“Allrighty…try this one. I know you’re gonna like it!”
Saira takes the drink from Cherry with a skeptical expression. “This better not be some kinda health drink,” she mutters, then takes a sip. Her eyes widen in surprise. “Hmm… that’s good! Now make it with actual booze.”
The wind outside howls and makes the windows rattle, causing Cherry to think about the people in the ward, some homeless, many in homes barely more substantial than a tent, cracks in the twisted, fused buildings letting in drafts and leaks aplenty. A storm front coming off the Ocean, currently pelting the section of the Fifth Ring just below Three Rats with a gale, will soon arrive and drench the ward. Though it is barely midnight, Cherry and Merri have closed the bar due to a lack of customers, which has the fortunate side effect of allowing Saira to join them. In the absence of their friend and lover Geryon, out on a job, red-haired Merri is upstairs sharing a bed tonight with Sage and Mayumi, while Cherry attends to Saira, and to Alma and Gwydion as well, snug in the bar that everyone is now calling the Burrow.
Cherry grins. “This would go great with a fine dark rum, I gotta admit. But Alma says you ain’t havin’ a drop of alcohol in your system until those nerves are back to normal, hon.”
Saira grimaces. “Oh come on… She’s not even looking. She’s all distracted with her Mister Loverboy over there.”
Cherry giggles, and sips from her drink while looking from the bar to Alma and Gwydion. “Lookit them two. They’d be mackin’ on each other like two lovebirds if we weren’t here.”
From where she is sitting only a short distance away, Alma says without looking up from the paperwork she is going over with Gwydion, “Unfortunately for the two of you, I can still hear you perfectly. No alcohol, Saira. You are in no condition for it.”
“Yeah, see where we get the ears from?” Cherry perks her ears up for emphasis. “Now you listen to Doctor Alma and Nurse Cherry, sweetie. And this is good! You better drink it down before I finish it.”
“Fine…” Saira mutters. “What’s she gonna have a boyfriend for if it doesn’t improve her mood, anyway?”
Cherry giggles. “Oh it has, it has, trust me. And anyway–”
Cherry breaks off as the door opens, letting in a strong breeze that makes curtains and one poorly secured poster of the local cricket team whip wildly.
“Oh hey, sorry, hon, we’re closed…” Cherry trails off and gasps.
The newcomer, a slender god wearing numerous sheathed blades and black, close-fitting leathers with crimson trim, his face the color of dark amber, glossy black hair tied back in a ponytail, closes the door behind him and then slips a heavy dufflebag from his shoulder. “Forgive me. I’m not here as a customer. So who does a poor wandering blueshirt report to for duty in this place?” A scar tracing its way across his nose and cheek mars his otherwise fine, almost pretty features, but his hooded eyes bear a glint of a sardonic, perhaps malevolent sense of humor.
Cherry gives a whoop and springs over the bar, half-bouncing, half-running to reach him in but a moment, flinging her arms around his waist, laughing. “Well ain’t you a sight for sore eyes?” She feels a heat radiating from his body that briefly makes her think he has a fever, but then remembers what he is – a god of fire – and just enjoys the additional warmth, and breathes in the subtle array of scents coming off him: the roasted-spice smell of his body, a hint of sweat, the leather, the oil used to maintain his weapons. And oh my a delightful burst of pheromones triggered by her embrace.
The god looks surprised at the exuberant welcome, but smiles down at Cherry’s face. “If my eyes were tired, they’ve found new life from looking at your welcoming smile. Cherry, isn’t it?”
The Bunny steps back, biting her full lower lip coquettishly at the compliment, slipping her hands along his leather-clad arms to take his hands and pull him further into the bar. “That’s right. We were too busy gettin’ our lives saved by you in the whatchacallit Curia to exchange names. And you’re Somrak, ain’tcha?”
Alma and Dion look at each other, confused, then at Somrak. Alma rises from her seat, smiling. “Somrak? How wonderful to see you! But…why are you here?”
Dion rises as well, smiling in mild bafflement, while Cherry asks, “And are you gonna be stayin’ awhile?”
“It seems I will be.” He releases one of her hands and pulls and envelope from an external pocket on his bag, and hands it to Alma, his eyes catching and holding hers. “I’ve been assigned here while your Inspector is out of commission. A week.”
Dion comes closer as well and says, “We had no idea that this would be so, but it is a pleasure seeing you again.”
Alma takes the envelope, holding that challenging gaze with a teasing one of her own. “Yes it is. You very much disappeared after the attack. Never even gave us a chance to thank you properly.” She opens the envelope, reads the orders, and passes it to Dion. “So is this what it takes for you to visit? Official orders?”
Somrak smiles. “I’ve been told I have an unsociable nature, even at the best of times. But lately I have a good reason for my poor social graces. You know that Archon,” he snaps his fingers as if trying to remember, “whatsisname…the one got himself killed?” He grins at Alma, whose smile disappears. “Seems he had a vast criminal empire that’s breaking apart. Brushfires all around the Fourth Ring to put out.”
Her voice lower, eyes glancing down, says, “I can’t help but think that it is all very much our fault…” Her eyes rise to find his again, to see him looking at her in concern, realizing he has misspoken. “But it is nice to see you.”
A hint more gently, Somrak says, “No fault, Sergeant. Had to be done, and I only wish I’d been there to help do it.” Including Dion in his words now, slightly louder, he says, “And the aftermath has provided plenty of amusement. I look forward to helping here, at the request of my old partner.”
Dion says, “You will find that most of the shards have been dismantled already. We were just going over testimonies of members of the last truly powerful shard. It was taken down just yesterday.”
Somrak grins at him, his smile made lopsided by that scar. “Assuming that’s right, this should be a relaxing change of pace.”
Cherry, still holding one of Somrak’s hands, takes it in both of hers and drags him over to a chair. “You ain’t met Sai–” Her ears dip as she realizes she is not supposed to reveal Saira’s name to outsiders. She looks to Alma for guidance.
“It is fine, Cherry,” the goddess says. “Somrak, this is Saira, a friend of the Bunnies.”
Somrak looks at her appraisingly. “I’m familiar with your work.”
Saira takes a sip of her drink, only glancing at him but clearly taking him all in. “Sorry I can’t really say the same.”
“Som here helped keep us alive at the Curia, just like you did here in Three Rats.” Cherry looks from one to the other, an expression of admiration adorning her face.
“Oh really?” Saira asks, looking more sharply at Somrak. “How many did you take down?”
Somrak sits across from Saira, closer to Alma’s chair, which is soon reoccupied by the goddess. “Fewer than you, I believe. I counted the crossbow bolts in the bodies. But then I had fewer to face.”
Cherry sits next to Saira, noting a tremor starting in the woman’s thigh. The Bunny raises her own leg slightly to block Somrak’s view of the twitching muscle. The thought of the fire god noticing Saira’s weakness makes Cherry suddenly protective. Besides, sitting between them, she can smell the two of them: like a couple of cats vying for territory, but at the same time thinking about mating.
“It does not matter how many there were,” Alma says, disapproving. “No one is keeping score.”
Her eyes still locked on Somrak’s, Saira asks, “But then how do we know who’s winning?”
Somrak holds her gaze. “We’ll have to do a proper recounting of every Dukaine we’ve popped sometime. That would be a fun-filled evening. With many a laugh.” He looks at the others, and his smile slightly falters. “But…maybe it’s one of those inside jokes.”
Dion sits slowly. “Personally, I see no amusement in it. Even if I do agree that Saira’s methods are blissfully free of paperwork.”
Somrak shrugs. “The darkest things are those that most need laughing at. Well…” To Alma he asks, “What shift will you have me working? And…please don’t tell me I have to put on a little blue uniform?”
To Cherry’s eyes, Alma seems taken aback at suddenly finding herself in charge. She considers for a moment, then says, “You can have the night shift – Sky’s. As for the uniform… Blue would go nicely with your complexion, but feel free to wear your usual clothing. Have you found a place to stay yet?”
“Sky has told me that his building has an empty apartment. And that way I can keep an eye on his flat while he recovers.”
Saira chuckles. “Well, ain’t that a shame. I hear there’s an empty room upstairs and everything.”
Dion says, “A word of advice: take the room that Sky mentioned. Having a room here seems to mean it will sooner or later be invaded by Bunnies, gryphons or killers.”
Saira narrows her eyes at him. “Hey! I am a professional.”
Nodding at her, Dion says, “Forgive me, professional assassins.”
“All of those sound delightful,” Somrak says, then pauses to consider. “Except for the gryphon. But perhaps not conducive to sleep. Speaking of which, my own has been irregular of late. Perhaps I should get some.” He stands, glancing toward his pack where it rests near the door.
A blast of wind takes that moment to make the entire building shudder and groan. Cherry wonders if some playful wind elemental is listening to them, choosing dramatic moments to remind them of the oncoming storm. Alma says, “Somrak, there is no way we are sending you out into that. Finding your way through the tangled streets around Sky’s place is difficult at the best of times. You can stay in one of the rooms upstairs for the night and move into your new quarters later. If there is anything you need, meanwhile, let me know and I will try to make your stay as pleasant as possible.”
Somrak stands, looking at Alma’s face, and Cherry catches a wave of pheromones wafting off him, stronger than his response to her or to Saira, like a puff of spice that makes her own body respond despite her conscious awareness of it. Hmm, thinks Cherry, I figured he’d be more into Saira but… Wonder if Alma’s catchin’ that at all?
“Always so protective,” Somrak murmurs in amusement. “Thank you. If someone could show me to it? I wouldn’t want to walk into the wrong room.” As he speaks he retrieves his bag and lifts it, the strap creaking.
“Would you please show him the way, Cherry? There are still a few files Gwydion and I need to go over.”
“Totally my pleasure! Come on, we got a spare pillow and some sheets. Think you’re gonna want a blanket? It’s a little cooler tonight than usual.”
Following her up the stairs, Somrak says, “No need. I’m always warm.”
Cherry laughs at that, while Somrak turns to bid the others goodnight.
“Good night, Somrak. And welcome to our station,” Alma says warmly, but her voice sounding tired.
“Yeah, welcome to Three Rats, where everything happens!” Saira adds. “Eh, I’m turnin’ in too. You guys are no fun.”
Dion says, “Good night to the both of you.”
“Saira, I’ll be right back in a second!” Cherry calls down, then speeds upstairs to the linen closet. In a moment she has such an armful of sheets, pillow, and a light blanket that she can’t see a thing. Her voice muffled, she says to Somrak, “It’s the door on your left there. Yeah, that’s the one…I think.” She waddles in the right direction and only bounces off the doorframe once before she corrects and enters the room, dumping everything on the floor.
The room brightens as Somrak lights the gas lamp with his finger. “Thank you,” he says.
She is tempted to stay and flirt – Damn he’s sexy! Slim and strong, catlike, dangerous, literally hot…but something hesitant underneath. Too bad he’s all into Alma – but she wants to help Saira down the stairs. Probably there’ll be no problem, but…what if there is?
“Bathroom is down the hall, the door with the little yellow duckie hangin’ on the handle. Watch yourself on the stairs in the dark – they’re steep. We got water and all sorts of drinks behind the bar, and there’s leftovers in the kitchen. You just help yourself, hon. We can settle up on the booze later.” She pops up on her tiptoes to give him a quick kiss on the cheek. “Welcome and sweet dreams!”
Then with regret she speeds down the stairs to the ground floor just in time to catch up with Saira as she’s about to go down to Alma’s basement room.
Saira glances at her. “Figured you’d stay up there with Mister Hotlegs for awhile.”
Cherry shakes her head. “Nah. Just making sure he’s got what he needs. How you feelin’?”
“I’m fine! You don’t have to keep pecking at me like a mother hen.”
“Bok bok! Come on, let’s get you to bed, sweetie.”