on Cordelia's hips as they shuffle through the gloom and the shadows of stuffed beasts trail after them. She should be more scared, in this dusty place, stared at by dead glittering eyes, but the street was worse, everything dark and strange, and here at least there is shelter. Shelter and Cordelia, pulling her close in a stairwell, kissing her slow as brandy, syrupy and heady.

Up the stairs to a crummy loft - Nina's seen crummier, lived in crummier - and a skinny kid striding towards them.

"Where have you been? You can't just go out like that, you can't -" His voice is hoarse and high and his hair hangs in lank locks over an enraged face. "Who's that?"

He's asking about her, but the kid looks only at Cordelia, his whole body angled towards her, eyes slitted and mouth a tight slash. Nina's arm is twined in Cordelia's and she pulls herself against Cordelia. "Friend of yours?"

Lifting her chin, smiling serenely and sliding her palm up and down Nina's shoulder, Cordelia says, "Connor. He's Connor."

"So we're going to - party?" Nina asks uneasily.

"We are," Cordelia says, curling her hand around the back of Nina's neck. "Connor's just going to watch. Aren't you, Connor?"

"Cordy -" His voice is half-snarl, half-whine.

Cordelia kisses Nina's throat and whispers, "He's never seen two girls. Well, he's never seen much, but especially that. And he wants to. Don't you?"

"I said -" Connor shakes his head, bringing small white fists down hard against his thighs. "Cordelia, you can't -"

"Oh, honey," Cordelia says. She cups his cheek, and he leans into the touch as she guides him down to a rickety wooden chair. He seems to understand what to do; crossing his wrists behind the chair just as she lifts a pair of glinting handcuffs from a shelf. "I can, and I do. I will."

She clicks the cuffs into place, kisses the top of Connor's skull, then takes Nina's hand again. Twisting against Nina, wrapping an arm around Nina's waist, Cordelia kisses her again, guiding her back, and this is much better than dancing, better than anything, Cordelia's kiss wet and hungry, hand in Nina's hair, and then she's easing Nina back onto the bare mattress.

Nina's done much kinkier things - so the kid wants to watch. She doesn't exactly care, not Cordelia's mouth wandering down her throat, her breasts pushing against Nina's own. She kisses Cordelia again, swiping her thumb back and forth over one nipple, sucking Cordelia's lower lip - curving, intelligent, hungry - between her teeth as she rolls them over.

The woman is a rollercoaster, writhing and looping, pulling Nina down, then up, mouth gaping open hungrily, her knees drawn up and locked around Nina's hips, trapping her in this speeding, streaming ribbon. And Nina's pretty sure that this isn't for the kid over there.

He's watching all right, straining forward against the cuffs, anger and lust sliding over his face fast as gasoline and he's shifting again and again in his seat, but this isn't for him.

Cordelia pushes up against Nina, clutching at her hair and yanking down her head, and she kisses deeply, sloppily, crooning a very old tune, something ancient and guttural, high in her throat. Her body is fiery, open, grasping, stronger than most of the people Nina's been with and she tastes like basalt and roses, gritty and sweet.

Nina turns her over, gasping for breath, until Cordelia's on her hands and knees, keening, and Nina can peel back and push away the black fabric of her skirt and top. The skirt twists around Cordelia's hips, serpentine and tight, as Cordelia pushes back against Nina, open and wet, groaning. She has a tattoo there, right at the small of her back, something round and intricate. Cupping Cordelia's crotch with one hand - slick hot skin and rough hair - Nina lowers her mouth and traces out the lines of the sunburst tattoo with her tongue. Black ink, sunken into golden skin, like granite at sunset, monuments and night. She hooks her index finger over Cordelia's clit and sucks on the center of the tattoo.

It's like Cordelia's hardly been touched before, or rarely, like her skin is new and yearning and she quivers under Nina, hips bucking and moans coming faster than ever. On her back again, teetering up on one elbow, she turns and slides and slithers around Nina, legs and arms and red lips above and below. Nina could drown here, verges on drowning, breathless and soaked with sweat, siren-sung to drunkenness, tangled in currents and kelp and limbs. Her pants are open and pushed down her thighs, Cordelia's hands sliding over her skin, painting the sweat, and outside it's night, permanently, and in here everything is dark, luscious, intoxicating. Cordelia's teeth scrape on Nina's cheek, over her tongue, and Nina could drown here, be devoured in this, by her.


That was one of the last nights Nina could remember with any certainty later. She still doesn't know if it was the hunger and the various chemicals percolating through her system, or something else, something bigger. Several hazy weeks passed, time that she can't remember when she must have hit her lowest point ever. She remembers things before - partying with that woman and her boyfriend, smoking too much, sleeping a lot - and after, when she found she'd moved into Jill's house and was staying clean.

Jill doesn't talk about it, so Nina doesn't know what happened. Families don't really talk; that's how they keep working.

Nina feels like she's taken one of those lover's tunnel rides at the fair, bumping along through the dark, coming out on the other side blinking and confused. She doesn't remember anything about the tunnel, just that before, it was dark and desperate, and after, bright and easy. She'd enrolled in art school, Amanda's behavioral problems had smoothes out, and even Jill seemed - nicer. Sweeter. Nina's life had turned itself inside-out - or, maybe, gone right-side out, finally - and things were good. She had a place to live, clean of mice and bugs, school was kicking her ass in the best possible way, and Nina let herself believe for a while there that this might be the way things ought to feel.

Then she got bit and woke up naked and aching in a cage.

The house of cards collapsed back into a messy, chaotic heap. The cards themselves shattered and stayed in motion like the fragments at the end of a kaleidoscope. Two halves of a life down there. Some chips were black and red, glowing embers, left over from her partying days and sojourn in that shitty loft; other chips, spinning around, were candy-colored and crayon-bright, Amanda's chalk murals and the smell of freshly bleached sheets drying in the backyard. Both sets of pieces whirled together, two lives broken and shifting. There was the dark, fleshy woman who'd knotted her fingers in Nina's hair and drowned her in hot shadows, and then there was Angel, grave as a nun, who rarely met her eyes but said he understood.

It was Harmony, of all people, who brought the two halves of Nina's life together.

"You're way more his type," she said one morning, handing Nina her clothes through the bars of the cage. "Everyone says so."

"What are you talking about?"

"Course, I'm more his type than Cordy ever was, too, but you don't see him looking twice at me. Kind of racist, now that I think about it."

Nina pulled her shirt over head and shook out her hair. "Who's Cordy?"

"No vampires, not for Angel, not any more," Harmony said. "Anything else, though, apparently it's fair game. Slayers, werewolves, even Cordy. What? It's not like I want him or anything. Just saying, it'd be nice if he, you know. Saw me."

"Who's Cordy?" Nina asked again.

Harmony smiled, all traces irritation at Angel vanishing. "Best friend I ever had. Oh, you'd love her. She's - she was - I mean -"

No one except Harmony seemed to visit the sleeping woman; Nina noticed that right away. Her room was bare, nearly as bare as Nina's cell, perfectly institutional; if there were visitors, they left no trace of their presence.

The woman in the bed was the woman - Cordelia - from that night. That feverish night, one of the last few clear ones Nina can remember. Nina froze on the threshold and Harmony patted her arm.

"Don't worry," Harmony said. "She's like asleep or something. She can't hurt you, I'm pretty sure."

On the first few visits, Nina sat politely, hands folded in her lap, while Harmony chattered at Cordelia. She told most of the same stories Nina had already heard, so Nina just tuned her out. Harmony was lonely; Nina knew that, felt it in her bones, but her own confusion, lost time and Angel's connection to Cordelia, kept her from being able to do anything for Harmony more than have lunch with her and go to the hospital.

One afternoon, on her way home from life-drawing, Nina turns her car toward the hospital. It is the first night of the full moon and her nerves, already sputtering and frayed, are worse than ever.

Cordelia is more than asleep; without the beeping and wheezing of the various machines, she could have been lying in state, in a morgue or on a bier. There is such stillness there that Nina thinks of inert media - soapstone, marble, twice-fired bone porcelain - white and stately things. Still, pale things, untouched by chisel or finger.

That's what her eyes tell her. Her other senses, however, absorb the life beating inside the stillness: Nina can smell damp skin, a little sharp like geranium petals, can hear a heartbeat steady and slow and persistent, can taste unshed tears underneath medicine and antiseptic.

That first visit, when Harmony excused herself to the little girl's room, Nina touched Cordelia's hand, felt soft skin and strong bones. So still that she jerked back her own hand and clutched it.

Life is present here, like the visitors, leaving little evidence of itself. The longer Nina looks at her, the stiller, more perfect Cordelia becomes. She is inviolable, pristine, so motionless that it almost has to be an illusion.

Nina's acutely aware of her own movements, every blink and fidget and shift. She's more monstrous than ever, rude and loud and grubby. Bloodthirsty.

"Your sister's hanging in there," the nurse said on the first visit when she came to tell them visiting hours were up. Confused, Nina stared at Harmony, but Harmony just bobbed her candy-floss head and smiled prettily. She patted Cordelia's hand one last time.

"They only let family members come," she explained in the elevator down to the parking garage. "And Fred, for some reason. Everyone loves Fred. Anyway, I pretend Cordy's my sister. I used to do that all the time. Sisters or cousins. We were really close, so it's not like I'm lying or anything."

Harmony's voice was an anxious chirp, and Nina wondered for a moment, before Harmony started suggesting good singles bars to visit, about crated families. Families beyond blood, and what that might mean.

That night, pacing naked in the cage and waiting for moonrise, shudders wrenching at her spine and skin, Nina tried to find a center of calm. She'd been in rehab twice, she knew what to do when beset by these pains. Usually she pictured Amanda laughing, or recreated in her mind's eye the intricacy of the folds of drapery in a Poussin still-life. Anything to concentrate on, to pull her through the few minutes of this half-life when she wasn't all Nina - not that she ever was, not any more - nor all animal, hungry and roaring.

She found Cordelia's face. Round, blank, pristine and held the image behind her lids as the claws shredded out her fingers and the pelt split and sprouted down her back. Before the first howl ripped out her throat, she sank into the white marble expanse of that perfect face.

She's back in the hospital now, a month later, alone.

There are secrets there beneath Cordelia's blank face, secrets and history trapped in sleep. Who she was to Angel, who she was for herself. She was, Harmony says, part-demon at the end, infected just like Nina herself, but she's at peace now. Asleep and dreaming, wholly self-contained and safe.

Nina had been inside Cordelia. Tasted her, made her writhe and scream out, but those facts seem impossible, more distant and strange than the dreams she's been having ever since the bit - of a beautiful, statuesque black woman smiling at her, beckoning her close, opening her arms - neither ever happened. If they did happen, it was to someone else, not Nina, not Cordelia.

This Cordelia is snow-pure, alabaster, perfect stillness. Solitary and inviolate like the Mary in icons and frescoes, too young for all the joy and pain.

Sitting with her does not calm Nina; everything is faster, more uncertain, when faced with this sleep. She wonders if this is how monks and painters felt, looking back at Mary's blank stare, becoming absorbed and dissolved in it. This disquiet inside her, roiling and hot, a frustrated admiration that only builds until her teeth grin and fists clutch and nails cut her palms as her crotch heats and clenches.

It's hopeless, this meditation on and admiration of such stillness. Like Arctic explorers, foolish Victorians racing for the poles or seeking the inland sea with only a few extra sweaters and overweening hope. Trapped in ice floes, lost off the charts, and they blunder out of the ship's wreckage, mad and hungry, into the light, dancing white and shattering cold.

All of Nina's senses are so sharp these days, scalpel-edged sight and smell and taste. Her ears pound, noise resonating in a confused din. All blades, clanking and grinding, and she leans forward, closer to Cordelia.

Forward into the blank, her memory alive with images-tastes-sounds of Cordelia that night, forward into the sepulchral white. She sees a twitch or a shadow on Cordelia's eyelids and moves closer, kneeling, hand on Cordelia's, staring and searching. Blood rustles through Cordelia's body, breeze through leaves, and the mattress sighs as Nina pulls herself up onto it.

Close-up and frozen, Cordelia's beauty is almost grotesque. It's so still, and her lids twitch again when Nina touches them.

Just a low-level nerve response, and it doesn't mean anything, yet the movement thrills Nina. She straddles Cordelia's hips and bows her head until it rests against Cordelia's own. Prayer, cartography, absorption: She has no idea what she's seeking, only that she has evil inside her and needs quiet. Needs what Cordy is, snow and marble and quiet.

Breasts that roll under her hands, lips that taste like antiseptic and mint, a white nightgown as rough as the institutional sheet. Cordelia is absent, perfectly gone, and Nina touches her, just to be sure. Her mound burns like ice against Nina's fingers.

Prey on the weak, seek what you need: Nina's an animal, and Angel can deny the pull all he wants. But this is meat and light under her, and Nina grasps Cordelia's shoulders, plunges, pushes deeper, but the white keeps receding from sky-wide down to nothing and farther, just a speck.

Snowflake, melting, and Cordelia does not move.


Angel said he understood and Nina had believed him. She doesn't any longer; he might have planned to bring down Los Angeles, to die somewhere with the rest of them in its broken streets and flooded freeways, but he didn't plan for her. Three tickets to London and a generous checking account balance were as far as his planning got, but Amanda can't leave the country without her dad's permission and he probably died with half the city on the second day.

So Nina is alone here, waiting. Two nights before the full moon, half a world away from Jill and Amanda in Evanston with their stepmother, and she's trying like hell not to hum Warren Zevon.

She'd be drinking again, but she hasn't been able to stomach any liquor since whatever happened a year ago, so she sits at a table on a slapdash sidewalk patio in Soho staring into space.

Two more nights and she'll be wild and hungry.

"Let me guess - he was supposed to meet you, start something for real, but something came up?"

Startled, Nina looks out into the street's glare.

Cordelia is standing there, sunglasses pushed up on top of her head, bare arms loosely crossed over her red and gold halter top, her long legs in faded, clinging jeans crossed casually. She leans against the hood of a sharp-nosed, angular old Jaguar, cherry-red and shining nearly as brightly as her grin.

Nina's muscles go rigid and cold and her throat closes up.

"That's always the way," Cordelia continues, snapping her sunglasses down onto her face and opening the passenger side door. "Love that boy, but he really is the king of stupid planning."

She's smiling widely, gesturing Nina into the car. Nothing like the smirk that dark night or the frozen grimace in the hospital. Nina finds herself smiling back and rising from the rickety cafe table.

"You look great," Nina says and wants to wince at the inanity of that. Look great - for a ghost, for a dead person, for a hallucination.

But Cordelia grins again and takes Nina's hand. Ghosts are not warm and solid and strong; they don't squeeze your hand and say, tossing their head, "Tell me something I don't know."

Ghosts don't slap your ass lightly and push into vintage luxury cars. Ghosts don't sport swinging, shoulder-length ringlets and a tan impossible to get from mere sun and perfect manicures. Nor do they zoom toward the M25 with one hand on the wheel, the other on Nina's knee.

"I -" Nina tries to say she's sorry but can't finish the thought, let alone the sentence. "What are you doing?"

"Just you and me, kid," Cordelia says in a bad Western-movie accent. "Figure it can either be Thelma and Louise or Riggs and Murtaugh, minus the crazy. Your call."

"Casper and Benji?"

Cordelia's gaze flashes over to Nina and she says, entirely seriously, "I won't make dog jokes if you lay off the ghost cracks."

"Deal," Nina says. She stretches back in the seat and breathes in the scent of leather and Cordelia's crisp perfume. Los Angeles is gone, and some guy back there, might have finished with her; it doesn't mean she or Cordelia is anywhere near done living.