Ch6.71 Trust

“Now how do you know this person you’re taking me to?”

The walk from Rio Novo had been a mostly silent one so far. A blessing and a blight, from Dion’s point of view. On the one hand, it allowed him silence and time to think over the information gathered in Somrak’s short briefing, that morning. Not a lot of information and nothing very uplifting, unfortunately, but every bit would help.

On the other hand, it gave him opportunity to recall his conversation with the fire god from last night, Somrak’s warning against the very real possibility of either Dion or Alma not returning alive from the rescue mission, Dion’s own promise to speak to the death goddess and make amends. He had nearly done so that same night, when he met her in the breezeway, returning from her meeting with Saira, Geryon walking by her side. When she touched his hand and looked at him with sorrowful eyes and quietly told him of this arrangement to meet one of Saira’s contacts in no more than half a dozen words. If only Constable Longshot had not suddenly erupted from the station with a couple of papers that Dion had forgotten to sign…

And then she had signalled him to go take care of his duty and he had followed Longshot back into the station, leaving Alma to return to her sanctum and most likely obsess a little more over her family’s records of the Necromancer Wars. She had not slept in days, he could tell, and neither had he with any level of rest. But even though he had known her to be awake, or at least strongly suspected so, his courage had drained and the god had been left gazing at the office ceiling for most of his shift, trying to imagine a world in which her lovely eyes would never rest their gaze on him again. Impossible torture.

And so it was that, after meeting with Saira and silently following her towards the neighboring ward of Little Falls, he was now trying to break the heavy quietness between them with what would hopefully be a productive line of questioning.

Not that Saira was ever one to make things easy. “You don’t really wanna know how I know her, trust me.”

“Very well,” Dion says dryly. “As long she can give us a lead.”

Saira looks a little uneasy at this. “Yeah…’bout that…” She pauses as if she is trying to avoid the issue but after a glance at his unamused expression, she seems to make up her mind. “Getting her to give anything tends to get a bit tricky around the edges. Her business isn’t a very safe one. And you better not let her make you for a cop or we’re both dead in the water.”

“I see,” Dion replies, remembering why it is that he has never found Saira particularly enticing. Namely her tendency to make little of his abilities at anything. “Don’t worry about my cover. I will make sure she does not realize who or what I am.”

Again, she shows her distrust of him, eyeing him up and down as if he has just blatantly lied to her face. “Yeah… don’t take this wrong but you’re not exactly my first choice when it comes to this sorta thing. Too bad Ponytail is too busy elsewhere.” She shrugs. “Oh well..”

Dion’s jaw clenches at the comparison with Somrak but he refuses to humor her disdain. “We have a job to do.”

Saira’s chuckle at his reaction only makes it worse. “It’s true, then. There is trouble in paradise…” She pats his shoulder. “Don’t worry, love, where we’re going, you’ll get a perfect chance to use that smooth talk of yours to score a real hot chick. Might help your mood, to taste some variety.”

Dion cannot help but stiffen at her patronizing touch, anger rising, mostly at himself, for allowing her games to disturb him. He breathes deeply, locking eyes with her in a warning glare.

She seems to understand his wordless message, her expression darkening just about as much as his. Her tone is serious and quiet when she tells him, “I’m not kidding. She doesn’t trust easily and I… well, let’s just say we’ve been on better terms than we are now. You charmin’ her into talking may be the only way to get anything out of her about this Pete fella.”

Dion nods slowly at her words. So this is why he is coming along on this meeting. Very well, if charm is needed, a charmer he will be. The shift in thought is not at all difficult. There is a touch of anger in charm, a touch of possession, of superiority, power. Control. The absolute belief that one is at one’s best, regardless of the environment, one’s company. It is confidence in skill, in step, in speech. A hunter’s trust in the accuracy of his shot, the sharpness of his eye. He has been shaped in a land of great and arrogant beasts, of ruthless elements, where only the mighty and the bold dare survive and prevail. And once one has learned to match the great hunters, the whole of the world becomes prey.

He relaxes into himself and allows that confidence to pour over his shoulders, over his steps, to overflow and roll away from him. He is keeping his divinity well-hidden, his godly aura to a minimum, but what this is takes no magic, no power other than that of the mind over itself. He smiles at Saira, a lion – no, something bigger, much greater and older than any lion – baring his gleaming-white teeth at a housecat.

“I will be on my best behavior,” he states quietly, watching not without a certain glee as her pupils dilate, her hand reflexively and unconsciously opens and touches her hip, a fingernail grazing the exposed skin just above her belt.

Easy. So easy… If only he were willing.

It takes her just a fraction too long to return to herself, to grin mischievously and pat his cheek probably a little more playfully than intended. “That’s a good boy.”

No…it’s not.

They arrive at their destination shortly after. An apothecary shop, from the look of it. Various dried plants, looking old and stale from the crumbliness of their leaves, the wan color of their molding stems, hang from pieces of waxed string tied to a pair of hooks on each side of the low door. He signals Saira to enter first with an arching motion of his hand and wrist that seems to amuse (but please) her. A pair of steps lead inside, from the higher level of the street into a lowered room, dark and heavy with dust. It is a good thing that, like Three Rats, this area is neither prone to great bouts of rain nor flooding or the store would be better off selling rafters and decorative fish. He has but a moment to take in the various shelves, crowded with ceramic and glass pots, some opaque, some transparent, all advertising the names of the exotic remedies they carry inside.

Well, supposedly carry. Even without drawing on his magical senses, Dion can already feel the distinctive prickling to his nose and skin of things that no common apothecary should trade in. For no remedy for gods or mortals should resonate with the foul, poisonous essence of Hell.

A curtain of bamboo beads strung together with cheap twine rustles as it is moved aside to allow passage for who he supposes must be the shop owner. “Hello! And whót cán Ah – oh…it is you.”

The last few words are clearly directed at Saira and accompanied by a disdainful grimace instead of the smile that had adorned the apothecary’s face just seconds ago. An attractive woman, in a very specific definition of the word. Skin just a shade or two of brown deeper than the usual dark olive of most of the Three Rats population, exposed over the arms, neck, legs and belly. Her clothing made of cheap, rough cotton colored in dull reds, blacks and yellows, probably hand-dyed with natural pigments, reveals more than conceals a well-curved feminine form, wide hips and a slightly bulging abdomen with contours that seem to flow perfectly with the asymmetric cut of the dress: a top made to barely hide full breasts linked to a short skirt that ends mid-thigh by a large golden ring. Arms covered in wide bangles, ankles encircled by chain after chain of thick golden metal. Hair tied in a thick ponytail, hanging in coal-black dreadlocks. Beautiful, all of it, even if a little exaggerated for his tastes.

But what truly throws Dion off the mark are the scars. Row upon row of scarification marks all over her arms, her belly, her neck. Some short and straight, some long and jagged, some little more than raised bumps, a good many of them discolored and contrasting sharply with her skin’s natural tone. All of them clearly intentional, arranged in patterns, in symbols and images. She walks with a confidence that speaks of pride in her appearance. Dion asks himself why she would treat her own body so violently, going as far as piercing some of her scars with metal studs and rings, and trimming the tips of her ears to make them jagged.

He makes certain to hold his expression blank and pleasant in the face of this strange character.

“Gee…thanks for the warm welcome,” Saira complains by his side. “Is that how you greet every patient in need of treatment?”

“Di kind of illness you ha’, no poxión cán treet,” the apothecary replies, her thick accent forcing her to speak with a slow, irregular cadence. “Dei ha’ not cóme ahp with anyting yet fér rottan solles.”

Dion takes this time to consider the woman’s appearance. He has seen it before somewhere – ah, yes… in an old book about great yet sadly crazed mages and alchemists. He remembers a reference to one named Nomichor, famed for his dalliances into the dark arts of alchemical transmutation and fusion of demon bodies into animals and plants in order to study their physical properties. And famous as well for his habit and deep belief in the value of exposing himself to a varied assortment of his creations’ secretions by cutting his own skin and rubbing whatever foul drool or excrement he was studying onto his exposed flesh in the hopes of learning its virtues or, most of the time, dangers. He had died after one such experiment but not before losing a couple of limbs and a few other body parts to what he called ‘science’.

This woman, however, must be one of his followers, perhaps a descendant of one of his disciples. It surely explains the Hellish scents coming from jars labelled with names as innocent as ‘dried heather’. She jerks her chin at Dion, glancing at him with carefully appraising eyes. “A nu toy? You ne’er strock me fér a ‘gud and neet’ kind éf girl.”

Saira snorts at this, smoothly taking a step away from him. “Naah, you can have’im if you like. I just brought’im along to give you some money to earn.” She shrugs nonchalantly. “Unless you’re too mad at me to take an offer like that.”

Something in their tone and interaction speaks to Dion of latent resentment laced with physical attraction. As if these two women had once shared a bed and lived to regret it. He puts the thought aside, entertaining as it may be. More important issues are on the table.

“I am a client, Doctor,” he says with a smile, offering his hand palm up that she may take it. “Hers, briefly, and hopefully yours as well.”

The woman looks at him sideways, not taking his hand yet. “And wót it is dat you ah’ looking to ’eal? You look too gud to need mah sérvices. And noh bád enaf to need hérs.”

“Hey!” Saira protests.

The apothecary gives her no more than a smile in return before once again turning her attention to Dion, this time resting the tips of her fingers on the tips of his. “She tells you mah name. Wót is yors?”

He raises his hand to bring her fingers within the reach of his lips, kissing her scarred, rough skin in a slow, galant greeting, smiling at her and maintaining his gaze locked on her murky black eyes as he does so, ignoring for the moment the bitter taste of cussi and sumkir (either of which would easily see her imprisoned for dealing in demonic substances) infused deeply into her skin. Saira had not, in fact, told him this woman’s name but he nonetheless allows her the illusion of being the smartest person in the room. The assumption matters little to him but seems to please her immensely. And he wants her to be pleased with him.

“My name?” he asks as if this were anything but important. “You can call me Merillion.”

She smirks, nearly purring her response. “Ef corse, Ah can. And wót is it you need, Merillión?”

Her hand strokes his as she removes her fingers from his hold. Dion casually drops his hand and chuckles at her suspicion of him, letting his derisive laughter rumble a little deeper in his throat. “I am merely in need of information, and then I will leave you. For now. Who knows if we cannot do business again in the future? I have certain ingredients I need for my studies, and one of my providers, Lucky Pete–” he says the name with just the tiniest hint of distaste expected of him “–has disappeared on me.”

The woman takes a step closer to him, her head held slightly back as if she means to sniff the truth out of him. “Mebbe dis próvider ef yors senses sóme-ting abót you? Sóme-ting bad…” Her full lips move nearer his face. “For ’is healt?”

Dion looks at her coyly, though he makes no motion to pull back. She is standing just a hand’s breadth away from him, her body leaning at the hip, back arching ever so slightly so that she may maintain eye contact. She means to invade his space and he has no intention but to invite her in. “I wouldn’t know what is going on in his mind,” he says, speaking against her lips. “But I suspect his missing our meeting has more to do with the disruption to a certain recent market than anything he might think about me. I will be very grateful for any help.”

Her hands smoothen the lapels on his shirt as she notes in soft, quiet tones that are as amused as the grin on her face. “You dress like préih, Merillión. But Ah sense darknéss in yor solle. Pain in yor hart. And powah’ beyond a mortól mahn.”

“You have sharp eyes, Doctor,” he whispers, leaning his head slightly closer, letting his gaze fall just a little lower on her face. “Beautiful, sharp eyes.”

“Oh, you wou’ be amézed at wót dei cán see,” she purrs, her cheek brushing against his lips as she turns and walks away from him. “You know you kéme in he-ar wi’ a dead wumón?”

“Is that what they’re sayin’?” Saira asks with a touch of amusement.

“All I know is that she that has introduced me to you, and for that alone she has earned my gratitude,” Dion retorts dismissively, removing the lid of a porcelain jar sitting on a little pedestal and grimacing at the acrid stench of something being kept in very old embalming fluid. “And her substantial fee.”

Do people really believe a basilisk’s claw will heal broken bones overnight? he wonders.

The woman snorts at his ill-fated curiosity. “Well, word on di streets is Saira die helpin’ di Guardia fight a deemón and dei ték ’er body fer buryin’. Now she is he-ar, alive though I cán see di marks on her. Wót do you méke of dat, Merillion?”

“I am not a traitor!” Saira bellows suddenly and it takes Dion every morsel of self-control in his body not to turn to look at her. “I was trying to keep a bunch o’ kids from being sold to kibble!”

The god makes a show of exhaling deeply, feigning slight irritation. Saira’s tone is alarmingly outraged and hurt and he fears the woman may be stressing herself into one of her convulsive fits but he cannot afford to break character. “People talk and talk.” He raises a hand, gesturing vaguely in further dismissal. “Clearly not everything about her is as rumors say. But this is not my concern.”

“Not onless you ah’ Guardia too,” the apothecary counters, turning her smiling, highly entertained gaze from Saira’s enraged expression to Dion’s vacant profile. She studies him intensely while lifting the lid of a glass counter that doubles as a display case and removing from it an inconspicuous bottle from a throng of similar-looking bottles apparently containing colorful powders and mysterious liquids.

Dion laughs lightly at the accusation, turning to face her more directly. “Oh, is that your concern? My dear Doctor, I am a practitioner. Such so-called forces of authority are more a hindrance to my research than a benefit to anyone’s protection.”

She opens the bottle. “And wót is yor research, practitioner?”

Dion watches as she removes a carved-bone needle from a small jar of such items and dips its tip into whatever is being held in the thumb-sized container. He can see Saira’s expression of unease at the sight of it through the corner of his eye.

Still, he must continue. “My research? I am interested in expansion of the powers of the mind.” He sniffs at the scent that is just now reaching his nostrils as the apothecary moves closer to him. Demon ichor. Purified but spiked with something he cannot quite identify. He curses internally. “Interesting choice, that. Not really what I’m in the market for.”

“No, you don’ look like a killeh, like Saira,” the woman says with a snort that makes her bangles jingle in a bone-jittering choir. “Bót mébbe you woul’ lák to put mah mind at peace? Shó me you ah’ troo and mortól. Share yor pain wi’ Karm. Dén I might discóss di lost and found wi’ you.” She holds the needle sharp-end-up for his inspection. “A prick éf dis brings pain to mortóls but if you ah’ a god…it will hurt méch moh.” She leans closer to whisper in his ear. “Ah ha’ left moh den one god at di Barón’s doorstep wi’ dis special brew.”

He can fill her plump lips curl into an evil grin against his earlobe and cheek. A sadist’s grin, looking to watch him squirm and cower, basking in whatever fear and pain she may anticipate. But two can play that game.

“I come here to offer you business and you want to poison me?” he whispers back, fingers wrapping around her hand and tightening around it in an iron grip.

She chuckles and pulls away, smiling at first but then looking quite put off when, with a beatific smile of his own, he tightens his grip further, holding her hand in place. Still, it takes her only a fraction of a moment to relax and find sensual pleasure in their little game of tug-of-war. “Éf you are troo, you ha’ noting to feér but a littel pain. We all ha’ a price. Péi mahne or leeve.”

“Karm, come on,” Saira pleads. “My arm hurt horrors when you did that to me. Went numb for three days after that.”

Demon ichor, specialty brew. Most likely something of the sort he has seen Saira use to hunt and kill divine members of the Dukaine organization. One of very few things that is safer to mortals than to gods. That could easily kill a god, even in small amounts, if directed straight into vital organs with a plentiful blood supply, poisoning the organism and destroying the superhuman healing properties that are a prerogative of all but the weakest divine bodies. Though the amount of it lacing Karm’s needle is exceedingly small, it is still potent in its purity and, at the very least, extremely painful to experience.

But this is for Sky, for the hope of finding out where he is being held so that they can extract him and end the reign of terror of this necromancer who wishes nothing but to bring them pain and death. Who wishes nothing but to hunt down those who Dion cares about and remove them from his world. This is his part to play in the making sure that the enemy does not succeed. His moment to sacrifice. He dares not think that this might be in vain, that Karm will know or say nothing in the end.

So he plays along, releasing Karm’s hand and unbuttoning the cuff of his shirt so that he can easily roll up his sleeve. If he can have a choice of injection places, he may as well keep that foul needle away from any major blood vessels. Once he is done, he presents her his left forearm, an expression of annoyance on his face that he hopes hides well his inner concerns.

He draws upon his training, as a wizard and a martial artist, to strengthen himself against the agony he can only imagine will follow. His will is iron. It must be to do the things he does. And he will resist the urge to scream, to cringe, to collapse, to give her any of the sadistic pleasure she hopes to extract from him with this little game of hers. He will. He will. No pain or poison can match the agony his heart is in already, anyway.

Or so he tells himself.

Karm smiles through a mouth full of teeth carefully filed to sharp points and wraps her fingers around his forearm, pricking him. “Nice bréce-let, bai di wé. Prétti.” She strokes the bracelet that Alma has made for him and that he has not taken off since that gift-giving day with her poisonous, scarred fingers and Dion locks his jaw, barely resisting breaking every single one of them for daring soil his love’s gift with her tarnishing touch. “Méde wi’ lóve, wasit?”

The pain hits like a hammer. Her words are lost to his ears. The tiny drop of poison enters his skin like burning lava, corrosive acid eating away at his flesh, melting through tissue, through vessel walls, a drop stretching into a flood as it enters his bloodstream and spreads, spreads slowly like thick oil clogging his veins, seeping into muscle, into bone, stealing the life-giving air from his blood cells, suffocating everything in its passage. The acid of his arm’s desperate attempt to function in the absence of oxygen hurts him as much as the poison itself. It is…astonishing. His fist clenches – he cannot help it. The muscles of his forearm bunch and strain. And then it is spreading throughout his body, almost leisurely, breaking down the practiced, honed defenses against toxins that years of training have loyally kept in place as if they were nothing but paper against a flame. A terrible, consuming flame. He feels his temperature rise, sweat breaking out on his face. Involuntary reactions that he cannot control. But he can still control his breathing, and he keeps it smooth, as smooth as possible. The urge to scream is almost impossible to suppress, but he does through sheer force of will.

His one concession to pain is to close his eyes. The agonizing sensation is spreading quickly and he must focus. Something, something to take his mind off the agony, off the terrible feeling that he is dying in excruciating pain, off the rumbling within him of a force he has only barely felt in years but which moves now with irritation, like something being poked into vigilance after a sleep of ages. Something big and angry and confused, disgusted at the poison that spreads through its lair and threatens to destroy it. He is afraid, has always been afraid of this strange presence that rarely surfaces but takes over his senses whenever it does. A primitive, brutal rage he has used more than once to his survival in the Dragon Lands but knows not how to reach or tame. He would easily level this shop, half of the ward with it, he knows. But he cannot. He cannot let it out. Not now. Not now. The pain cannot blind him to his purpose or he will destroy what is their only lead to Sky’s location.

And then it will be his fault and the lovely hands that have weaved the bracelet that encircles his wrist will never again touch him with kindness. With love. It hurts to think about them, to think about her knowing that he is yet to repair the chasm he has opened between him and his beloved but still it is to her that he runs, to his memory of her, to escape the pain. To her smile, her touch, to stolen kisses in quiet times, to that last night in their office, her sleeping form lying in his arms, breathing peacefully against him in that slow, ever so slow way of hers that even in vigilance and effort clashes so strongly against his rushing heart, his quick breath. To her cool touch, her sluggish pulse that never fails to calm him down and infuse him with peace even as her lips excite his lust with their kiss. He runs to her in thought, mind trying to remind his body of the running of her fingers through his hair, of the gentleness of her hold, of the cleansing sensation of her healing powers spreading through him in search of wounds, enticing his cells to release whatever substances she knows of to drown pain with pleasure. He can almost feel it now, so vivid the agony makes his desperate memory.

He holds on to it so that his knees will not buckle, his eyes not fill with tears. He can fill Karm watching him, at the edge of his senses, her stare one of strange glee, almost as if she is feeding off his pain. He does not care. His mind is filled with a single thought: survival. Survival with a purpose. To make things right, to rebuild his little piece of paradise. He has to live. For her. To be with her again. To let her heal his wounds with her presence if not with her magic.

He feels a hand on his back. “You’re sick, Karm.”

Saira’s voice. He opens his eyes, feeling his physical pain under a flimsy control, not trusting himself to speak.

Karm shrugs. “You did sé Ah coul’ ha’ him.” She moves closer to Dion and her hands rest on his arms as she leans to touch her lips to his jaw, tasting his sweat-ridden skin. “Oh you ah’ so tense. Ah lóve et.”

She glances at Saira, then speaks, her mouth ever so close to Dion’s. “Wi’ you grón fer mi?”

With great effort, Dion wills himself to smile. “I’m not much for groaning.”

His eyes spell murder, he knows. He cannot help it. Within him, lashing in pain and confusion, his raging core roars and growls. I will crush you, you petty, meaningless little creature. And I will love every second of it.

For now, however, he has more important things to do. “You asked for a heavy price, Doctor. I paid it. Now it’s your turn to give me what I want.”

Karm looks into his eyes, then pouts in a way she probably thinks is adorable but that looks nothing but ridiculous for her personality. “Fahn… Ah guess we plé sóm odér tahme.” She suddenly steps away from him, her voice now serious and impatient. “Pete did noh shó ahp becóse he get bostéd fer breaking into a stór. Noh lák Pete at awlle.”

Dion sighs to conceal a sudden sharp burst of pain to his chest that almost steals his breath. He shakes his head as he regains control. “Well that explains things. Which ward is he in? At least I’ll know where he is.”

“Dei send awlle prisonérs to Ablani from he-ar,” Karm replies, leaning against her small counter of poisons. “Whót ah’ you lookin’ fer, Merrilión? Mébbe dére ah’ alternatifs to Pete.”

“I doubt you deal in infera aura,” Dion notes, rolling down his sleeve and touching his bracelet for what little comfort that brings him.

Karm blanches slightly at the mention of the infernal mineral, much to the god’s petty pleasure. “Ah… noh, sorre.” She turns toward the bamboo-bead curtain and the door beyond, announcing the end of their appointment. “Ha’ a nice dé, Mellirión. Cohm bék anytime.”

“Hey, don’t I get to shop?” Saira asks, looking peeved but, Dion notes from her quick, worried glance at him, not terrible so.

“Not todé,” Karm replies, not looking at her. Instead, she grins at Dion. “Mah dé is méde.”

“Glad to have given you such pleasure,” he says to her. “May the remainder of your day be as pleasant.”

“Whót a gentle mahn,” she jests, disappearing behind the curtains. “Be carefool, Merillión. Whót you seek……óders coul’ see you as competitión.”

“Be seein’ you, Karm,” Saira calls to her.

“Saira,” the apothecary’s voice rings from a distance. “You sté alive, now.”

And so they leave the shop, quickly, silently. They manage to pass a couple of alleys before Dion ducks into the shade of a taller building, staggering slightly from the violent bouts of pain stabbing at his gut. He puts a hand to the wall, breathing heavily from the effort of staying conscious.

“I’m really sorry about that,” Saira whispers at his side. “She doesn’t do that often on a first meet. How’re you doin’?”

In her defense, she sounds truly concerned. But he cannot bring himself to care. His torso is ablaze with agony, the hand he is using for support is shaking beyond his control. His stomach clenches, his abdomen contracting in a heave, a series of heaves. His breakfast, what little of it he had had the humor to eat gushes into his throat, acid of another kind making his esophagus burn and polluting his mouth on its way to the cobblestone street. He shudders as a new wave of contractions seemingly tries to rip the inner lining of his now empty stomach. No…no…no… He cannot fall now. He has to endure, to make it back to Three Rats. His powers flare to life, trying to inactivate the poison, though he has no experience of such things, no real knowledge of how to deal with something as destructive as demon ichor. All he has is anger.

“She doesn’t… do that often?” he heaves. “If you… had warned me…” He takes a deep breath, struggling for control. “I could have prepared…”

Saira ignores his growling tones and puts her hands to his sides to support him. “Shh… Don’t talk. Breathe. Don’t hold it in. That was damn brave of you but let it flow now. It’s bad but you’ll get better faster if you don’t fight it.”

He turns and leans his back against the crumbling mortar covering the building’s brick wall. He rolls back his sleeve to look at his progressively numbing arm and see the skin turning black around the area the needle touched. Quickly turning black. And spreading.

Good thing she didn’t see that… he thinks.

“Can the others help?” Saira asks, obviously disturbed by his reaction to the poison.

“I don’t know,” Dion confesses. “Gods are very sensitive to demon ichor. And not very good at inactivating it.”

But I have to be, he thinks. I have to be. Whatever it takes, I have to get home. I have to…

He holds his breath against nausea. …to make it right. To see her again. To tell her…I’m sorry. I should have trusted her. I should have.

He forces himself to stand up straight again, and looks intently at Saira. “Whatever happens to me, you will take me back to the station.”

To tell her how much I need her, how much I love her. Hold her again.

And though it is not the best-phrased of his requests, Saira seems to catch the urgency in his voice. She nods. “Let’s get you home.”

Just one more time.


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