“He lives,” Nessa said. She tried to make her voice ominous and dreadful, but failed. Joy threaded every note and fiber of that voice and face of hers.
Paler than normal but steady in gait, Thomas came around the corner of the stairwell into the living room. He rubbed the back of his neck as Nessa danced lightly in the air around him.
“Are you hungry?” Rhae said, standing up from the couch. “Galen is back at the shop right now but I can find something for you.”
Thomas weighed his options, feeling a bit trapped. Her cooking never caused a death, but sometimes when she got fancy it tasted that bad.
“I’m not really hungry,” Thomas said.
“Oh.” Rhae wrapped her arms around herself and walked into the kitchen.
Thomas sighed. He couldn’t think of all the names she normally called him, but he owned them all right now. Following her into the kitchen, he found her huddled by the sink. Tentatively, he placed his hand on the counter next to her. Assessing her mood, he realized how wrecked she looked. Her hair brushed her shoulders in unkempt, ruby waves. Her fatigue wrinkled the clothes she had slept in for who knows how many days now. This went beyond any desire to cook. Rhae desperately sought escape from feeling useless.
“You know,” Thomas said, “I could go for something really simple. Nothing fancy.”
Rhae leaned into him. “Just stop,” she said, “I know I can’t cook.”
He hugged her. “Then don’t cook. I’m sure we can fix up something together.”
“I wanted to do something nice for you,” she said.
“I know,” Thomas said, “I could use something work friendly. You know, quick and easy. Spill proof and not messy.”
Leaning back to study him, she smiled a bit. “Really?”
Shyly, he reached out to turn off her concealer device. The glamour flickered and faded away, revealing her true form. With a half smile he combed his fingers through his hair. He liked her better this way. For once, he allowed himself to stare. Her lost vulnerability melted away but her usual alert defensiveness didn’t return. Instead, she relaxed in a way that reminded him of when they were younger. She even smiled softly at him. Thomas hoped if this was a dream that he wouldn’t wake up.
“So,” Rhae said, “are we fixing food or you going waste the day gawking?”
Thomas blushed and turned towards the fridge. “Sorry.”
“Don’t you fucking do that.”
He froze with his hand on the handle of the fridge. “What?”
“Look at me and see me,” Rhae said, “I don’t play mind games and I never will. Not once did I ever say to you that you couldn’t look at me. You’ve never yanked my tail, pulled my ears, or raped me with your eyes. I will tell you if it’s not allowed, okay? And if you’re not sure ask, but don’t fucking assume shit.”
Had every date been one male version of Lisha in some fashion or another for her? Thomas felt sick. How did he miss that? He walked back to her and met her glare. Her anger shielded her. He saw he needed to be a better friend.
“Until this thing with Lisha,” Thomas said, “I had no idea what any of that was like.”
The anger gave way to compassion. “Are you alright?”
“I think so,” he said, “I just think I’m a dick for not being a better friend.”
“A hedgehog dick scrubber,” she said, “that’s what you are.”
“That’s a new one.”
They both chuckled.
“So Thomas,” Rhae said, mussing his hair with both hands, “since we are being brave today, what are we in the mood for?”
Before he could answer, she walked to the fridge and opened it. He watched her open the crisper and pull out apples, strawberries, carrots, and celery. She presented them to him for approval.
“You’re asking the guy that blows things up?”
“Yes, because I burn water.”
“Oh I suppose a fruit and veggie tray would be safe enough for the both of us to make then.” He reached to take them from her so he could set them on the table.
His hand grazed hers. He placed his hand over hers. Not moving, he just lingered there. Food wasn’t important anymore.
“What’s wrong Thomas?”
“Nothing,” Thomas said, looking up from her hand. “Rhae?”
“Yes?” Rhae said, leaning down.
Her lips were close to his now. Should he ask? Should he just kiss her? Would she drop kick his ass? His heart pounding, he squeezed her hand and licked his dry lips. She was close enough that his tongue touched her lips slightly. It was all she needed for an invitation. Gently, she brushed her lips against his as he closed his eyes.
“Thomas I wasn’t able to get you the stone grinder, but I did hook you up with a jeweler,” Galen said, shutting the door behind him. He carried a package in his hands however and set it on the table. That’s when he noticed the two of them standing sheepishly at the end of the table. “Did I miss something?”
“Ah no,” Thomas said. “I just helping Rhae with a fruit and veggie tray for the basement.”
“He doesn’t trust my cooking.”
“Well we can fix that,” Galen said.
“That be great,” Rhae said, setting the items in her arms on her end of the table. She went to get a cutting board, knife, and a serving tray.
“So what’s this about the jeweler?” Thomas said, sitting down.
“Oh,” Galen said and handed him the package, “I got you an engraving kit for the gun. You’ll need that to set the runes. Once you do that I have a friend that will cut, grind, and inlay whatever you need.”
“At what price?”
Galen winked and patted Thomas’ shoulder. “Never you mind that,” he said. “Rhae not like that. You’re bruising the fruit.”
“Thanks Galen,” Thomas said.
“Don’t mention it,” Galen said. He nodded his head in the direction of the basement. “Got things covered here. Get back to work. You’ll feel better.”
Thomas grinned and left the kitchen. He wished he had finished that kiss, but he did feel better. His head had finally cleared and his spirits were lifted. Floating with optimism, he reached for the basement door.
“Thomas and Rhae,” Nessa said, “sitting in a tree.”
“Don’t start,” he said, heading down the steps.
“What’s the game plan?”
“Getting my gun ready,” Thomas said. “And we’re making one ready for Rhae too.”
“Yes,” Thomas said, removing it from the workbench’s long drawer.
He placed the shotgun on top of the workbench and then set his magnum next to it. The metal of both gleamed in the light as if speaking to him. Behind him the trans-dimensional crystal still hummed inside the melted engine. Studying the schemas he drew, he groaned and slumped into the chair.
“I can make a portal with this just fine,” Thomas said. “Better than fine. Go anywhere on Earth without the using trans-dimensional crystal to be honest.”
“Sweet,” Nessa said, “So what’s the problem?”
“I can’t test whether this will enchant the bullets as they’re being fired with the spell of choice on the fly without taking the risk of engraving one of these guns and actually shooting the bullets out of it.”
“And if it doesn’t work,” Nessa said, “you have ruined a gun.”
“Well,” Thomas said, “as long as it doesn’t explode it can still be used normally.”
“Why would it explode?”
“It shouldn’t,” Thomas said and then pointed to the melted engine, “but most of my stuff likes to.”
“Technically that didn’t explode.”
“Whatever it’s broke.”
Thomas stood up and dropped the schemas on the workbench. “I wish it didn’t.”
“It’s how we learn, Thomas.”
Scratching his head he said, “You know you sound like your dad?”
“It’s because he’s right,” she said.
He heard her sorting and laying out tools for extracting the trans-dimensional crystal. Nodding to himself, he rapped the workbench. Time to set aside doubt and get the job done.
“Don’t forget the lead lined box,” Thomas said, walking over to her.
“Who do you think I am?” Nessa said with a sly grin.
“Sorry,” he said, “I’m paranoid.”
“I don’t blame you but I got it,” she said and pointed to the edge of the circle. Then she pointed to the middle shelf with the folded cloth and goggles. “Now don’t forget your safety suit and lock the doors.”
The suit was made of enchanted silver fiber lined with a protective layer of carbon fiber. Straps cinched at the wrists and ankles. Wearing it always made him nervous. Taking a deep breath, he adjusted the goggles snugly to his face. Then he laced up the steel toe boots and slipped his hands into a pair of leather work gloves.
“No,” Thomas said as he picked up the blow torch, tucked the box under his arm, and stepped into the ring of runes.
He knelt down next to the melted engine while Nessa placed her hands upon the runic ring. The runes flickered with a soft blue light while she chanted. Setting the box down, Thomas lit up the blow torch and cut into the engine with a steady hand. Piece by piece, chunks of the engine came off and were cast aside. Iridescent light pulsed from the engine, increasing in strength as each chunk of the engine was removed. When Thomas reached the heart of the engine, the energy burst free from the remains, knocking him back to crash into the edge of the circle. The light faded and the circle held. Thomas checked himself to find he still lived. Nessa continued to chant. There was more to do.
He sat up and carefully examined the fist sized clear crystal. It had formed in uneven spikes. Reaching into the suit, he dug out a small chisel, hammer, and a small bag made of the same material as his suit. Hoping to not trigger an explosion, he picked a spike and tried to chisel it off. Thomas sighed as the spike dropped to the cement without incident. He placed that into the small bag. Then he picked another spike to chisel off. It too came off without a hitch. He added it to the bag and cinched the bag closed. With that done, he placed the large crystal into the lead lined box and sealed it shut. Nessa released the chant and the runes went dark.
“We did it?” she said.
“We did it,” Thomas said, removing the goggles and tossing them to the floor.
“Woo hoo,” she said, “time to party.”
She started dancing around the basement floor. Thomas sat there watching her as he trembled from the relief. Having and using that crystal was incredibly important for what they do, but it didn’t change how dangerous it was. He didn’t care what Galen said, he could never forget what happened. Forgetting meant risking the same mistake. Mistakes cause accidents and then people die. Nessa happened to get lucky in a tragic way.
“Is it safe to come in yet?” Rhae said through the door upstairs.
“Yes, hang on.”
Thomas took the stairs two at a time to unlock the door. Nessa flew past him.
“We did it,” she said. “We cut the crystal.”
“So no explosions?” Rhae said, “No missing limbs?”
“No missing limbs,” Thomas said as he stepped out of the basement.
He noticed that she had freshened up and dressed up. Her concealer device was still shut off, even though she still wore it. She used the sliver hair clips he gave her last year for her birthday to pull up her ruby curls. Tonight she wore a little black dress with flats. Feeling his cheeks flush, he tried to recall when she looked this endearing.
“What’s the matter, Thomas?” she said, “Cat got your tongue?”
“I don’t know what the occasion is,” he said, “but I’m underdressed.”
“We are celebrating you not being dead,” she said. “You are fine the way you are.”
“Okay,” he said.
Rhae took him by the hand and lead him to the kitchen. There a fine beef pot roast dinner waited for him. Mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots, onions, celery, and of course the roast beef graced the table in steaming dishes. Her fruit and vegetable trays were colorfully arranged on the countertop. His stomach growled.
“There you are,” Galen said and offered him a fresh mug of coffee. “I know how nerve wracking that process is for you so I thought we should follow it with something cheery.”
“But we never,” Thomas said, stumbling over his words into silence. So much has changed since Lynnette’s passing.
Galen nodded and nudged his elbow. “Now we do.”
“All the joys and all the sorrows,” Nessa said, pointing up in the air, “we share together.”
“Well everyone,” Nessa said, circling the room with a dramatic spin, “I shall take my leave of you this evening.”
“Happy haunting,” Galen said.
Nessa blew them a theatric kiss and flew out the kitchen window.
“Where do you think she’s going?” Rhae said.
“Oh probably the abandoned church on the other side of town,” Galen said. He settled himself into a chair and looked up at them. “Shall we eat?
Thomas offered Rhae a chair and then sat across from her. Although quiet, the meal remained merry. Every exchange included a smile. The house had never felt this happy before. He hoped the days of mirth and warmth here continued forever. Once they cleaned up after dinner, Galen took his leave as well. Thomas returned to the basement to clean up and start his work on engraving.
He had just put the goggles back in the place as she had come down. The basement was all cleaned up and ready for the next project. Thomas walked over to the workbench.
“I want to show you something,” he said.
Rhae came over to his side. “Oh,” she said, lightly touching the shotgun.
“I’m going to enchant it for you,” he said. “It should be faster to reload than the crossbow. I was going to give it to you later this year, but it can’t wait.”
She placed her hand on his shoulder with a soft smile. “That’s very thoughtful of you,” she said. “Thank you.”
Then she headed for the stairs. Thomas furrowed his brow. What did she come down here for? Did he do something wrong?
“Wait Rhae,” Thomas said, reaching for her. “Should I enchant the crossbow instead?”
Pausing at the bottom step with her hand resting on the railing, she said, “No, the shotgun is a better choice.”
“Then what is it?”
Saddened, Rhae shook her head. “You came down here to work. Important work,” she said, “and I came down here for selfish, distracting reasons.”
His heart skipping, he scratched the back of his head as he studied the floor. He knew he’d likely mess this up but he needed to chance it. “Then distract me?” he said.
Silence ticked away between them. He waited. When she didn’t answer, he looked up and found her standing in front of him. Mischief sparkled in her eyes as she slowly lifted the hem of her dress along her left leg.
“Now wait a minute,” Thomas said, “that’s not exactly what a meant.”
She revealed her combat knife strapped to thigh with a chuckle. “Can you enchant this?”
“Yeah,” Thomas said. Turning around to rest his on the workbench to catch his breath. “But you take it off.”
She gently placed the knife still in its sheath with its twin belts next to the shotgun. Embarrassed, Thomas stared at the wood grain of the bench. Rhae slid her arms up under his to squeeze his shoulders. Resting her forehead on his neck, she waited for him to say something. He didn’t know what to say. Why couldn’t they be the way they were before? He knew what to do then.
“I shouldn’t have teased you like that,” Rhae said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I don’t know what to do,” Thomas said.
Rhae hugged him and kissed his neck right at the hairline. He felt her smile against his skin as his breath quickened for a moment. Leaning into her, he looked up at her face. She stroked his cheek with her finger. He closed his eyes with contentment.
“You’re smart. You’ll figure it out,” she said. “You always do.”
“And if I disappoint you?”
“Then I beat your ass and you try again.”
Thomas snorted and sat up on the workbench. “That’s all? Just beat my ass like always?”
“Yup, nothing new,” she said, her face even with his now.
“Okay,” he said, trying not to swing his feet since she was so close to him. “So now what?”
Mischief returned to play in her eyes. He was in trouble. She rested her hands on his thighs and stepped between his knees. Now she was right up against him. His unsteady breath quickened as he gripped the edge of the workbench with both hands. A lazy desert heat spread through him as he saw her aura glow with hazy golden earth tones. Normally it was sharp and cold, but in this moment it beckoned. His heart fluttered with the invitation. He desperately wanted to keep it. Others earned it and wrecked it. He feared becoming one of them.
“These are the rules,” she said, “pay attention. If someone resists then stop. If someone says stop, then stop. No games. No bullshit.”
“Rhae,” Thomas said. He hesitated.
“What?” She threaded her fingers through his hair.
By the gods that felt good and Thomas found himself wrapping his arms around her tightly. He wanted more, for himself and for her. Hiding his shame, he buried his face into her neck.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said.
She absently stroked his feathery hair. The heat he felt continued to build as he breathed in her summer scent. “What would you like to do?” she said quietly.
Without moving, he said, “I’ve always wanted to touch your ears.”
Her hands returned to his thighs. “You can touch them,” she said, “but don’t pull or pinch them.”
Anxiously, he reached up with each hand to stroke an ear. She twitched away from him a bit.
“That tickles,” she said, closing her eyes, “not so light.”
The short ruby hair on the outside was soft like crushed velvet. He took care not to rub it the wrong way, not daring to find out if she was like a real cat. Gently he ran a thumb along the inside of her ear. The longer white hair was silky smooth. Rhae let out a quiet sigh against his lips as her nails dug into his thighs. His hands slid down her back as he kissed her. He intended for it to be a chaste one, but her hunger and need quickly changed that. The desert heat smoldering within him ignited into flames. Even with his eyes closed he could see the ever shifting hues of her golden earthy aura. It washed over him, claimed and beckoned him. He was hers – then, now, and forever. Fear and doubt evolved to awe and joy. He couldn’t believe this was happening right now in the basement.
“Not in the basement,” Thomas said, trying to stand.
Trying to keep him from falling while still tugging him to the stairs, Rhae laughed along the way. It was a bright, clear hearty sound that lifted his soul. Thomas smiled as they stumbled up the steps together. Her true, unrestrained laugh was his favorite sound in the world.