Liam folded up his letter, bound it with a ribbon, and was just in the process of melting the wax to seal it when his father called out from his office, "Liam! Your friends are here!"
Since he did not have a seal to press into the wax, he hastily scratched his name into it as it cooled and answered, "Thank you, Dad! I am on my way." The wax set with relative swiftness, but he was still mindful as he tucked it into the inner pocket of his deep green woollen peacoat. The mid-morning sun was pleasingly bright, but the wind carried a bite as it swirled the fallen leaves about. There had even been traces of frost on the lawn when he glanced out of his window upon waking -- before the sun had even begun to rise.
Liam grabbed his kung fu bag, quickly went down the hall to his father's office, and poked his head in. "You are sure you cannot find time to join us?"
His father leaned back from his computer, scratching the tan fur on his plump stomach. The screen was full of neat lines of numbers, as were the variety of open books about him. "No, sorry. Mr. Chan needs a complete audit of his company's finances as soon as possible."
Liam shook his head. Hao Chan was not averse to taking risks, but such risks would be on his terms. If something unexpected happened, he was almost paranoid in his caution until he came to understand every possible implication. That was one reason why the other Monks trusted him. Hao had information on many of the Monks' technically illegal activities, as well as contacts in almost every Monk and Nightwalker community.
"Very well, Dad. Perhaps next time. I will pass on your greetings." Liam left and let his father resume his work.
Closing the door behind him, Liam's raven feather danced about in the wind, and he shivered when an unexpectedly chilly blast of air swept up his pants. 'A draft of cold air across one's scrotum is a sure way of prompting an early start to a winter coat of fur.' He put the thought aside as he looked at the Mazda Tribute in the driveway and saw Faelen waiting for him in the backseat. He barely registered the fact that it was Conor driving today, not Dirk, or that Geoff had opened the door and climbed out so that he may sit next to his love. Liam did not remain distracted for long and greeted his friend as he approached. "Good morning, Geoff. I trust you are well?" He tossed his bag into the back next to Faelen's and Geoff's and entered the vehicle, noting a strong scent of leather. Both teens wore leather bomber jackets; Faelen's was sienna while Geoff wore a black one.
"Hi. Yeah, I'm good. You?" Geoff climbed in and closed the door. "Your da still says he's too busy?"
Liam was too occupied to answer for a moment, but answered after a quick kiss. He kept Faelen's face close to his own so that he may stare into those blue pools when he answered Geoff. "Indeed." His paw still rested on Faelen's cheek when he verbally greeted the Mist Elemental. "A very good morning to you, my love." He leaned back in for another kiss, which Faelen gladly returned.
Faelen kept the kiss quick and almost chaste, as was appropriate considering the proximity of other people, and sat back so Conor could see out the rear window. "'Morning, Liam. I'm glad to see you, too."
Liam settled back into his seat and smiled at Conor, but Dirk cut in before he could return the greeting. The Bone Elemental chuckled at his son's comment. "That's obvious." He then greeted his great-grandfather. "Hi, Sensei."
Conor laughed, too. "Ah, young love. Nothing quite like it, right, Dirk?" Dirk just shrugged, smiling wanly, before turning to stare almost broodingly out of the side window. Conor and Faelen both appeared perplexed by his sudden turn of mood, but Faelen quickly seemed to come to a conclusion for its cause -- Dirk had never been in love and having Conor draw attention to the fact that Faelen found it while it still eluded him was upsetting. Having been in a somewhat similar situation as Lowell, Liam could well understand Dirk's feelings and knew the reason for mood swing almost immediately.
Liam quickly greeted the adults before his impropriety was compounded by egregious delay, and to divert the conversation. "Good morning, Dirk, and good morning, Conor."
Conor pulled the car onto the street and drove toward Halifax Shopping Centre, where they were to meet the Markses. "Hello, Liam-sensei. Are you comfortable back there?"
He was wedged between Faelen and Geoff in the backseat; even in a larger SUV, the two muscular Wolves occupied much space and left little room for the slighter Rottweiler. This was not a great concern for Liam -- he rather enjoyed the close quarters. It did explain why Conor had purchased such a large vehicle, for a smaller one would have been greatly confining for the four Spirits, even without any guests.
"I am well, Conor. It is fortunate I have not hit my full growth, for otherwise it would be quite claustrophobic. As it is, I find this quite comfortable, if a bit warm."
Faelen cracked his window to let a bit of cool air in. "The weather turned chilly pretty darn quick. Did you guys see the frost this morning?"
Geoff snorted. "Hells, no. Mornings suck, so why make them last any longer than necessary?"
Liam smiled at that and teased Geoff. "Indeed I did. I was up well before dawn to follow my schedule." He put on a façade of great remorse. "My poor schedule has taken a great blow this school year. It is almost unrecognizable as such after all of the amendments and short notice changes thrust upon it."
Geoff rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Even you have to admit it's more fun with us around, or at least with Faelen around."
"Faelen and Nathanial. Yes, I must admit to that. It is also much more of an adventure, complete with life and death situations."
Geoff opened his muzzle to protest his absence in Liam's comment when Faelen cut in with complete seriousness. "I was going to ask about that. You said once that you'd seen a Hunter frequenting the café across the street during our lunch breaks -- and sometimes after school -- but have you seen him recently?"
Liam shook his head. "No." Which was fortunate, as there was enough going on without the Fates bringing that tangled skein forth.
Faelen relaxed, placing his arm over Liam's shoulder and drawing him close. "Good." The Wolf turned his head and used his tongue to lift the end of Liam's ear into his mouth and began nibbling on it.
Geoff laughed. "And you complain about me and Nathanial!"
Liam pretended to be affronted. "We do not. We merely tease you both. I, at least, find it most sweet and endearing when you two cuddle. It is one of the few endearing things pertaining to you."
Faelen kept silent, ignoring the banter. When Liam glanced up at the rear-view mirror, he could see a very nearly blissed-out expression on his love's face as he contentedly nibbled away and drew in deep breaths through his nose, though it was almost fully blocked by Liam's head. Faelen truly did love his scent. Conor could also see this and seemed most amused.
Dirk was still looking moodily out of his window, much like one would expect of a Spirit of his few years. Aedan had bouts of this 'teenaged angst' up till his fifties, though they grew increasingly rare as time had gone on. Even Dirk's voice sounded a touch flat when he asked, "How soon should it snow? Do we need to winterize the Dryad trees, soon?"
Liam shrugged. "I know little about gardening. We may receive skiffs of snow any time now, but the temperature should not fall below freezing for any length of time until mid-to-late November. From what I have observed, you may wish to winterize soon for any garden plants you may have, to prevent damage from the sub-zero temperatures which can occur at night, as fragile plants need the extra assistance. Trees, however..."
Dirk did not look away from the passing houses. "Ah."
Conor glanced over at his bodyguard in concern, as did the two younger Spirits. Faelen released Liam's ear and sat up straight. "Da, I've studied the floor plan for the mall, but I'm not sure which part of the halls would be safest. The courtyard looks like it'd be dangerous, with no cover from the higher floor, but what about those parts where the first floor hall opens up to the second floor? A gunner could easily target us from there."
Dirk sat up and turned partly around to look back at his son, his dark mood broken by the reminder of his duty. "There's little to do, except keep aware of everything around you and to stay close to Geoff when it's just the two of you. Standard close-quarters practice remains in effect: stay a pace behind and a half-body length to his left. A gunman is harder to detect when he's behind you, so provide cover with your body. Stay off-centre on the left side to provide the most cover for his heart. With both of us there, we normally have you walk in front and I walk behind, but as you noted the mall provides too many sniper points. We'll both walk behind."
Conor nodded. "Sounds logical. Oh, Dirk, the delivery should be Tuesday."
Geoff looked understandably confused. "Delivery?"
Conor looked pleased. "I checked Nova Scotian law; it seems it's still legal to purchase and wear ballistic vests. I had to search around to find some that wouldn't look too out of place with standard clothes, but I have three coming in that look like vests and not combat gear. They're still a little bulky -- it's impossible to make them too thin without magic -- but they'll help for most of the year."
Liam pondered that, and it appeared his friends were, too, much to the confusion of Conor. He was somewhat surprised that Conor had not purchased some right after Lily's funeral. However, now that he had, would it help? Correction: it would help should they be shot, but would it be practical? The vests would be unlikely to go with their uniforms, so they would be unable to wear them at school, and if they did go with the uniforms, i.e. be dyed the correct shade of green, they would not go with most other clothing. If they were thin enough to fit under clothes, that should not be too great an issue, but the cumbersome nature of what would amount to a thick sweater being worn under their clothing whenever they went out would prove...most vexing. Now, should they go to a known hazardous area...
Conor grew more concerned and confused as the silence drew out. Even Dirk seemed baffled. Geoff spoke first. "Sounds good, Da, but...is there something you aren't telling us? Why now?"
Conor's grip tightened on the steering wheel and he remained silent for a moment while he merged with the highway traffic. They were but a few minutes away now, for the shopping mall lay just at the terminus of the highway, a mere pawful of exits hence. "No, not as such. It's...a culmination of things, but mostly the problems with the teleporter. Being cut off from home makes things...stressful. I don't like not having a ready escape route or backup."
Geoff leaned back, satisfied with the answer. "Well, don't forget that I do have those things. Nathanial is both a backup and escape route. No Hunter or Mage can follow us to the Plane of Darkness. He's a lot more reliable than that Mage turned out to be, as well."
Conor's grip loosened on the wheel. "I suppose, but he's not in the house. It just feels...different. You're right, though. Liam-sensei and Nathanial are a match for most members of the clan and are more than a match for most sorts of trouble liable to knock on our door. It's the unexpected that I'm worried about." He seemed to remember something and shook himself. "Anyway, forget about all of that. There's a bit of an ulterior motive for this trip; it isn't all about getting winter clothes. Garret called me last night and set this up for Nathanial. He -- We are worried about him and how little he lets himself relax, so we decided to make this very social and work some fun into it. It's set around shopping so Nathanial will feel he's fulfilling a promise; otherwise, we were afraid he'd find an excuse to fret about something or not come."
Faelen looked impressed. "That's...rather insightful. I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise, considering Garret's reputation as a salesman."
Geoff puffed up, appearing most pleased to have a day dedicated to doting on his pup. "So no talking about Demons, the Society, Hunters, or any of those hundred little things he feels need to get done, like the teleporter. We'll wander the mall, look at boots and coats at our leisure, go out for a nice meal--" He turned quickly to Liam in excitement. "Hey! Let's go to that place you took Faelen! That'd be close by, wouldn't it?"
That would be pleasant, but he did not like dropping in on them with no notice, particularly with such a crowd. The owners stressed themselves as much as Nathanial did whenever he was to eat there; thus, giving them ample time to prepare was preferred. Liam arched an eyebrow. "Hay is for horses, young man. Do you not know proper grammar?" He was rewarded with a most menacing and irate glare. "It...is close by, in a relative sense. It is downtown, which is far closer to Park Lane Mall than the Halifax Shopping Centre. Faelen and I ran there--" He turned to the grey Wolf, meeting his eyes with warmth flooding his heart at the memory. "--on our first date. The Mumford terminal is just across the street from Halifax Shopping Centre. I would greatly enjoy eating with you there once more." Faelen appeared close to melting and took Liam's paw in his own; Conor seemed torn between laughter and tender sentiment. Liam tore his gaze away with great reluctance to address Geoff once more. "I would require a reservation for a few hours hence, as they would insist on using the private room and feting us appropriate to my perceived status."
Conor glanced up to his rear view mirror, to catch Liam's eye for a moment. "'Perceived status?' You are an Ancient One, so how is that 'perceived?'"
Geoff smirked. "He's pretty much their god."
Liam's temper flared, mixed with a hearty dose of fear. "I am not a god! There are no ifs, ands, or buts in the matter! Do not suggest such a thing, nor joke about it! I. Am. Not. A. God."
Faelen pulled him back against his chest as well as the seatbelts would permit. Even Dirk and Conor seemed taken aback.
Geoff held his paws up to placate him. "All right, all right. I get it. I said 'pretty much,' not that you are. But I won't joke about it. I know you aren't, and so does everyone here, and I bet the Monks do too, but that doesn't change the, um, reverence they show you."
No, it did not, no matter how much Liam wished otherwise. The highway had become a major city thoroughfare as they spoke, and soon they turned left at the light to bring them into the parking lot of the mall. "I will call and set up the reservation once we stop. Three hours should be sufficient; it will give us time to shop here and, perhaps, at another location, while also giving time for the kitchen to prepare a meal. Furthermore, the lunch rush will have faded and provide less stress for the staff. I imagine snacks will be had at some point prior to lunch."
Conor parked the car next to Garret's, and everyone disembarked.
Geoff was nearly dancing in his seat with impatience by the time his da finally stopped the car. He practically jumped out of the car with excitement when he saw Nathanial standing in the car park next to the boot of Garret's Porsche. His pup looked like he was in heaven, but Geoff could only see how heavenly he was. The sun was shining brilliantly off his white fur and set the orange fur on his head on fire. Those blue eyes sparkled like the winter sky when they found Geoff's and his teeth gleamed when that kissable muzzle split into a wide grin. Nathanial's tail set off like Micah's often did.
He moved to stand by his pup, but forced himself to hold back from smothering him with kisses in public. "Hey Pup." He barely registered everyone around him exchanging greetings.
Nathanial ducked his head and turned partially aside; the inside of his ears turned pink when he glanced up through his lashes. His voice was quiet and timid, but Geoff could hear the emotion in it. "Um. H-Hi." Nathanial's shoulders hunched up, and he turned a little farther away; the inside of his ears glowed brighter red.
Geoff couldn't keep the lustful growl out of his voice; damn, his boy was hot. "So, let's get going."
All of a sudden Micah popped up between them. "Hi, Geoff!" Everyone around them burst out laughing when Nathanial and Geoff jumped and nearly fell over in surprise.
Nicholas had an evil grin on his face. "Welcome back to the wider world, lover-boys."
Conor looked at his son fondly and clapped a paw on his shoulder. "There are more people here than just Nathanial." He turned to the Akita. "And since you likely didn't hear me the first three times, good morning, Nathanial."
Nathanial's eyes grew large and his ears flipped back in alarm. "Three times? I-I'm so sorry! I, well, I, um, I d-didn't hear you. I'm sorry. Oh! Uh, g-good m-morning."
Conor took his paw from Geoff's shoulder and drew Nathanial into a fatherly hug. "Hey, calm down, Nathanial. I was just teasing you. Liam-sensei and Faelen were almost as bad, too. It's called being in love."
Nathanial hugged the Water Elemental in return before wriggling out and quickly greeting everyone else. Geoff rubbed Micah's ears, since the Changeling was apparently still waiting to be acknowledged. "Hi, Sprite." The puppy wriggled happily, like he was about to squeal at any moment. Geoff reached over and bumped fists with Nick. "Hey." Nick nodded in return. Then he turned to Mr. Marks. "'Morning, sir."
Garret nodded gravely. "Geoff." The older Akita shook his head in amusement and clapped his paw on Geoff's arm. "Relax. Just call me Garret, eh?" He then addressed everyone. "Let's get going."
Liam put his phone away and walked around the car to join everyone. "My apologies; I was setting up reservations for lunch. We have a large enough crowd that we deemed it wise to prepare. I hope you all have had a pleasant morning thus far, Garret, Nathanial, Nicholas, and Micah." He bowed shallowly to each as they were named.
Garret returned the bow, though his was noticeably deeper. "Sensei. Yes, it's been very nice, so far. I managed to sleep in a bit, had a delicious breakfast, and a good workout. Even the weather is very pleasant."
Nick grumped, "It's damned cold," as he fell in beside Faelen when everyone began walking toward the mall entrance.
Nathanial was beside Geoff and Micah -- behind Conor, Garret, and Dirk -- and glanced back. "Language, Nick."
Micah chirped. "The Frost Fairies were out! I saw them this morning! Well, before morning, but when the sun was almost starting to rise, like early twilight, but they were flitting about and dancing on the frosty grass, laughing and giggling and so happy that it was getting cool enough for them to come out and play..." He paused to draw a quick breath. "And their wings are sooo pretty! Like bits of frost off a window and shaped like dragonfly wings that flap, flap, flap so super-fast -- eeek!" He cut off with a startled shriek when Faelen quickly darted around Liam and grabbed Micah off the ground and spun him about.
Faelen put Micah down and went back to walking beside Liam and behind Geoff. Geoff idly wondered why Dirk and Faelen didn't seem 'on guard' despite the way they'd been talking in the car.
Liam scolded the pup. "Micah, you should not be talking about the Fey in such a public venue. While there is no one within earshot, it is still unsafe, even if no one is liable to believe you. It is a poor habit to form." Liam looked thoughtful for a moment, ignoring the laughter of the Changeling as Faelen spun the pup about again. "It is rare for the small Fey, like Frost Fairies, to go so far away from a safe haven, such as a Dryad's glade."
Faelen leaned forward and talked to him under Micah's continued chatter. "There isn't anyone around, and we're in a tight enough cluster that there isn't a clean shot on anyone except those of us in the back row. Da will probably move to walk behind Conor when we go inside."
Oh. Made sense, even if it was annoying that Faelen guessed what he was thinking, again.
Micah's chatter became interesting; he was talking to Nathanial. "Your roses were pretty! The Fairies were watching them for a while -- I think that's why they came into our yard -- because they were fully open and looked happier than when I first saw them, and they sparkled inside, like they had a sky full of stars on each petal, and the smell was...wow! And, and the leaves stretched waaaay out--" He held his arms as far apart as he could. "--like this, and they were all soft greeny-silver like, um, fog under the moon, but green and not blue and--"
Nathanial cut his brother off. "Whoa, hey, just a moment. When I went upstairs to make breakfast they looked healthier than last night, but the leaves were still partly curled up. The flowers were also partially closed."
Micah nodded. "Yeah. I saw that when I looked at them before we left. I don't think they like sunlight much, kinda like moon lilies. I saw them with Granddad...somewhere." That would undoubtedly mean in Faerie. "I like them; they've got huge pads, and the flowers are ginormous. I hopped on a bunch and made it all the way across a big pond, like I was a frog!"
Liam spoke up. "I believe you refer to the gealach lile or areathanor. There is a mundane flower called the moon lily -- which is also known under many other names, such as devil's snare and stinkweed. It is also a nocturnal plant and its blossoms open at night, as do many of the nightshade family, to which it belongs. The rose does not open at night, and the altered coloration and nocturnal habits of those cut flowers is most perplexing."
Micah nodded sagely along with Liam's lecture. "Yeah, Granddad said they were called the 'gay-lak' lily by mortals, which means moon lily in English."
Da cut in. "Change the subject." He pulled open the door to the mall, and just as Faelen said, Dirk made sure he walked behind Conor.
Nathanial looked interested. "Well, that explains some things, but Conor's right." His eyes went unfocused for a moment. "This way. The store on the first floor has some promising-looking boots."
Geoff looked around. "We're on the first storey, aren't we? The mall only has two levels, and we're on the upper one. The main floor is below us...isn't it?" He trotted alongside his pup, somewhat confused, but just figured it was some American thing. They often did things arse-about-face.
Garret answered for Nathanial. "You're using the European numbering system; we start counting with the ground floor as 'one.' We're on the second floor. To make things confusing, not all buildings in Canada follow this format, so if you want to take an elevator, you have to check. Usually the 'ground floor' will have a star or something beside it, no matter the numbering system.
Ah. He was right -- an American thing. He looked across the open courtyard at the food court. The mall seemed to pretty quiet, similar to what he'd expect in Cork malls at this time of the day. There were maybe fifty people wandering around in his line of sight. Their group was just nearing the end of a short hallway with a couple stores in it, and they approached a fork in the hall. To the left was a mall promenade, with skylights spaced along the ceiling and stores on either side. To the right, a food court and a large courtyard opened up into the main floor. The escalators were on the near and far sides of the open space, brightly illuminated by a large skylight that covered almost the whole courtyard. Very few people were actually sitting down to eat, but roughly a dozen were lined up at the shops selling snacks. The scents of popcorn and greasy meat were making his stomach rumble.
Nathanial frowned at him. "That's gross! How can that crap make you hungry? It's fat and sugar coated in salt, fried in fat, and then covered with more salt. There's barely anything in it to call food."
Micah grabbed his father's paw. "Oooh! Can we have ice cream, or pretzels, or-or popcorn and caramel?" He was obviously looking at the snack food shops, the closest of which was a popcorn place that boasted dozens of different flavours.
Nathanial looked like someone had crammed a dozen lemons' worth of sour in his mouth. His tone could have withered a field of flowers a mile away. "No." His basilisk glare was directed at Garret, daring his father to contradict him.
Garret chuckled, surprising all three of his sons. "Oh, come on, Nathanial. Stop worrying for a day and have fun. A treat once in a while isn't going to kill them any more than relaxing is going to kill you."
Geoff took the cue and leaned over to bump against his pup. "Your da is right. I'd like to share a pretzel or ice cream with you. I know you could make tastier and healthier things, but that's not the point. The point is to spend time with your friends and family -- not the stove -- and share memories. Smile. Laugh. Enjoy yourself. Sure, we can get stuff done, like buy boots, but why not make the most of it?"
Nathanial's muzzle stopped looking so pruney, and the uptight pup even smiled a bit. The glare had completely vanished when he looked Geoff in the eyes, replaced by that look of love he'd had earlier. "Um, share? Like a-a date?" Those perky ears turned pink. "I-I'd like that. So...ice cream?" Geoff longed to take his pup's paw in his own and drag the sweet Akita off to whatever he wanted to eat.
Micah cheered and the look of gratitude Nick gave Geoff spoke volumes about how worried the middle Marks was.
Again, Garret surprised them all. "But first we should make a token look at the boots." He smiled at his eldest. "Then you can have your mini-date." The smile faded into a frown, which was directed at Geoff. "You've been dating my son for over a month, and you haven't even taken him on a date, yet? Good gods, boy." Garret whirled to an equally disproving Conor. "Talk to your son about etiquette in relationships, would you?"
Geoff gaped in shock and confusion, completely missing most everyone's attempts at muffling laughter or hiding amusement. Conor, however, looked mad. "I've been remiss, Garret; I'll correct it immediately. Though in his defence, Geoff was grounded for the first few weeks for sneaking over to your house in the middle of the night."
Geoff couldn't believe it; his da was apologizing because he was too dumb to have remembered to take Nathanial out. He'd shamed his da and the McDougal name. He was a horrible boyfriend. There was probably some code of honour or duty around all of this and he didn't know it; he didn't care about those things normally, but for Nathanial... He screwed up in the only thing -- besides football, and his family -- that he really cared about.
Nathanial grabbed him in a hug, shoving his head under Geoff's chin. "Silly Wolf. They were teasing you." Nathanial's chest was quivering in hidden laughter. "But if it'd make you feel better, you could take me on a date tomorrow evening. After kung fu."
Geoff perked up. That sounded great! A date with his pup! But where? It had to be perfect to make up for everything he'd failed to do. He didn't know Halifax well enough; how could he find the best place for Nathanial? The most expensive or classy wouldn't really impress him -- it had to be new, something Nathanial had never had before. Not Chinese or Japanese -- Nathanial was a master at cooking those -- and probably not even south-east Asian. Farther west. Afghani? Sure, but was there an Afghanistan restaurant? Indian or Pakistani wouldn't do. Um, Middle Eastern? African? Those'd be great. South American? That'd work, too.
Nathanial let him go and bopped him in the shoulder. "Wake up, Geoff, and stop fussing. We'll just walk toward downtown, wander around, and do whatever strikes our fancy." He lifted his head up as if he'd sensed something dangerous. "Huh. I guess even Hunters need to go shopping." The Akita held up his paws when Dirk and Faelen raised their hackles and flexed their paws. "They aren't armed. I don't think they've even seen us. Let's head downstairs and go look at boots; we'll be mostly out of sight, and we can avoid any trouble."
Micah tapped his muzzle and then looked around covertly for a moment before he exclaimed, "I can help! Look!" The small Changeling focused his attention for a moment, and then said a few words, wiggling his fingers. The orange fur on the three older Markses darkened into grey-brown; their features shifted subtly, too, turning them into Huskies. He noticed subtle changes in colour on the other Spirits too, and wondered what Micah did to him. All in all, the changes were minor and not enough to draw attention while it happened, but sufficient to keep anyone who wasn't very familiar with them from recognizing them. Only Liam was unchanged.
Faelen shook his head. "Well done, Sprite. I think this will work." He looked at Geoff's ears. "That...just looks wrong. I can't see you with markings, it's just not...you." Now, Geoff was really curious and kept looking for a mirror as they rode the escalator down to the ground floor. Faelen turned his attention back to Nathanial. "Where are they?"
Conor growled. "They just went to the pretzel shop. I recognise them; they live in Cork. What the fuck are they doing here?"
Nick leaned against the railing of the escalator, looking bored. "Following you, obviously. You've been here a couple months, and Geoff had run-ins with their friends a few times, so it isn't surprising word got back to your home." He looked back at his da. "Dad, I want to get the Nike Ice Claws, okay? They're the coolest boots out there."
Liam rolled his eyes. "Paw-wear named after the goddess of victory. If one of her followers was responsible for that, I hope she rewarded them handsomely in the afterlife for such a coup. Spreading that into the wider sportswear market was brilliant, too. I wonder if I could do such a thing for Lord Hades."
Nick snorted and lifted an imaginary microphone to his mouth and intoned, "The Phantoms just crushed their opponents on the field! What a marvellous victory! This match was brought to you by Hades, the official sponsor and clothier for the Phantoms. Wear Hades' paw-wear; slippery roads don't need to lead to the Underworld."
Dirk sounded perfectly serious when he chimed in. "Perfect slogan, Nick. That's about all we need to start a company. The line-up will only include causes of death, though. Hyp-paw-thermia, can be the flagship boot."
Faelen and Garret groaned, but Micah burst into laughter.
Nick's ears turned pink, and he chuckled. He lifted a fist toward Dirk. "Cool." Dirk bumped it, nodding gravely, before he winked at the pup. Nick looked happy, but quickly hid it behind a mask of indifference, though his tail kept wagging.
Geoff saw Dirk relax suddenly, even if he didn't stop being 'on duty,' but Geoff doubted the joking was the cause. When Geoff looked back at Faelen, he noticed his friend looked less tense, too. Nathanial glanced over and spoke into Geoff's mind. *I told them that I don't sense any other Hunters, and I can't find any guns, either. Not even on the security guards. It looks perfectly safe.* The Dark Elemental felt tension he wasn't even aware of leach away. He felt like he could enjoy this completely, now.
At the base of the escalator, Liam looked down the hall to the right. "I require a post office. I shall be but a few minutes."
Geoff knew Faelen wouldn't suggest it, so he said, "Well, why don't I go with you? Nathanial can help Da and Dirk get boots first, and we can catch up long before he's ready to help us." The subtle change in expressions on Nathanial, Faelen, and Liam all said they appreciated his thoughtfulness. He did catch this sort of thing, at times.
Nathanial smiled. "Well, the post office is in the drugstore, and that's only a few stores down from where we'll be." They began wandering leisurely up the hallway, easily moving around the few clusters of people shopping this early in the day.
At the drugstore, Liam led them in past the garish orange and black displays of candy and cheap costumes to the back of the room where the postal counter was. The Canada Post logo was emblazoned on and above the counter, and it blocked off a small room that contained shelves with a number of parcels waiting for pick-up. The attendant stood patiently behind the counter, perking up when she saw she actually had some customers. She was a middle-aged and frumpy-looking Sheep. Her wool was a creamy off-white -- many Sheep seemed to spend a lot of money bleaching their wool to be pure white, but she may not have wanted to spend so much time or money on it -- and her long, droopy ears were pierced in a dozen places each. Each twitch made the long bangles ring like tiny wind chimes.
The Rottweiler trotted up to the cashier and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It looked to be a much thicker grade than standard writing or printer paper, and it was sealed by a blue ribbon with a blob of wax stuck over the spot where the ends met. Liam had even made some chicken scratches in the wax, like some sort of calligraphy signature.
Geoff smirked. "Liam, you can't send anything like that. It needs to be in an envelope, at the very least. Why didn't you just send an e-mail to whomever this is going to? It's cheaper and faster."
Liam looked annoyed, and so did the lady behind the counter -- probably for different reasons, though. Liam shrugged. "I think this is far more personal. I am asking for assistance from the Tokyo Art Gallery, so I thought it prudent to put my best paw forward. I am sending this express, and an envelope is provided for such, rendering the need for me to craft one moot."
Faelen frowned in thought. "Is this about the art auction you're doing? I agree, sending a letter is nicer and will look a lot better when asking for help, but you don't have a lot of time. You can't expect a response back before Friday this way, and that won't leave much time to do whatever it is you're planning, especially if you need to get it framed."
The cashier lit up. "Are you Liam Smith? I saw the poster on the community board! That's incredible! Lisa was talking to one of your classmates, Gertrude, and she said that she said that you said there's going to be a bunch of royal visitors looking at your art. The Empress of Japan is going to fly out just to see your art!" She squealed. "Eeee! This is so exciting!" The Sheep grabbed a pad of paper and a pen and shoved them at the stunned Rottweiler. "Can I get your autograph?" She pointed at him and called out to some passers-by. "It's Liam Smith, the world famous artist! He paints for the Japanese empress!" The other people stopped and stared, whispering amongst themselves.
Liam's puppy-fluff was standing on end, and every trace of visible skin was beet red; even his tail was curled up between his legs. Geoff would be rolling on the floor in laughter if he wasn't just as stunned and embarrassed. Liam signed the paper as if he wasn't even aware he did it. "I do not know if Princess Masako or Empress Michiko will be in attendance. I highly doubt they, or even their representatives, would seek out my work. I only know that some business people from China and Japan will attend, and potentially a few members of the Chinese government. I said nothing about royalty."
Geoff recovered enough to take advantage of the situation. He clapped Liam on the shoulder and called out to the people staring, "He's going to have an art auction and music recital on November sixth! He's an even better musician than painter; he's been the guest of Japanese lords because of his skills. It's the first time the general public will have a chance to hear him perform or get their paws on his art! Call Dalhousie Collegiate for details, or check the website."
Liam looked like he wanted to kill Geoff, but Geoff made sure that most of what he said was technically true. The name 'Liam' was never uttered, and the entity indicated was the guest of the daimyo Ohtori, just not in this body. Geoff grinned evilly at his friend.
Liam in turn ignored the Wolf and tried to get the attention of the cashier. "I need to send this, please."
The Sheep stopped staring at the autograph and carefully tucked it into her pocket. "Of course!" She grabbed a padded envelope. "This will protect the wax seal -- I can't say I've ever seen anyone use them before -- and if we send this express, we can get it to...Tokyo, was it? By Tuesday." She carefully put the letter in the envelope and sealed it. "What's the address?"
Liam took the envelope and wrote in the address in English and Japanese. He turned the envelope back to her. "Here." The Rottweiler shot Geoff a vicious glare when the Wolf snorted in an attempt not to laugh when the cashier looked like she won the lottery. "I do require that to be mailed; you may not keep it."
"Yes. Yes, of course. That will be $45.92, please."
Liam looked like he'd just been slapped across the face, but he quickly hid it. Faelen quickly stepped forward, pulling out his wallet. "I got this, Liam." All three of them ignored the growing crowd and the murmurs of spreading rumours.
Liam shook his head. "No, I...can pay."
Faelen put his paw over Liam's when the Canid pulled out his own wallet. "No. You got dinner last time; that was a lot more than this. Please, I have it."
Liam lowered his head, relenting. "As you wish. You have my gratitude."
The Sheep blushed. "Ooh, I do love strong Furs with a British accent. And such a gentlefur."
Faelen's paw froze in the act of pulling out his bank card. He recovered and passed it over to process the sale, but he didn't keep the ice out of his voice. "I'm Irish."
She stammered an apology and quickly finished up the transaction. She did eye Faelen, again, and Geoff couldn't resist adding, "He does have impressive muscles. It's why Liam modelled several of his paintings after him when he tried his paw at doing people. He was the first person Liam ever painted, and Liam did a smashing job at showing his physique."
The Sheep growled predatorily -- reversing the stereotypical roles thoroughly. "Now that is art I'd spend a lot of money on." It was Faelen's turn to fluff up in embarrassment as the three made their way through the crowd and set off to find everyone else.
Faelen followed Geoff into the Phoenix Monk restaurant. Liam had gone in first and was talking to the proprietor in Chinese. The restaurant was in the downtown core, just a bit east of Citadel Hill and near some sort of game store. Nathanial had exclaimed in delight when they walked past the store and crouched down to peer into the windows. The building was built on a steep hill, so half of the Strange Adventures store was below street level, though the rest still looked pretty low. Faelen supposed that added to the 'charm' of the store, making it look like some geek's basement the way it was crammed with comics, games, and all sorts of paraphernalia. He was certain Nathanial was going to drag them here tomorrow while they were on their date, and the look in Geoff's eyes said he was going to try to suggest it before Nathanial could.
Anyway, the restaurant was fairly new as far as the rest of the city went. Liam had mentioned that this was an abandoned lot before the proprietors bought it and built the three-level structure. The ground floor looked like a fairly standard, if well-to-do, Chinese restaurant, while the next floor was mostly open and used for large gatherings and banquets. It could be divided, quite easily, into several smaller rooms for private functions, but there was a single, permanent private room that seemed -- in Faelen's mind -- to be reserved exclusively for Liam.
The short Water Deer woman bowed deeply as Liam stopped talking and turned back to wave the rest of them on, but they had to wait a little longer when her husband bustled out of the kitchen wiping his hands as he trotted into the room. This Water Deer repeatedly bowed too, deeply enough that his body was almost parallel to the floor at each bow. He had his tusks drawn back carefully to look as unthreatening as possible -- those tusks looked more like insanely long fangs, and they even moved like snake fangs, too, as they could pivot to point outward or fold back to fit comfortably along the muzzle -- and turned to Liam's guests. "Welcome, welcome. Please, friends of Si Jo Smith, be welcome. We're very honoured to have you in our restaurant. It's such an honour that you'd choose to bring our revered Smith here." The Water Deer practically quivered when he turned to Faelen. He smelt like he was almost going to swoon with pride, worry, and gratitude. "Master O'Conall, it's an honour to have you return. It means so much that you liked our humble food enough to return." He turned his attention to the group at large. "Please, enter and make yourselves comfortable." He bowed again to Liam and backed away, bowing twice more, before turning and scuttling back to the kitchen, his tiny hooves clattered on the wood in his haste. The two dozen customers in the restaurant stared after him and at the group in the entryway.
Faelen could tell everyone other than Liam was dumbstruck by the greeting. Liam smelt like he wished to crawl in a hole and hide -- that, and like he was in a lot of pain. He hated to be treated like...well, a god. Geoff was right about that, no matter what Liam said. It didn't help the whispers Faelen could hear from a few of the customers; it seemed they had been in, or around, the post office earlier and heard all that shite the cashier and Geoff had been spouting.
The hostess bowed. "This way, this way." She left all of the menus on their stand and unhooked the chain blocking the large wooden staircase leading up. The ends of the banisters were carved into the shape of large birds of prey, and a flame motif ran up each railing. Faelen knew they were meant to be phoenixes, especially since he could see a number of other instances of the birds around the downstairs.
Micah paused to run his paw over the left one. "Ooh, pretty. The beak is wrong, though; the top beak doesn't curve over the lower one that much. The crest on his head is a bit different, too." The hostess's large eyes grew larger, and her steps faltered as she led them up.
Garret prodded Micah in the back. "Up." He seemed distracted by something, though.
At the top of the stairs, the hostess turned to Micah, and then glanced at Liam searchingly. Liam nodded, but then spoke for her. "Micah, that was Zhuque, the Vermilion Bird of the South. He is a fire entity and guardian of the south in Chinese lore, and is often compared with the phoenix of the Mediterranean. He is a celestial being, like the Azure Dragon. You may also be thinking of the fenghuang; they are often called the Asian phoenix, just like Zhuque, and many confuse them with the Vermillion Bird. Now, though, am I to understand you've seen a phoenix? Or Zhuque? Perhaps one of the fenghuang?"
Micah nodded excitedly. "Yeah, yeah! Joo-keh! That's what Granddad called him, too! I've seen him! I didn't get very close; Granddad said he doesn't like company, and when something like that doesn't want you around..." He laughed. "You don't go there. He's soooo pretty, but he doesn't leave Faery any more. A bunch of Mages and Knights attacked him and really hurt him, so he stays away. Granddad says he misses his home near, um, Foo-jan."
Liam looked off into the distance, likely through time as well as space. "Understandable. The view from Zhuque's nest in the mortal realm was spectacular. It was close to my monastery, and we spoke on several occasions. It is regrettable he was driven out, though the whole area has likely changed beyond recognition for both of us." He shook himself and seemed to return to the now. "However, Sprite, it was in Fujian, which is a province of China. It was near, in relative terms, to the city of Lung-ch'i."
The Deer looked at Micah in silent, wide-eyed awe, and it took a moment before she recovered and resumed leading them to the private room. She opened the door, which filled the hall with the scent of jasmine. This time, the table off to one side wasn't set, but others in the middle of the room were. Three of them were drawn together in a 'U' and had three places set on each. Like last time, there were fresh jasmine flowers and a tea light floating in small bowls of water around the room. Unlike last time, there was a third ink painting on the wall, which must have been the one Liam did as payment for their date.
The view was from someone standing on the edge of a forest -- there were trees framing the edge of the painting -- looking across a valley and up a mountain to a large temple. Liam looked at it critically. "I am displeased with that. I see many places I would alter the brush strokes now that I have been removed from it for a few weeks. My mood was unduly affecting my work."
Nick shrugged. "That's art, Sensei. It's supposed to reflect who you are and how you feel at the time -- not in a minute-to-minute sense, but overall. Even photography reflects that in a person by the composition, the lighting, the subject, and all the other choices -- conscious and subconscious -- that go into the chosen picture."
Dirk tipped his head to one side. "Chosen picture? Don't you mean each picture?"
Nick shrugged indifferently. "Sure, if you want. It's a boring topic anyway, but a photographer takes dozens of pictures and picks the one that best reflects their intent. It's not like it takes twenty minutes to fix the image on the film anymore." Faelen was surprised to hear Nick talk, even indifferently, about art like he understood it.
Everyone moved to their seats when the hostess picked up the tea pot, obviously wanting to begin serving. The three adults sat on one of the sides, with Conor at the corner and Garret on the end. Liam sat next to Conor, with Faelen and Geoff finishing off the table. Nathanial sat beside his boyfriend, next to Nick and Micah.
The Water Deer carefully poured a cup of tea for everyone, hesitating when she poured Liam's. "Lung-ch'i no longer exists, Honoured Grandfather. It's Zhangzhou, now." She placed a single, tiny jasmine flower beside his paw before turning to Conor and pouring his tea.
Liam picked up the flower and placed it in the centre of his palm. Even sitting next to him, Faelen could barely make out the subdued, sombre laughter or the softly spoken words, but the melancholy was unmistakable. "So the times change, yes? Never still, never constant, no. Always, the old is discarded and forgotten. Swept away at a frightening pace, we are."
Faelen draped his paw over Liam's, hiding the tiny white blossom, but taking care not to crush it. He leaned over and bumped his muzzle against the Ancient One's, whispering, "The times change; they bring in a lot of new with them, but sometimes that's not such a bad thing, is it?"
Liam turned to look into Faelen's eyes. He whispered back, "No. On rare occasions the river brings great treasure to us in its waters. If one recognizes and seizes such treasures before they are washed away, one may find his life enriched beyond imagining. On even rarer occasions, such a treasure may even be kept nearby for more than a mere moment before it gets swept away -- perhaps beyond hope -- for the entirety of one's existence. Even if such a thing occurs by accident."
"Not all accidents are bad. Chance works both ways." Faelen was rewarded by a very heartfelt smile, even though he could still see the melancholy in Liam's eyes. When Faelen released his lover's paw and looked up, he saw the hostess watching them with tear-filled eyes and a timorous smile of gratitude. She bowed to him once, and then backed out of the room to retrieve their food.
The sun rose into a virtually clear sky on Saturday morning and slowly began chasing away the worst of the chill.The traces of frost that gilded everything quickly melted away, but the leaves that danced in the cold air sweeping in off the Atlantic served as ample reminder that autumn was quickly moving into winter. Liam did not mind, for today was a day of promise and may yet prove to be productive and fun.