The day could not have been more intense. Hell, intense is a euphemism! Absolution of all charges, life-changing choices, returning to Three Rats to find the station in a mess after Sage’s kidnapping, riding horses that create reality, breaking into a warehouse to banish a demon and rescue a small army of children who now have nowhere to go and, as if all that were not enough, a bomb that shatters souls goes off in the station, killing two prisoners and a Popula right under the Guardia’s nose and very nearly driving Alma insane with pain. Not to mention the brutal murder of Stathos’ family…
Well, at least there isn’t much more that can go wrong tonight, Dion figures as he runs his hand along the frame of the pantry door to activate the portal that leads to his room.
His feet nearly drag on the floor from exhaustion. Sleep really is not an absolute need for gods like it is to humans, who will effectively die if they go too long without restoring their brains with some hours of slumber. However, the thought that gods do not get tired or require any sort of rest is completely wrong. Sure, they can go for days without sleeping if need be, mostly by burning mana to restore their minds for a while, but no one will want to work with them when that happens. Tired gods can be very, very grumpy and there is nothing worse than a grumpy person who has the means to smite you for the small sin of saying “Good morning!” in happy tones.
For as much as sleep may be an acquired taste to some people, it surely sounds like a great idea right about now. Unfortunately, the night has advanced to that point where Sky’s shift ends and the graveyard shift, Dion’s shift, begins. He will have to be on call, ready to respond if something (else) happens so that night of restful sleep will need to be re-scheduled to the following morning.
Still, a nice relaxing bath can perform miracles in the absence of actual rest and that is the single thought currently going through the exhausted god’s mind. He barely notices Geryon sleeping in his bed, making it bend in the middle under the gryphon’s massive weight, while Merri and Cherry cuddle against him, hiding their faces against his golden-brown fur.
With a thought, Dion summons the luxurious bathroom to the corner of his room, behind a large woven silk rug hanging from a wall and depicting two dragons perching over a nest where half a dozen eggs are beginning to hatch. Styled in marble and copper, the majestic room greets him with a warm bath already drawn and scented oils meant to soothe his spirit, burning in a small copper bowl in the shape of a sleeping fox. Two sylphids, faceless insubstantial air elementals gowned in translucent stolas, move around the room and through the walls, spreading heat and water vapor, fogging up all mirrored surfaces at their passage.
The scenario seems perfect for the making of all-important decisions but Dion puts them aside for some other moment. The warm, watery feeling enveloping him feels too good to be tainted with worry.
By the time he comes out of the bathroom, feeling invigorated and sporting a clean, impeccably styled suit, the room has become somewhat emptier and quite tense. The Bunnies are now gone, Dion notices, while Geryon lies barely awake on the bed and facing him, his tail curled around his body while the tip wags nervously, yet heavily as if it weighs tremendously on the gryphon as it moves up and down.
“What a welcome home they prepared for you, my friend,” the gryphon says, beak opening suddenly in a yawn.
Dion grins as he runs his fingers through his short, still wet black hair. “I would like to say that I’ve had worse but I really can’t think of anything that would top this.”
“No, of course not,” Geryon mutters, preening his right wing.
“How is your wing?” Dion asks, plopping onto a chair.
“Oh, much better, thank you,” the gryphon states conversationally, making a show of unfolding his wing with some difficulty and a painful grimace. “Albeit the strain of flying today.”
Dion smiles at the obvious dramatics. “Thank you, for your help. I am sure Alma appreciates it as well,” he says in all honesty. “Although she probably won’t thank you with cuddles.”
There are not many things left of Geryon’s former human image. Distorted by the raptor features that are a gryphon’s prerogative, his boyish appearance and golden hair have been replaced by a strong beak and golden-brown feathers. A slim body and pale skin have given way to powerful leonine muscles and short, soft fur. His once blue eyes are now yellowish orange. Even his voice has changed, limited as he is by a rigid beaked mouth. Reading his expression has become somewhat trickier as well. Thankfully, however, his sense of humor has remained the same.
Geryon shrugs and pretends to examine his talons, his tone one of tired humor. “Oh, well, what can one do? I certainly would not mind if she did, but I must say that Merri and Cherry have been the most delightful of nurses.” His expression darkens. “It was a heart-wrenching day but…Sage is safe.”
“Is the great and powerful Geryon going soft?” the god jests.
“Soft?! Well I should just let you ask those two how soft I am…” Geryon tips his head to the left to hide the tip of his beak under his wing in irritation. “Hmph!”
He must truly be exhausted, Dion thinks to himself. I wonder how he even found the strength to cast so many complicated spells in a matter of hours, especially after so many idle years. Would he have been able to do it if he were still human?
“They really are treasures…” the gryphon says affectionately, breaking his chain of thought. He looks at the bedroom door for an instant as if expecting the Bunnies to return at any moment and then turns back to focus his eagle eyes on the god. “And you look troubled.”
“Tell me…” Dion starts, avoiding eye contact with his one close friend. “If given the option of staying or going back to the First Ring, what would you do?”
Geryon looks somewhat surprised at the news but merely nods in understanding. “I see. So your enforced exile here has come to an end, has it?”
“I have a choice,” Dion explains, opening a random book from the volumes sitting on his desk. “Alma was sentenced to remain here with the Bunnies. I, however, can go anywhere I wish.”
“And yet you hesitate to return to chasing nymphs and young goddesses among the refined atmosphere of the First Ring.” Geryon’s words cut through him like a blade through butter.
“I can see why. Three Rats has so much to offer, after all,” the gryphon adds, rolling on his back to throw a pillow in the air and paw idly at it. “Bombs that destroy your soul. A vicious gang war to spice up slow days. Not to mention all the rats you can eat.”
“Three Rats is a hole,” Dion snorts. “All rubbish falls in here. And yet…”
“Yes indeed…and yet,” the gryphon replies rolling back to lie on his belly, letting the pillow fall on his rump. “Tell me, is it merely that lovely white hair and that perfect jawline that makes you pause? Because if that is all that keeps you here, my friend, you will not be happy.”
He changes into his smaller shape and jumps off the bed before adding, “And besides, I thought she was not romantically inclined. A frigid ice queen to anyone but her precious Bunnies.”
“She is not frigid,” Dion intervenes, slightly surprised at his own voice. “You should have seen her before.”
You should have heard her song, he adds to himself.
“Defending her, are we?” the gryphon asks, moving closer to the god. “My, such change… As she at least given you the favor of a kiss for your gallantry?”
Dion grins slyly for an instant but a sudden memory of the fair-skinned goddess in his arms soon turns his grin into a nostalgic smile. “I thought a gentleman did not kiss and tell.”
“Ha!” Geryon exclaims placing his furry paws on Dion’s knees. “A kiss and maybe more, I’d say. And still you want to be with her.” He uses Dion’s legs as support to jump onto the desk, whipping the god’s face with his tail as he turns around to press his beak against Dion’s nose and add, “I believe the obvious question now would be: who are you and what have you done to the real Dion?”
“Oh, stop that!” Dion scolds him, flicking Geryon’s beak before standing up. “I… I cannot explain it.”
Much to the god’s annoyance, he hears his friend laugh, dryly and bitterly. “I would be surprised if you could.”
“Besides, that is not all that makes me hesitate,” Dion rushes to add.
“Oh, do tell,” Geryon taunts him, laying comfortably all over Dion’s books, tail happily swiping the air. “What besides the thought of her makes you cringe at the thought of leaving?”
“I don’t know,” the god concedes, sitting on the bed. “There is something about this ward…”
“Is it the smell?” Geryon asks with another yawn. “It certainly has a unique odor to it.”
The joke earns him a pillow thrown at his head, which the gryphon catches and hugs like a piece of meat snatched from the jaws of a competitor.
Dion sighs in frustration, before responding, “Something about it just feels more real than any great estate in the First Ring. I saw poor people – no, poor doesn’t even begin to describe their condition – I saw them open their homes and empty their pantries for the children outside in the bar. Who do you know in the First Ring who would do that? I…It makes me want to be like them. These people, not those other gods. But I don’t know if I belong here.” He scratches his head. “She surely does not believe I do.”
“Ah… ‘Belong’,” Geryon sneers, glancing at the god while kneading the pillow. “Where do you belong, Dion? Where do I? I have been asking myself the same question, lately.”
Dion can only shake his head. “I don’t know. My friend, I am lost.”
“This whole ward is lost,” Geryon mutters to himself as he stands up on the desk. “Wandering from one world to another, trapped where it doesn’t belong. What other place could be more perfect than this?”
“And what do you mean by that?” Dion asks.
“We have been moving through circles, hopping from parties to classrooms, being talented but too lazy to be good,” Geryon replies grumpily, moving in circles on the desk before lowering himself to the chair. “Where do we belong? We are nothing, Dion. A monster and a playboy, playing pretend–”
“I promised you I will not stop trying to change you back,” Dion cuts him off.
“Oh, I know…” Geryon growls, sitting down. “Have I not been hearing those words for years? But those two…” he adds gesturing at the door. “All of your lovely Alma’s brood, really, they take me as I am. That much is true for this ward. They do not see our past, our titles, our families or even our shape. Here… they see the person behind the name.
“And here I can see how much needs to be done. And pull people up rather than have my fun by dragging them down,” the gryphon adds, wrapping his tail around his legs.
Dion shakes his head. “Geryon… this is a dangerous, poor, crime-ridden ward. None of what we are used to.”
“Oh really?” Geryon tilts his head. “And here I thought it was a favorite tourist spot!
“Bloody Hell, Dion!” he snarls. “I was ready to flap my way out of here after that bomb, strained wing or no.” He sighs. “And then the girls needed comforting so they turned to me for help…”
Geryon actually sounds shocked at this, pawing at his own chest. “To me! And they wanted to comfort me as well…”
“Now who is acting unlike himself?” Dion chuckles bitterly.
The joke pushes the already irritable Geryon into seething anger, making him stand on the chair, tail hung low, fur and feathers erect, making his small form look bigger and more menacing than normal. His whole body stands tense, ready to leap. His beak points straight at Dion as he answers, “And who is ‘myself’, pray tell? Who am I now? WHAT am I? And who…my friend…are you?”
Dion starts backing slowly at those snarled last words. “I–”
His answer is cut as Geryon tackles him, stealing the air from his lungs as the god is slung against the bed, back pressed against the mattress to evade the gryphon’s sharp beak, arms and legs pinned in place by Geryon’s powerful clawed paws.
“You see,” the gryphon growls. “I think I am starting to find the answers to those questions. And I am all but liking them.”
“You are no better than I, Geryon, that much I know,” Dion growls back.
“Ha! Like a kettle to the pot!” Geryon shouts, pawing accusingly at Dion’s chest.
“I am Guardia!” Dion shouts in return. “My uncle’s nephew! There, are you happy, now?!”
“Very well, then, Guardia?” Geryon replies, practically spitting that last word. “What is it you stand for? What is it you are? And… why?”
“I am the law. I am justice,” Dion says, looking away from the accusing yellow avian eyes. “Because…it was expected of me. And what else is there for me, other than that? What else could I be?”
The gryphon sighs in frustration and turns back to jump onto the chair again. “Everything. Anything. It is, after all, your choice. All I know, is that the monster is tired of hiding its claws under its wings.” He spreads his wings to their full length and flaps them once, blowing half a dozen parchments off of the desk. “How tired are you, my friend, of hiding your mind behind your suits?”
Dion sits up, admiring for a moment his friend’s impressive form, saddened by Geryon’s portrayal of himself as a monster and surprised that he, Dion, could actually think that becoming a gryphon was the best thing to ever happen to his friend.
He shakes his head before answering. “My mind has too many thoughts in it, too many images. And none of them are of the First Ring.” He buries his face against his hands. “In my dreams, I see the same faces over and over again. Sometimes smiling, sometimes broken. You, the Bunnies, Sky, the Popula.
“And yes, I confess, Alma,” he nearly shouts. “For some reason, Alma…”
He sighs, rising to his feet to pace around the room. “And this ward… its people, its streets… it haunts my mind, taints everything I see, holds dust against gold and still, it feels more precious than the First Ring, more real. And I don’t know why. And I don’t know what to do.”
Geryon shakes his head, his voice low with exhausted patience. “You are a fool, Gwydion.”
The unexpected epitome feels like betrayal to Dion. “You are calling me foolish?”
“Look at me!” Geryon roars, jumping off the chair to land by Dion in his fully grown, massive leonine form. “You did this! I have the right to call you a fool whenever I fancy and you have the right to take it quietly!”
The gryphon lowers his voice to add, “But right now, you are a fool of a different color.”
Dion exhales deeply. “A fool for a woman?”
Geryon merely shrugs at this. “You have always been a fool for women. It is hardly worth mentioning when it comes to you.”
With all the grace of his feline features, the gryphon walks back to the bed and climbs onto it. “I mean you are a fool when you claim you don’t know what to do. Of course you know. You made up your mind when you returned with her. You do not seek advice, you seek a blessing. And you have it. So go, run to her like the puppy you have become. Maybe she can make it worth your troubles.”
Drama queen… Dion thinks, snorting.
“Kicking me out of my own room so you can be alone with your nurses?” he says out loud.
“Of course I am,” Geryon concedes, lying down, making the lately very abused wooden frame creak under his weight. “The girls will be back after checking on the kiddies so don’t bring her here. We don’t want to add to the body count tonight.”