Six days later, Nina swayed side to side, amusing herself with how her oversized sweatshirt brushed her knees. Three slabs of hydroponic chicken francese sautéed with a soothing hiss. She frowned at her toes and got into the same old debate about feeling silly painting false nails, no matter how real they looked or felt. A butterfly of nervousness swirled around her gut as she worried at the chicken with a spatula.
Crystalline wind chime sound filled her apartment. Nina glanced to her right at the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over West City; a jagged skyline of black absorbed the deep reds and oranges of dusk. Wow… he’s actually on time.
Nina patched in to the house computer, linking to the panel out in the hallway by the door. A virtual window popped up showing the corridor, and a weary-looking Joey in his cowboy hat and black trench coat. He’d let his black hair get frizzy and long, too many late nights in NetOps. She opened the lock and sent her voice out via the speaker. “Hey. I’m in the kitchen. Decided to cook tonight.”
“Okay, that works…”
Nina took the pan off the heat and eased the three pieces of chicken onto individual plates. She’d about finished doling out pasta and pouring more of the sauce over it when Joey walked into the kitchen, eyebrow raised, thumb cocked back over his shoulder.
“What’s up with the critter on the couch?” He sidled up behind her and threaded his arms around her.
Nina smiled at the food. “Her name is Elizaveta.”
“Privet,” said a tiny voice from the doorway behind Joey. “Eto Vash muzh?”
“Bad case. I picked her up this afternoon. I’ll be fostering her… maybe more than that if things work out. She doesn’t speak any English yet.” She set the pan on a cool burner and turned around to kiss Joey. After, she smiled at the clean, straight-haired girl in a neat white dress and purple-painted toenails, switching to Russian. “I have not married him… yet. Maybe I will.” Nina winked.
The girl flashed a conspiratorial grin as she padded into the kitchen.
He took off his hat and coat, giving the child a narrow-eyed stare like a gunfighter about to draw on his nemesis. Long hair and a couple days without shaving left him looking more like a pirate captain than a cowboy. “Is it housebroken?”
Elizaveta climbed into her seat, wide eyed at the food. After a second of staring at her plate, she looked up at Nina. “Eto vse dlya menya?”
“Yes it’s all yours. Don’t hurt yourself, but as much as you can finish,” said Nina in Russian before smirking at Joey as she joined them at the table. “I know you’re trying to be cute, but… can you skip the animal comparisons for now? You heard about Osiris?”
He cringed and slithered into a chair. “Crap. She’s one of those kids? Wow, I’m fried. I saw those files… Spent the past week balls-deep in Osiris’s neuroprocessor cluster array. Didn’t recognize her cleaned up.” He watched her eat for a moment before a look of recognition appeared on his face. “Oh yeah, the aggressive little bugger who kept kicking the door.” Joey shoveled a forkful of chicken and pasta into his mouth, chewing with exaggerated mmm sounds. “Oh, damn. This is great.”
“First time trying this… Just simple instructions.” She nibbled on hers. “Damn corporations… kidnapping across the ocean. What’s next?”
Elizaveta shoveled forkful after forkful in her mouth.
“Their whole system is more akin to the capitalist runaway that occurred in the years leading up to the war. Most of their population is shit poor, but the corporations over there are still concerned about bad PR. Odd to say it, but they’d be less likely to do something this scummy.” He sighed, staring down. “They’d sooner just kill them and blame the resistance, or I guess they were too small to be thought of as a threat. Probably would’ve sent them to Mars to bolster a colony.”
ACC Mars… Nina cringed. They were safer in the cages. It’s a damn mess up there.
He chuckled under his breath. “So you wanted to keep one? No consult?”
Elizaveta whined, staring at about half a plate of food she seemed too full to eat―but really wanted to.
“I saw how you were with Hayley… I thought you’d be okay with―”
“We’ll see.” He leaned to the side and raised an eyebrow at the girl. When she looked at him, he switched eyebrows. She smiled. “Maybe we can work with this one.”
“I have clingy parents. They’d adore watching her whenever we wanted ‘us time.’” Nina sat straighter.
Joey forced a smile. “You sure you want to expose her to the creepy twins?”
Nina chuckled. “They’re not creepy, and I can’t believe Dad. He’s warming up to them, even knowing…”
“Yeah.” He winced.
Nina smiled. “I think she adopted me at first sight. Only one of the lot who wasn’t afraid of me.”
“Well you are pretty scary when you’re mad, or got your mind set on something, or find a giant, knuckle-dragging bastard…”
“Oh.” Nina set the fork down on her plate. “You watched my logs, didn’t you?”
“Twice. With popcorn.” He winked. “Extra butter. About that whole revenge thing… Do you feel better?”
She spent a few seconds watching the child attempt to eat just one more forkful while swaying her feet back and forth. Elizaveta still had a hint of wariness, as though someone might come up behind her and take the food away, but seemed… grateful.
Nina let her mind dwell on the memory of tearing Bertrand Foster’s telescoping eyes out of his skull.
“Yeah.” She exhaled past a smile. “I do. I think I can finally let myself live.”