Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: New Bangkok, Barbary
"Where you off to looking like a thundercloud, Ver?" Corny straightened from where he'd been fussing with Rosa's hooves.
Damn it. Verin had hoped he could slip out without seeing anyone. "Somewhere."
"You need company? I might could come along if you give me a minute."
"No. Did I ask for company?" Verin cringed inwardly. That was harsh.
"All right, then." The hurt in Corny's voice was muffled as he bent back to Rosa's hoof. "Don't mind me."
Trailing steam, Verin stomped out of the cargo bay. Fuck it. I don't have to explain myself. Never made any promises that I'd tell him everything or shit like that. This is me still. My life. And I'm gonna do whatever the fuck I want.
People scattered from his path as he stomped out of the spaceport and into the streets of New Bangkok. Because he could, and because he was running a little late, he hailed a tuk-tuk, surprised when the first one stopped for him. Usually took a few passing him before one stopped. He climbed in and gave the driver the address.
The driver's eyebrows rose. "You sure that's where you want to go, Mr. Demon?"
"Yeah, I'm fucking sure. I tell you where to go. You drive. That's how this works. First day?"
"Ha. Funny demon." The driver snorted and eased back into traffic, heading uptown.
Once they arrived, he paid the driver a little extra for not making any smartass remarks. Yeah, this place was in a fancier part of town than he'd normally go, and yeah, it was kinda pricey. He got why the driver didn't think he belonged. Didn't mean he appreciated it. Ballsy judgmental humans.
No sign hung over the door to the establishment. Just a plain black door and a person either knew the place was there or they didn't. Verin squared his shoulders, strode in like he belonged there, and only let out a little puff of smoke when he saw they had another new receptionist.
She gave him the hairy eyeball as he approached the desk. "Can I help you, um, sir?"
"Yeah. I'm here to see Gino."
Her perfectly applied cosmetics threatened to crack when she wrinkled her forehead. "Do you have an appointment?"
"No, I'm just here to cause trouble 'cause I'm a demon. Of course I have an appointment. You could check first before going all snooty as gold shit on me."
"Sir, there's no need to take that tone—"
The heavy red curtains behind the front desk flipped open, revealing a beautiful human in skintight shorts and crop top, his makeup much more artfully applied than Ms. Thing's at the desk. "Tara, is my ten o'clock— Oh, there you are, Mr. Hammer! Right on time. Why don't you slide on back here with me? Tara will sign you in."
The receptionist stared from one to the other and Verin was more than happy to stride past and leave her gaping. Gino took his arm with a smile, hips twitching as he walked Verin through the velvet-lined corridor.
"The usual today, handsome? Or did you need something…special?"
"Usual's good, Gino." At the alcove where Gino held the curtains aside for him, Verin stopped and scuffed a clawed foot on the carpet. "Maybe horns, too?"
"They do look like they need some attention," Gino crooned, stroking along the outer curl of the left one. "Hop up on the chair, sweetie, and put those glorious scaly feet in the water for me."
Verin did as he was asked, knowing the foot tub Gino used for him was three times bigger than the normal one. Good to have a place that understood. He let out a grateful sigh as his feet went into the ginger-scented, Epsom salt water. Hell's fucking gates, that always feels good.
Perched behind Verin on a stool, Gino started on his horns while his feet soaked, filing away rough spots, polishing them to high shine. "Sure you don’t want any color today? You know I can do your nails in a nice black if you want."
"No." Verin let the steam trickle from his nostrils, doing his best not to sound so short and sharp. "Thanks, Gino. No color."
He let Gino chatter away at him, the stream of small talk swirling around him in soothing waves while he had his claws clipped and filed. Gino fussed at him for letting one of them split so badly, but even that didn't annoy him. This was time away from everything, away from the galaxy and all the weird shit in his life.
When he returned to the Brimstone a couple of hours later, he was relaxed enough to be thinking of an apology for Corny. He hadn't meant to hurt his cowboy. It was all just so…
"There you are." Corny's hands slipped around his waist from behind, his chin on Verin's shoulder as he drew in a deep breath. "My, my, someone smells powerful nice."
Strong hands took him by the arms and turned him. Verin expected Corny to be laughing at him, but those eyes were full of understanding instead. "Bull-headed sometimes, Hammer. You are that. You should know better by now."
Verin frowned. "Know what?"
"That I ain't gonna be makin' fun or saying you're unmanly for things you hanker for. You got your nails and your horns seen to. They look damn good. Ain't nothin' to be ashamed of."
"But it's… It's a fucking pedicure. I mean, fussy demons like Shax might get that done…and then they always wanna add some damn color, too. It's not, you know, a really butch place."
Now Corny did snicker. "Sorry. I was just thinking you could call it a horny-pedi. And if you wanted color, so what? Could paint your claws bright red and you'd still be twice as tough as nails."
Verin rested his head on Corny's shoulder. "Good. Shit… Yeah. It's good. Wanna come with me next time?"
Another soft chuckle rumbled through Corny's chest as he wrapped his arms tight around Verin. "You know, I think I just might."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
"So who's your favorite human hero?" Julian asked as he stirred more sugar into his tea. So bitter. Let it steep too long again.
"Well, we're all for damn sure who yours is." Corny poked him in the ribs. "Since you made us watch all them James Bond movies."
"Not all of them. I spared you Moonraker. Though if you wanted to watch it…"
"Oh fuck no." Verin snarled. "Stupid movie."
They had been discussing demon heroes over breakfast—Abaddon, Mephistopheles, and so on, and an interesting mix of clever and brutal they were. Julian didn't know enough demon lore to pick one, though. Saying Shax was his demon hero would've sounded saccharine and probably would've ticked Ness off. Redirection had been in order before Julian started feeling out of place. More out of place.
"I'm partial to that Jane Goodall," Corny offered. "She didn't take nothin' from nobody and, well, animals."
Shax reached for a second cinnamon bun. Why he never gained an ounce with all the sweets he scarfed down, Julian would never understand. "I agree with your assessment, Corny, and she was an unquestionably admirable human, but I thought we were speaking of fictional humans."
"Oh. All right." Corny's forehead creased as he considered. "I'll pick that little Miles Vorkosigan I'm readin' through now. Great big brass balls on that one and he's always thinkin', even in the worst spots. Kinda reminds me of you, Cap, a little. In your demon tornado moments."
"Thank you? I think?" Shax shook his head with a quirk of a smile and leaned his head on his angel's shoulder. "Ness?"
Ness turned his coffee mug in his hands, staring into the depths for so long that Julian wondered if he was already ticked off about something and refusing to answer. Finally, he flushed pink as he said, "Eowyn. She's a true hero who didn't let what others thought of her get in the way of being a true hero."
"She is pretty badass," Verin said, a sentence so unexpected that all eyes whipped over to him. "What? All those idiots telling her what she couldn't do and she's like fuck you all, I'm doing it."
"So, Ver. What's yours?" Shax reached for yet another cinnamon roll and Ness smacked his hand. He turned an actual pout Ness's way, which on him looked absurdly fetching, but Ness pushed a plate of bacon in his direction instead.
Ver let out a puff of steam. "That's easy. Mine is that Cuchulain fucker. All the rage and destruction. Good stuff for a human story."
"Cap? Guess yours is someone like Robin Hood, huh?" Corny ventured.
Shax regarded him in wide-eyed horror. "Great bubbling sulfur pits, no! What a complete git. Why would you go to all the trouble of stealing pretties and give them all away? Absolute lunacy." Shax drummed his fingers on the table while he considered. "I do like that Deadpool though. The ability to spread chaos like an industrial farm sprinkler is something to be admired. And keep a sense of humor while doing it."
"Yeah." Verin nodded. "All that destruction and shit. Good stuff."
Shax's smile grew wistful as he crunched on his consolation bacon. "He would have made an excellent demon."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
Corny pushed back his hat to rub at his forehead. "We're transporting what now?"
"Rats!" Eyes gleaming in unholy excitement, Shax tugged on his sleeve. "Come on. Help me get them up the ramp."
Some people were scared silly of rats. Corny had never been one of them, but in his past life, they'd been vermin, critters to keep out of feed for the cattle and the horses. Nicodemus was different, of course. Spacer rats weren't the same critters at all. Most times. Nic still got into the grain when nobody was watching him, the little varmint.
"Are they rats for science types, Cap?" Corny slowed as they neared the end of the Brimstone's loading ramp. "I might not cotton to the little troublemakers myself, but I'm not sure as I want to send them off for torture."
Shax blinked at him. Bless him, their captain looked honestly shocked. "Hell's gates, no. Oh, no, my dear DeGroot. These are special rats. Expensive rats. For pets."
"That's a horse of a different color, I reckon."
"To be precise…" Shax waved at the animal carriers waiting for them dockside, his grin just about taking over his face. "These are rats of a different color."
All right. Sometimes domestics take on different colors, like black and white rabbits, sure. Or like… "Holy moly," Carny whispered as he bent down to peer at the little screen on the carrier that let him see inside.
Rats scurried about, busy doing rat things and they looked like any dagblamed rats he'd ever seen except for the dang colors. Some were white, but with orange and blue polka dots or striped in green or purple like tigers drawn by three-year-olds. Some were ebony with red-tipped ears, feet and tails. Some were patterned in bright rainbow calico or brindled in eye-watering combinations.
"Pretty for sure you're gonna tell me those aren't dye jobs." Corny glanced over at Shax, who looked like he was trying hard not to laugh, damn him.
"No dye. Some genetic funny business and some breeding." Shax turned more serious. "Painted rats, they're called. These are expensive designer commodities, when it's all said and done. It's an easy haul for us for an obscene payoff, relatively speaking."
Corny didn't ask how much relatively speaking was. That was Cap's business and none of his own. His was getting the carriers loaded and secured for flight and making sure the critters got their feed on their big adventure in space. That first night out, he thought he was getting accustomed to them. Some of them were eye popping, sure, but they were kinda cute with their multi-colored whiskers. The second evening, though, he moseyed down to the hold to see to the cargo and got hit in the gut by a Very Bad Feeling.
The hold wasn't always empty. It was the only big space on the ship, so the crew played games and Ness held dance lessons there. Any of that would've been just fine. Not fine was Ness standing in the middle of the floor with his wings drooping and his hands wringing in distress.
Making certain his boots clomped on the hold steps, Corny called out, "Ness? You all right there?"
Ness still twitched despite the warnings Corny tried to give. "I'm…no. Not really. That is I'm fine, but…oh dear."
"What's happened? Anything I might can help with?"
"Shax will be, ah, upset." Ness pointed to the carriers—the open empty carriers.
"Well, shit," Corny grumbled. "How in all horny toads did that happen?"
Another twitch. "I don't believe toads were involved. I checked the security feed. It was Nic. He let them out."
That took a minute to sink in. "Nic. Our Nic? How do you reckon?"
"I'm not entirely certain how, but he puzzled out how to open the carriers. He did that, then appeared to be squeaking at the painted rats." Ness cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Then they followed him out."
Corny gave that a good ponder, too. He didn't stop to tell Ness it was impossible or any other such nonsense. If their security officer said a thing was, well, it was a thing. "Have you tried calling Nic? Doesn't he usually come to you?"
"He does. Though he might be where he can't here me." Ness checked his wrist comm. "So I've sent for Leopold."
"Huh. What's Leo gonna—"
Scrabbling claws interrupted him as Leopold came careening through the hold door and down the steps with his backpack on. Speak and the demon princeling appears.
"Papa Ness, I'm here!" Leopold huffed trying to catch his breath as he slid his backpack off. "Maximillian has come too. What has happened there?"
Ness cleared his throat again as Max swarmed out of the pack and climbed to his shoulder. "Our Nic has stolen the cargo."
"Nicodemus has? Maybe he just borrowed them? Always curious."
"He may have meant to borrow them." Ness stroked the millipede with one finger. "But these aren't spacer rats. They're not safe outside their carriers while we're in flight. Could you and Max try to call him, please? I think he may hear your frequencies where he can't hear my voice. I hope."
Leopold nodded and pulled his flute from his pack. While he settled himself, Max hurried back down to climb atop Leopold's spiny head. They exchanged a few notes, tuning Corny figured, before Leopold started playing a four-note refrain and Max began singing in his high-frequency voice, Ni-co-deeeeee-muuus!
This went on for seven or eight rounds until Corny caught movement in the far corner of the hold. Nic popped his head out from around the auto-loader and squeaked what sounded like a whole rat sentence before he came running to Ness. He tugged at Ness's pant leg, chittering like he had serious things to say.
"Could you bring them back, please?" Ness crouched down, speaking softly. "They can't do the things you do, Nic. They're not safe if we have to make any sudden maneuvers."
After one more squeak, Nic raced back to the corner and started squeaking again. This time a whole passel of rats followed him and dang if they didn't look like they were running in some kind of…formation? Damndest thing Corny had ever seen—rats in straight lines.
Nic raced ahead and climbed atop one of the carriers, squeaking in short bursts. The rats circled the carrier, still looking like troops on parade, and with each of Nic's squeak sessions, they reordered themselves. One bunch of squeaks had them sorted by color. The next one saw them sorted by pattern. The next had them in some fancy alternating thing that maybe only Nic understood.
Finally, Nic stood on his hind legs and squeaked loudly. All the rats broke formation and scurried back to their carriers. It took one shocked moment for Corny to react, then he hustled over to each one and closed the doors.
"All there?" Ness asked in an anxious whisper.
"Hold up. Gettin' a count," Corny said as he checked each carrier. Not only all there, but all back in the right container. "Yep. Got all the little scallywags."
Nic looked positively smug as he leaped to Ness's offered arm and climbed to his shoulder. "Please don't do that again, Nic. Not without someone with you. We want your little friends safe."
Ness sighed and reached up to pet Nic's head. "Yes, yes. Fine. You can be called the rat king."
Time: Shortly before the beginning of Potato Surprise
Place: An unspecified lovely beach, Earth
"Know why I hate the fucking beach?" Verin grumbled as he set up the umbrella.
Shax sighed, trying to be patient while unloading the rest of the float cart. The walk from the transport had been longer than he'd anticipated, ratcheting up his own irritation. "Too much like home?"
"No. Too many shitball birds." Verin frowned up at the gulls wheeling overhead.
"We'll keep the bird interaction to a minimum. Promise." Shax patted Verin's shoulder before he set up the beach chairs and the cooler.
Beach visits hadn't changed much over the centuries—shade, something to keep one's butt off the sand, something to read, and a picnic, bathing attire not always required depending on the beach. Only the materials had changed, from wicker and cloth to plastics, bio-polys, and synth fibers. Shax had also become more discerning about the beaches he chose over the years. This particular one wasn't clothing optional, but there were good reasons for selecting it.
He left Verin reading whatever horror novel he was working on—Ver found them hilarious—and went for a quick swim to cool off. By the time Shax returned, his mood had leveled out and he happily acquiesced to Verin's demand that they dip into the beer supply. Ver went for his own brief dip and came back shaking the water off his horns. He still hadn't seemed to have caught on, which made Shax smile and shake his own head.
Shouldn't be long now.
No more than thirty minutes later, a volleyball flew in the direction of their little oasis and smacked Verin in the head. He palmed the volleyball and rose with a menacing growl rumbling in his chest. "What the fuck do you think—"
And cut off abruptly, blinking, when he caught sight of the person who'd come to retrieve the errant bit of equipment. The man matched Verin in height and breadth of shoulder, a barrel of a man with a fine pelt of dark hair on his chest and a lovely, friendly smile.
"Sorry about that! My fault. That one got away from me." The bear of a man held out a hesitant hand for the volleyball.
Verin ogled a moment longer before handing it back. "Oh. Um. Sure. Not a problem."
The human's smile widened. "We don't get a lot of demons on the beach. Kind of a shame. You and your friend want to play?"
Leaning around him to check out the players, Verin's eyes nearly popped out of his head. All of them were bears of different sizes, ages, and skin tones—a veritable Verin buffet. Though Verin certainly didn't need his permission, he still looked to Shax out of habit.
Shax flapped a hand at his bodyguard, pretending to be absorbed in his book. "Go on, Ver. That's far more physical activity than I was planning on today. I'll stay here and enjoy the…scenery."
The exact moment Verin spotted what's different about this beach was classic. In rapid fire succession, Shax watched him pick out the lesbian couple strolling hand in hand, the three men in a kissing clinch in knee-deep water, the variety of non-binary people. Ver's smile widened—a little scary, granted, but volleyball man didn't seem to mind—and he swaggered off to join the game of bears.
Shax snuggled down into his beach chair to read a bit and, indeed, to watch the scenery. With any luck, or rather if Ver got lucky, he'd be gone for hours and Shax felt rather smug at having managed things so easily. One's bodyguard needed a proper treat now and then, not to mention a bit of a disposition sweetener sometimes.
Especially before a tricky job, but all that could wait a couple of days. Over at the net, Verin spiked the ball with a bone-shivering roar, answered by approving roars from his teammates.
Perfect. And not a gull in sight.
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, in transit
One hoof hop. One hoof leap over the square with the bolt in it. Two hoof hop. One hoof hop. Two. One. Turn. Come back the same way. Stop and bend to pick up the bolt. Try not to fall over.
"There you go, Heck. You're gettin' it." Corny laughed as Heckle returned through the squares grinning to hand the bolt off to Corny.
Corny took his turn more slowly than Heckle and without all the twitching of wings for balance. The long ship days of traveling between systems could get really boring, and Corny had suggested this game as a break from reading lessons. Before ballet with Ness, this probably wouldn't have worked. Actually, Heckle was sure all the one-hoof hopping would've been a disaster.
"What is this drawing?"
The voice behind Heckle made him jump and whirl. He hadn't heard Leopold come down the hold stairs.
"Is it some sort of floor plan? Layout for a job?"
"Nothing so serious." Corny completed his turn with a last hop. "It's just a game. Wanna try your hand, er, paw?"
Once the game was explained, Leopold gave it a try, doing his best to balance on one back paw and hop. He landed, wobbled, and plopped over onto his back with an exasperated peep.
"Well, now." Corny helped the hedgehog prince up. "I'm thinkin' since you got four feet and the game calls for a person to use half their feet, you should try two."
Heckle considered that a moment. "That sounds right. No one would ask Rosa to try on one hoof. Or Max on one foot."
"Don't think Rosa'd be keen on hopping more'n the once, anyhow." Corny pushed his hat back. "Give it a try, Leo."
Two paws worked infinitely better. There were still wobbles since the squares were spaced almost too far apart, and Leopold had to hit each of the double hop squares one at a time because of the spacing of his feet, but he came back with the bolt. Hedgehog triumphant.
They played through a round and at the end, Leopold held onto their marker bolt, tapping it against his paw in a thinky way. "It is a good game. Could we add more things to it? Make new obstacles?"
"I don't—" Corny tried to object, but Heckle had already picked up the chalk they'd used to draw the squares.
Leopold crouched beside him and between them they made snakes of squareish shapes and diamond patterns to work through. Soon Ness joined them, more than happy to kneel on the floor and help. The black holes were Ness's idea—filled in squares to jump over and if a player dropped the bolt in one, they had to start over. Wasn't too long before Captain Shax joined them, probably wondering where Ness had gone, and he added the innovation of circle squares, where the player had to hop on one foot in a complete circle within the lines before continuing.
Play started up again soon after with a lot of wobbling and hands slapped against the deck plates to prevent a fall—and some falling. Leopold played with intense concentration, though he finally decided that he couldn't manage the black hole obstacle. He jumped into the center of one and declared himself eaten. Captain Shax turned out to be ridiculously good at the game, which surprised no one, while Ness found his huge wings were sometimes more in the way than not. Verin strolled down to see what everyone was going, but declined to play.
He put a clawed foot in one of the squares, completely obliterating it. "Nah, too fucking dainty for me." Though he seemed happy to sit up on the landing and laugh at everyone's expense.
There was a lot of laughter and snickered cussing. The only casualty was when Corny's leg decided to cramp, which he called a charley horse. That made less sense than some of Corny's phrases did, but Heckle decided not to ask then in case everyone else understood it.
When they'd all conceded to Captain Shax and sat gasping and snickering on various crates and steps, Verin called down from his perch, "So what're you gonna call it?"
"I thought we should call it Hecklescotch," the captain called up from his spot leaning against Ness.
"Yeah? Why's that, genius?"
"Because the finished game is largely due to Heckle." Captain Shax stopped, his forehead crinkling. "And honestly? Shaxscotch just sounds ridiculous."
Time: Twenty years after The Big Reveal
Place: Santa Cruz, CA, Earth
"Why do you have horns?"
Shax glanced up from his reader, vaguely alarmed that a small human had insinuated herself at his café table without him noticing. "Er, hello?"
"Hi. I'm Hatshepsut. I'm named for a woman who was pharaoh a long time ago."
"Lovely name." Shax pulled out a smile. The kid's parents couldn't be far away and would come to rescue him soon. No need to be unpleasant. "I knew her."
She squinted at him. "It's a stupid name. No one can say it. Everyone calls me Hattie, which is stupid, too. I'm going to change it." She swung her feet, squinting at him harder. "You're fibbing. You can't be old enough to know her."
"Hmm. I do often fib. But not about this. My kind of demon doesn't age after we're grown." He sipped at his espresso. "I'm Shax, the Demon Prince of Thieves."
"That doesn't sound like a nice thing to be."
"I'm a demon." Shax quirked a brow at her. "Most of us aren't nice things, and many are perfectly horrid."
With a nod, she glanced away from him, gaze searching the plaza. "I guess. Klfruk doesn't have horns."
Sounds like a Hellish name… But Shax couldn't place it. "Who is Klfruk?"
"He's our demon house guard." The squint became a scrunched nose, no longer directed at Shax. "He's s'posed to be watching me. But he's not smart."
"Ah. I used to slip away from my guards when I was young, too. They weren't terribly bright either." Sometimes the out in the open nature of human-demonic relations still hit him sideways. A Hell denizen guarding a human household. So odd. "Does he have strange ears that look like squashed cauliflowers?"
She nodded, the crinkle vanishing. Perhaps Shax was being reevaluated as not stupid.
"That means he's a rock troll. Which is a sort of demon, but not my sort."
The feet swinging escalated. "So why do you have horns?"
"Why do you have green eyes?" Shax countered with a raised brow.
She snorted at him. Astounding. He'd introduced himself as a demon prince and she exhibited no fear. None at all. "Cause my mom does. Of course." She stopped, eyes widening. "So your mom has horns."
"Well...no. She has wings, though."
Leaning back in her chair, Hattie checked behind Shax. "Did yours get cut off?"
"No." Shax tried for haughty but only managed irritated. "I never had wings."
She gave a terribly serious nod. "My dad's got brown eyes. I didn't get those. I guess your dad's got horns."
"Stands to reason, yes." Don't frown. No need to scare the poor kid now. "I've never seen him, though."
"That's silly. You're a prince. You have to know who your dad is."
Shax pushed his plate of macarons toward Hattie, pleased when she took one. It only seemed polite. "Demon royalty does have registries and bloodlines, like human nobility, but it's not always trackable. Some high-echelon demons weren't born, you see. They were created." He gave an insouciant shrug. "And some don't care to acknowledge offspring or progeni— Parents."
"So your dad's…" Hattie bit into her carefully selected macaron and leaned closer to whisper, "A secret?"
Shax brightened considerably. A secret was much more fun than saying I have no idea. "Yes," he whispered back. "A secret."
Hattie stuffed the rest of her bright purple macaron into her mouth and hopped off her chair. A uniformed rock troll had just entered the plaza, head swiveling back and forth. Hello, sir. You must be Klfruk.
"That's all right then. You just have to go on a quest someday to find him. Princes do that." Hattie scampered off and only turned to wave when she'd taken the befuddled rock troll's hand.
A quest? Shax pulled the plate back toward him and took a delicate nibble of a virulently yellow macaron. Ridiculous. Absurd. Demons didn't go on quests. He shook himself, trying to get rid of the unsettled ripples under his skin. If he'd had a cane, he would've been shaking it. "Damn kids. Stay off my lineage."
Time: After Beside A Black Tarn
Place: Aboard the Brimstone, In Transit
Blue dot. Treats come with blue dot.
Nic twitched his whiskers and hurried after the dot. Sometimes it wouldn't wait for him. Then he had to stop and watch until it came back. The dot zipped down the tunnel and Nic ran to keep up, barely in time to catch the quick turn it made to the left. There, in a little niche--
Treats! Yes! Nom nom…seeds…nom…pumpkin.
When he finished, he glanced around for the blue dot. Did it have more following games for him? Was it time to go back to Big Feathers? There! There it ran, back to the wide tunnel. Nic scurried after. There would be more treats. Blue dot did not go back the way he had come. Down the tunnel, then up, up, into a tunnel where Nic needed the sticky pads of his feet to run on the walls instead of the floor.
Up. Up. Up. Then blue dot turned down a flat tunnel again to stop at a tiny cave in the tunnel wall.
More treats! Sweet potato! Nom nom nom nom.
He finished his nibbling and sat up, alert and waiting. Blue dot returned and raced away down the tunnels up one way, down the other, through bends and twists, sharp corners, and the occasional scramble-plop from an up tunnel to a flat one below. There were treats, but it seemed to Nic that there was more game in between treats now than there had been the first time he'd played with blue dot. That was all right. A bit more of a run to food was never wasted time.
Scent told him they were backtracking now, returning along his own trail to rejoin Big Feathers in the bright room of food smells. The bright room meant the end of the game and more treats. Yes. He was right. The light from the opening shone at the end of the tunnel now. He followed blue dot out and onto the table where Big Feathers sat with Giant and Hunter. All of these were large folk Nic liked. In this flying cave, he liked most of the large folk. Spiney was the most fun, especially when he was with Nic's small friend, Many Legs. The large person who blew smoke was a little scarier, but he'd only tried to catch Nic that once.
Sniff sniff. Yes, there was egg for him. Who had it, though? The large people were talking and not paying proper attention to him. There…Hunter held something out for him. Nic scampered over to claim his prize and chomped down. A sharp cry startled him into jumping back and the taste in his mouth was definitely not egg. Oops. Finger.
There were some sharp words, but Nic decided they weren't for him as he discovered the bowl of chopped egg next to the finger. Giant took the strange little hat off Nic's head and blue dot vanished, signaling the end of the game—also, sadly, the end of treats. That was fine. He was full now, so he climbed Big Feathers and settled out of the way on his shoulder.
Blue dot was a good game. He might even consider playing it without treats. Maybe.
[Author's note: Rat eyesight is notoriously poor with a limited color range and lack of definition, although they do see ultraviolet light. Many a young rat friend has been nipped or bitten by making the mistake of putting a finger between the bars of a rat's cage. They're not being mean—they just mistook it for something else.]
"What's it like to have a mom?" Heckle asked, staring at his plate of pancakes.
Corny turned to give him a puzzled look. "Don't rightly know, little bit. Don't recollect mine at all. How 'bout you, Mac?"
"Me?" Mac shrugged. "Sure, I had a mom. She was gone most of the time, though. Julian, did you have parents or were you hatched?"
The galley was full that morning for breakfast, something Heckle wasn't used to. He so often had the early hours of day shift to himself since he didn't need much sleep. It was his time to talk to Ms. Ivana and while he didn't actually resent his shipmates suddenly being there… He didn't, did he? Still, it wasn't what he'd come to expect, even if it was for a good reason like an early berth time at station dock.
Julian laughed softly. "I expect I had biological parents. If they'd made me in a lab, I doubt they would've chucked me into the childcare system. Not a good use of resources. No, I'm sure I had a mother. No recollection of her, like Corny. Ver, you must have had one. Higher-echelon demon and such."
"Yeah, yeah." Verin speared a sausage with savage intensity. "Good old Mom dropped me where she birthed me and left me to figure shit out or be eaten. Haven't seen her much since."
"But you know who she is?" Mac asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Fuck yeah. Shaxy's mom had her people figure it out so she could get me on the stupid register. Couldn't have some unregistered demon guarding her little boy, could she?" Curls of steam spiraled from Verin's nostrils. "What about you, twinkles? Guess angels can't be fucking bothered to have moms, huh?"
Ness startled and blinked at Verin as if he'd come back from deep thoughts. He probably had. "Oh. No. We don't have parents. Angels are created. Perhaps we should have had." He turned his solemn expression on Heckle, showing that he had been following along. "You should ask Shax. I think he's the only one of us with real mother experience."
"Ask me what now?" Captain Shax strode in, pressed and professional in a crisp dress shirt and his captain's jacket, ready to meet with docking officials.
"Heckle has asked what it's like to have a mother." Ness rose from his place at the table to offer Shax a quick kiss and to clean up his dishes. "We find, all of us here, that we're not qualified to answer."
"Ah. Well. Hmm." The captain hadn't looked up from his reader and still didn't as he took the coffee mug Ms. Ivana sent down the conveyer for him. "I'm not sure mine would be a typical example of mothers. Being who and what she is. I was as much an ornament for her household as I was offspring. Something for her to fuss and preen over, to show off when it was advantageous. But she does care, in her own way and she did always make certain I had everything I needed. Not necessarily wanted, but needed. I suppose that's what most mothers do."
Heckle nodded, absorbing it all. He'd hoped for more of an explanation, but it helped.
"What's all this about, Heck?" Mac nudged him gently. "Did something set your brain spinning again?"
"Oh. I…yes." Heckle took another slow bite so he could put an answer together that didn't sound crazy. "I'd just been hearing things on the nets about this thing called Mother's Day. And I wondered, I guess, what it was all about. Captain, do you send your mother something for it?"
Captain Shax was on his way back out of the galley, coffee in hand, but he stopped to raise an eyebrow at Heckle. "Certainly not. It's a human holiday. Not as old as they'd like you to think. Though it's more that if I send my mother a present, she'll wonder what I want. Not that she'd be wrong, mind you."
The first proximity pylon warning sounded and everyone cleared the galley—not hurrying, there was plenty of time, but off to various pre-docking duties. Heckle finally sat alone since his hold was secure and he had nothing to do until they were secure at Nereus Station.
"You want another stack, cutie?" Ms. Ivana spoke into the sudden silence.
"Oh. Yes, please."
"So polite. You get the last of the sausages too." The conveyer purred as Ms. Ivana sent out another plate for Heckle.
He devoured and thought some more. Ms. Ivana had more to do than anyone did as they approached station. Life support, proximity calculations, deceleration, course corrections, internal gravity, all the little things that kept the ship running and moving in the right direction in the huge empty of space. With all that, she still took time to make sure he felt cared for and important.
Tail twitching, Heckle reached a conclusion and raised his head to address the galley speaker directly. "Happy Mother's Day, Ms. Ivana. Thank you for all the things."
"It's an ocean, Ver." Shax spread his arms toward the crash and retreat of the waves, the cool salt spray exciting and new.
"Yeah? Where's the magma? Where's the sulfur mist? How the fuck is this an ocean?" Verin scowled hard enough to scare away a group of nearby birds.
Shax patted his companion on the shoulder. "It's a water ocean. It's all salted water. Amazing, don't you think?"
"It's stupid. And colder than ice dragon balls. And who had the shitty idea to pour salt into it?"
"Pour…? I don't think anyone did, you know. I think they simply come that way. Oceans." Shax frowned at a creature with huge claws scuttling sideways past his toes. "Though some of the wildlife looks much like home."
"Why're we here, genius?"
Shax gave a one-shouldered shrug and wandered closer to the waves with his boots in one hand. "I'm not certain. I wanted to see it, I suppose. Auntie Lilith talks about the sea. It always sounded unbelievable. A story."
"Tons of better places we could've gone if you wanted something fucking unbelievable."
"I think it's quite lovely, in a melancholy way." Shax dug his toes into the sand, relishing the soft spread of it as he pressed down. "Besides, pearls are said to come from oceans. Pearls are so pretty."
"Whatever. Some hell-boar flank would be a lot prettier right now."
Shax shot him a startled glance. "You can't be hungry again already."
"Always fucking hungry." Verin crouched, drawing angry lines in the sand with a stick. "Stupid body needs to stop the stupid growing already."
Since they'd hit puberty it had been like this, and had only gotten worse. As Verin outstripped Shax in height and breadth of shoulder, his constant gnawing hunger only increased with his size. He hoped that Ver would stop growing soon. Mum said he was to be Shax's bodyguard and would receive the proper training and, granted, while it was good to have a sizeable personal guard of impressive strength, Shax didn't want to have to look up too far to speak to him.
"Psst. Hey. Demon kids."
Shax peered up and down the beach, frowning when he didn't spot anyone.
"Down here, dummy," the voice went on. "By the waves."
A glance down and to the left revealed a fascinating being. They, for gender was difficult to determine with an unknown species, were built something like a fish, though with sleek watertight skin rather than scales and a breathing opening atop the head.
"Well, hello there," Shax smiled tentatively. "Who might you be?"
The being emitted a series of high-pitched whistles and chirps. "But my name's not important right now. You kids shouldn't be on topside land. Didn't anyone tell you humans live there?"
Shax blinked at that. "Well…yes? We've met quite a few humans. They're rather fun."
"Filthy, greedy, violent," the being with the whistle-chirp name went on heatedly. "No sense of proportion and their singing is terrible. Not to mention, they think dolphins are fish! Idiots. Look, you boys be careful. All I'm saying. Humans are trouble and they're multiplying. It'll only get worse from here."
"Thank you, Mr. um…Dolphin." Shax swept the ocean being an elegant bow. "We'll be as careful as we can. It will be part of our jobs when we're older to seed chaos in among the humans. We can't really avoid them, I'm afraid."
The dolphin, since they didn't object to the name, snorted through the hole atop their head. "Sucks to be you, then."
With a flip of their tail that soaked Shax, the dolphin used its flippers to turn, humped back into the water and swam away.
"Can we go home now, your dripping highness?" Verin muttered. "The water ocean is fucking ridiculous."
Shax shoved his sodden hair out of his eyes. "Yes. To both those things. And I'm going to have some sharp words for Auntie Lilith when we get there."
"It's not right." Verin stormed down the corridor toward Ness, his bulk taking up too much space to edge around.
Ness had mantled out of startled reflex and pulled his wings in. "Several things aren't right, I'm sure. What specifically, Ver?"
Verin poked at his comm and brought up a holo display. "The fucking weapons' ratings, that's what. The fuck, featherboy?"
"The—" Ness leaned forward to peruse the numbers with a puzzled frown. "Did I make a mistake entering them?"
Heavy footfalls approached from behind him and a hand the size of a dinner platter fell on his shoulder. "Mind if I squeeze by, boys?"
"Ah." Ness half-turned to offer Mac an apologetic grimace. "I think I have to understand why Verin's having a fit before he'll move."
"A fit? I'll give you fits, you pea brained crappy excuse for a fallen!" Verin stabbed a claw at the numbers. "You can't be that blind. Look at the rankings. Why is that half-pint little—"
"Choose your next word carefully, Hammer," Mac rumbled.
Verin's mouth snapped shut and it took half a heartbeat for him to say, "Twerp. That damn little twerp's rated higher than me." Verin shot Mac a venomous look when he chuckled. "Shut it. This is serious. I can handle any weapon manufactured now or whatever the fuck came before. I've been his rotten sodding selfish highness's bodyguard for how many troll-fucking centuries? And that little twerp—"
"Outscored you on the qualifying course," Ness cut him off softly. "I'm sorry. I know it's unfair, and overall, yes, you're far more experienced and qualified. But for the interplanetary ratings course, these were the scores."
"You." Verin first pointed a finger, then grabbed a handful of Ness's sleeve. "You're gonna sit down with me and explain how in all levels of fucking fuckery this happened."
Too befuddled to protest, Ness allowed himself to be dragged to the galley and shoved onto one of the benches. If he'd known Verin would take the scores so personally, he would have…what would he have done? Hidden them? Tried to soothe an irritable demon's ego? Talked to Shax? He sighed and pulled the scores up on the table's holoscreen for better viewing. The new rating system had come down from ISE, mandatory for anyone who wanted a weapons license and competence level in any planetary city or station. As security officer, Ness had needed to make certain the crew ran through the approved course, a much stranger qualifying course than he'd anticipated.
"You and Heckle have nearly identical scores until we reach this part here." Ness enlarged the scores and expanded Heckle's and Verin's to show each segment.
Verin snorted a heavy, unhappy cloud of steam and sparks. "What in all levels of fuck was that?"
"Let's see…" Ness checked his coding list, pointing to the specific numbers where the scores diverged. "Here's where the wind tunnel test began. And here's where the required dual weapon firing starts within the wind tunnel."
"How did that little runt do better'n me in the cocksucking wind tunnel?" The sparks flew at an alarming rate as Verin's volume reached bellow stage. "It should've blown him over at the first fucking breeze!"
"Well, yes." Ness brushed a spark from his sleeve. "From what I understand, it did initially. But Heckle has extra appendages at his disposal. He went airborne with his tail wrapped around a support beam and was able to navigate the air currents better than a standing shooter could."
Verin stared at him, his expression hovering between shock and fury. Finally, he sputtered, "That should've been a disqualification!"
No cuss words in an entire sentence just highlighted how upset Verin was, and Ness thought he began to understand why. "Well, no. Everyone was permitted to use their natural attributes. You have your enormous strength, Heckle has a tail. His accuracy is a bit better than yours, but your rate of fire is higher than anyone on board. Except perhaps Julian…" He had to stop for a breath to avoid sounding annoyed. "But Julian's licensing isn't something I need to worry about. For sheer mayhem, no one can outdo you, Ver."
Ness dared to reach across the table to pat Verin's arm. "Yeah. Heckle doesn't have the mass or the horns to brawl as you do. Even Mac, who just doesn't have the experience, would stand up to you in a protracted fight. You are The Hammer, Shax knows it, and no one could ever replace you by his side."
"What the fuck ever." Verin pulled his arm away, though only so he could stand. His steam had calmed to occasional puffs. "Stupid touchy feely angel stuff."
Ness kept a straight face as Verin stalked out, shutting down the holo screen, ignoring the muttering. Only when those big, clawed feet had stomped away down the corridor did he allow himself a chuckle. "You're welcome, Ver."
About The Brimstone Journals
Extra treats for our Brimstone readers, Brimstone Journals will post every Tuesday. Short scenes from characters' lives before, after or during the stories.
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