I groaned loudly and threw myself back onto the sofa. Yixin laughed. “Come on,” she said, “I swear you’re getting it! One more time!” It had been two hours, and the only progress I had made was to make my white and brown patterned wings slightly darker. I kicked my legs up onto the coffee table and panted.
“Look,” I said, “I understand what you’re doing, and I can almost do it. But it take so much energy I can’t sustain it.” Again, I took a deep breath and focused my awareness on the shadows in the room. In the dim lighting, they were everywhere. I tried to pull the shadows toward me, using them to cloak my wings. Again, I succeeded only in making my wings darker and my head spin. I closed my eyes.
Yixin pushed a glass of something cool into my hands. “Take a break,” she suggested. “You’re trying too hard. Maybe if we talk about something else, you can come back to it with fresh eyes.”
I nodded, eyes still closed, and took a sip. I almost gagged. “Seriously? Water?”
Coyote looked up from his computer and laughed. “Water’s the most life-giving substance there is. What were you expecting, more of Fergus’s fire-whiskey?”
“Water’s fine, if you’re lost in the woods,” I scoffed. “In Valhalla, we offer ale and mead to our guests.”
Yixin looked nonplussed, but Coyote just laughed harder. “You’ll have to get used to it,” he said. “No one in SF is going to offer you a beer at six o’clock in the morning.” He yawned. “Speaking of which, we’ve been up all night and I don’t think any of us are making progress anymore. Let’s catch some sleep and get back to this in a few hours.”
“What have you gotten so far?” asked Yixin. “Did you find any videos?”
“Yeah, a few.” Coyote sighed and stretched. “I managed to catch a lot of the witnesses last night, but obviously some of them had uploaded to the cloud already.”
Yixin reached her arms out toward him from the sofa and yawned. “Gimme.” Grinning, Coyote walked over and seated himself between us.
“These tabs are the videos that had already been uploaded by the time I found the witnesses last night. So, if you can mess with them on the cloud, our job is done.” He moved a finger on the track pad and a different box filled the screen. “These videos are new. Once you’re done with them, we’ll have to track down the originals.”
“Got it.” Yixin took the computer from him and started to build an illusion. Using the training I had just learned, I could barely see her gather shadows over the keyboard. It took several minutes, but when she was done, the video in front of her no longer depicted a winged woman landing in Union Square. Instead, a thick shadow drifted across the screen before a brawl inexplicably broke out on the ground.
Coyote replayed the video. “Nice. That could be the shadow of a plane, or a really blurry flock of pigeons. It’s unclear, but it doesn’t look censored or pixelated. Do that with the rest of them and we can go hunt down the originals after we get some sleep.” Yixin nodded and I took that as my cue to stand up.
“Sigrid, you can sleep in one of the guest rooms—up the stairs to the right,” she said. “I’m really sorry, but we can’t let you out on your own until you’ve got the illusion down.”
I was so exhausted I could not muster the energy to object. I could only hope that after a few hours of sleep, I would finally master the illusion. I staggered upstairs and collapsed on a bed in a room I was too tired to see.
It felt like seconds later when I woke to Coyote shaking my shoulder and full sunlight streaming into the room. I stumbled downstairs and into the table, which, luckily, was sturdily built. Yixin handed me a piece of toasted bread and a mug of coffee. “Drink up,” she said, “And we’ll get started on patrol.”
The first time I had drunk coffee, someone had handed me a tiny cup outside a newly opened café with the words, “Free sample?” and I had lifted it to my lips immediately, entranced by the smell. Since then, the bitter, rich, nutty taste had become one of my favorite new flavors in San Francisco. I folded my hands gratefully around the mug.
Coyote took out a small notebook and flipped to a page about halfway through. “Ok, our first stop lives pretty close to here on Bush Street. Jennie Salinas. I found her address on White Pages, and her Facebook says she works from home. You two ready?”
Fifteen minutes later, we were standing in the hall outside of Jennie Salinas’s apartment. Coyote had shifted his appearance, shortening his hair, lightening his skin and eyes, and adding long sleeves and a collar to his blue shirt. Yixin looked the same as she had when I’d first seen her. She had insisted on changing the appearance of my clothing in addition to hiding my wings. Although I could still feel my mail and the comforting weight of my shield, when I looked down I saw blue jeans and a simple red jacket similar to Yixin’s. Coyote knocked and winked at Yixin and me. After a moment, we heard shuffling and a young, dark-haired woman in grey trousers opened the door.
“Can I help you?” She looked skeptically at the three of us for a moment before her face changed abruptly and she grinned Yixin’s dimpled, mischievous grin. “Piece of cake,” she told us, giggling, and took a phone out of her back pocket. She held it out to Yixin, who took it, fiddled with it, and handed it back. The two bodies moved with an uncanny symmetry.
“Let me check her computer,” said Coyote. Jennie/Yixin stepped out of the doorway so he could reach the computer sitting open on the counter. He stared into the screen for a few seconds, fiddling with the mouse and typing into the keyboard, before stepping back into the hall. “Nothing there. I’m done, go ahead.”
Jennie/Yixin took the same position she had had earlier, with one hand on the open door. From her place in the hall next to me, Yixin whispered, “Three, two, one. Go!”
Coyote flashed a huge smile at Jennie. “Hi! I hope I’m not intruding. I’m watching my friend’s apartment this week and he forgot to tell me where to take out the trash. Is it by the lobby somewhere?”
Jennie’s frown melted into a smile as she gazed at Coyote. “No problem! It’s in the basement. Just take the elevator all the way down and turn left. It’s the last door on the right in that hallway.” She watched us turn back down the hall before retreating into her apartment, the smile still on her face.
Yixin nudged Coyote with an elbow as we returned to the street. “Didn’t even turn on the charm for that one, did you?”
Coyote shrugged. “I can’t help it if people find me endearing.”
“It must have been difficult for you to walk away from a cutie like that.”
“I like to think of it as walking toward all the beautiful people I have yet to meet.” He grinned, and Yixin shrieked with laughter.
“Good thing new mortals are born all the time or you would have run dry long ago,” she said, still giggling.
“Look who’s talking!” Coyote turned to me and added, “This girl goes to high school just to hang out with teenagers. She’s crazy!” He added, turning to Yixin, “And gross. Do you even know how old you are?”
“Hey, I don’t see you hooking up with any hundred-year-olds.”
“Sure, but at least I’m not cradle-snatching.”
The two of them bickered like this all the way through the neighborhood, stopping only to repeat their photo-erasing routine with two other mortals, one in a tall, peeling townhouse and one in a decrepit building optimistically labeled “Golden Sunset Hotel.” I shuffled after them, weaving like a drunkard. In this part of town, I could never decide where to look: at the tall buildings piercing the sky like the spears of giants, at the cars and buses screeching and shifting, at the ragged people pushing shopping carts or lounging on the sidewalks, or at the men and women in suits rushing across the streets.
A flock of pigeons took off as I walked into it, scattering dust in a rush of flapping and hooting. When I had recovered, I found Yixin and Coyote waiting for me in front of a café that had a line of young people and bicycles stretching out its front door.
“More coffee?” Coyote asked me as I caught up. “One of our marks works at this coffee shop and another one comes here almost every afternoon.”
“Sure!” I dug in my belt for money, but Yixin stopped me.
“I got it,” she said. “I’ve got the SFAIS credit card.”
I leaped at this. “Credit card! People are always asking me about those at the bar. Can I see it?”
“Of course.” She began to explain the concept of credit as we moved toward the row of baristas. Ahead of us, I saw Coyote lean over the counter and smile at a woman with blue hair. She smiled back, and the two of them began talking. Yixin broke off her explanation to nudge me and say, “That’s the chick. Annie Yates. Coyote doesn’t need magic to get her phone; you’ll see.”
We had reached the front of our line, and I spent the next few minutes talking to the barista and learning the particular rules of the establishment: each cup of coffee made individually according to preference. I explained I wanted something rich and bitter, and he made me something he called “the corpse reviver with cream.” I smirked as I brought my drink to the table where Coyote had claimed a spot.
“Did you get it?” Yixin asked, joining us as I carefully leaned my still-invisible spear and shield against my chair. He grinned and waved a phone in our faces. Yixin frowned. “That’s your phone.”
“I know. I deleted the video and got her number. We’re meeting for drinks later.”
She laughed. “You’re hopeless.”
I watched the two of them as I sipped my corpse reviver. They both seemed to overflow with life: Yixin, mischief dancing in her eyes, constantly fiddled and shifted in her seat while Coyote burned with a quieter and somehow more mysterious energy, a coal to her candle flame. They’d spent most of the morning arguing, yet I could see their mutual regard in the attention they gave to each other’s movements and the joy they found in watching each other work. “Is this what you always do for SFAIS?” I asked, curious. “You search for and erase evidence of magic?”
“More or less,” answered Yixin. “That’s what Patrol is about, anyway. Every member of SFAIS has to keep an eye out for things that might expose us. It’s usually some mortal who stumbles into something they don’t understand. We also watch for new supernaturals in town who need help getting settled. Like you.” She raised her paper cup of tea. “A toast, to your first Patrol.”
Coyote and I raised our cups solemnly. “And many more to follow,” he added. “Speaking of which, I ‘ve been pondering your illusion problem, and I have an idea.” I raised my eyebrows at him. He continued, “You mentioned at the meeting that you restored your bar from the past. You also said that when you collect souls, you go into the ‘Otherworld.’ Was the bar you restored also in the Otherworld?” I nodded. “So, it’s like a ghost world, parallel to our own, that you have access to.”
“You can pull things in and out of it, and when you go into the Otherworld, you are invisible in this one?”
I nodded again. “Sort of. It’s more like I have no physical presence in this world when I’m in the Otherworld. I’m not still here and invisible.”
“Good, that’s what I meant. Here’s my idea: what if, instead of using shadows for illusions, you move just your wings into the Otherworld. Then, in this world, they would disappear.”
“Oh, that could work!” Yixin bounced up in her seat. “It would be even better than invisibility because they would also be impervious to touch!”
I shrugged, massaging my sore shoulders under my chainmail as I thought about it. “I’ve never sent just part of my body into the Otherworld before. I’m not sure I could do it without also dividing my consciousness. I suppose I could try.” I took a deep breath and expanded my awareness of the room. Before I could go farther, Yixin grabbed my arm.
“Stop! Don’t be a dumbass, Sigrid. Wait until we’re in private! If it doesn’t work, you’ll disappear in the middle of a crowded café.”
I sighed. I really was not used to hiding my powers. “All right. We can practice later. I have a couple of spots I like to practice combat that are pretty secluded—” I broke off as Coyote stood up.
“That’s our guy!” He stretched lazily and added, “Anyone want a scone?” He grinned at us as he sauntered over to the baked goods counter, arriving in line just behind a tall, bearded man. He peered at the collection of rolls and cookies and said something to the man, who laughed. By the time they had reached the register, they were deep in conversation and had already handed each other their phones.
“Is he using some kind of magic?” I asked Yixin as we watched him.
“It’s a little complicated.” Yixin took another sip of her tea. “The short answer is no. The long answer is that, when you’re a magical person, almost everything you do is magic in some way. Coyote’s had hundreds of years to perfect his charisma. He’s always been skilled at manipulating people and getting them to do what he wants. Right now he’s using years of knowledge combined with charm and sexual energy that have always been a part of him. Whether that’s magic is hard to say.”
I nodded. “It can be hard to draw those lines. It’s like if I ask: how much of my fighting ability is magical because I’m a Valkyrie? I can fly and I am unnaturally strong. However, a lot of my combat skills also come from centuries of practice. If a human were to spend centuries on a battlefield, they also would have learned this.”
“For sure! But then again, being able to live for centuries is also magic. After all, I started life as an ordinary fox, and now look at me!” She smirked, striking a pose and tossing her black hair over her shoulder. I grinned. As the day had progressed, I had found myself letting go of something in Yixin’s presence: a heaviness, a loneliness perhaps, that had long ago settled on my heart. I had smiled more in the previous twelve hours than I had in all the rest of my time in San Francisco.
Coyote rejoined us, waving a paper bag in one hand and a scone in the other, and the three of us gathered up our things and walked back onto the street. “Back to the center?” Coyote sprayed crumbs as he spoke, causing Yixin to choke with laughter.
I took a breath, feeling my heart thud in my throat as I considered how to word my request. “I know the center is private,” I finally began, “But can’t we find a place outside with some privacy and some trees or bushes? I sometimes practice combat on the cliffs called Fort Funston, and no one has spotted me.” Somehow, I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable exploring my magic the way I intended inside a concrete building. I wanted to breathe the salty air and feel the particular, fluctuating timelessness of the ocean.
Yixin bit her lip. “Fort Funston is a little far. Maybe the Presidio? I’m concerned about possible witnesses, though.”
“You could do an illusion around a few bushes.” Coyote gently elbowed her in the side. “It would be good practice for you. Get you closer to your fourth tail.”
Yixin scoffed. “You always say that when you want me to do something.”
“It’s always true!” He winked at me as Yixin considered it. Finally, she nodded, and I smiled, relieved.
“Can you spin an illusion while I fly us there?” I looked at them hopefully, but Yixin and Coyote both started laughing.
“Girl, you need to learn how to live like a mortal!” Coyote pointed down the street as a huge metal monstrosity wheezed past us like a dragon on its last legs. “We’re taking the muni.”
An hour later, the three of us stood in a clump of trees off of Park Trail. Yixin had let the illusion around my clothes dissipate to concentrate instead on keeping the three of us hidden from surrounding passers-by. I looked down and felt gratified to see familiar chainmail, leather trousers, and throwing axe tucked into my belt. I leaned my shield and spear against a tree and spread my wings wide. Salty sea air filled my lungs and my heart swelled in response.
Even in a young city like San Francisco, I will always find physical connections to the past. As I slowly released my connection to the ground and air around me, I could see the landscape change. One of the roads disappeared, the scrubby trees shrank, and the Otherworld’s familiar fog rolled in. The sounds changed, too: the chirps of birds and the distant rush of cars disappeared altogether, and I could hear the faint clang of metal on metal.
Before I could take off to investigate, Coyote stepped forward. “I thought this might be the Otherworld.” Though he now sported a dog-like head with canine incisors, his voice sounded the same. In fact, he looked surprisingly comfortable in the swirling mist. “We call this the Shadow Land in my language, although it’s really the beginning of the road there.” He glanced in the direction of the battle-sounds. “That’s just the soldados from the army base. Ghosts. Let’s focus on what you came here to do.” He gazed at me steadily with his yellow eyes. “Now, we are both fully in this land. We are invisible to Yixin—“ he pointed at an orange glow in the fog where she had been standing “—although we can see her magic. Can you return to the living, leaving your wings behind?”
I tried it. At first I could only fade back and forth between both worlds. Then, I thought of bringing my spear and shield with me. Eventually, I was able to move the spear and shield independently into the Otherworld and even move myself back and forth while holding them. Yixin recoiled but gave me a thumbs-up when she first saw me return without my weapons. I realized, looking down, that my right hand and left arm had vanished at the wrist and elbow. I crowed with triumph.
The sun had begun to set when I finally launched myself back into reality, wingless. I grinned, exhausted, and wiggled my shoulders experimentally. I could still feel my wings, but they felt lighter. When I lay down on the grass, the ground pressed against my back with a sensation I had not known since my human life. I faded back and forth a few more times, then turned to my new friends with my arms wide and my smile huge, spinning in a slow circle. They clapped.
“Can you still fly?” Yixin sat cross-legged on the ground, leaning against Coyote, who lay sprawled next to her.
I tried to launch myself into the air and failed. “Huh.” I grimaced, unable to hide my disappointment, and decided I would go for a surreptitious flight later that night to reassure myself.
Yixin and Coyote accompanied me home, in part so Yixin could keep my mail and weapons hidden. By the time I had set myself back up behind the bar, served them drinks, and sent them on their way, I felt nauseous with exhaustion. I sipped a pint of beer to settle my stomach and leaned against the back wall, savoring the unfamiliar feel of the wood against my skin. I would have to try wearing some sweaters without wing holes, I decided. I closed my eyes, letting the beer and the muted sound of customers soothe my aching head. When I opened my eyes, I found myself face to face with Octavia.
“Hey there, Valkyrie girl,” Her face was alight with mischief and something else I could not name. She smiled at me, and my heart gave a painful thump as she continued, “What happened to your wings?”