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Story As the Story Crumbles | Updated: September 16th

A Force to be Reckoned With
Alok stood abruptly first but it was only by half a second. Aelfwyne stood with him, both reaching for daggers with different degrees of confusion and some form of anger on their faces as they glared down something over Soren's head. There were words on their lips, warnings, but whatever they had seen moved too quickly, or they were just too slow to react.

Soren sat up straight, Garlock's arm falling from around him but that was all the reaction he was permitted. A searing pain flared at the back of his neck as he was forcibly shoved into the table and pinned to the wood by a hand full of ice magic.

If he cried out in pain or in fear, he was deaf to it.

Memories - buried, horrible memories - resurfaced with a vengeance and for one horrifying moment he wondered if the last three years had all been some twisted farce because there was no way - none, not a chance; it couldn't-shouldn't be him, there was no way it was him - it was the man he knew had just pinned him to the table by the back of his neck.

But just as suddenly as the hand had appeared, it vanished and he looked back in time to see Hilde follow through with a punch she had connected with the man's - no, why, please - face. Surprisingly, though, the man slammed into his people, a cry of pain escaping as the man recoiled from the hit. The man gingerly touched what was most likely a broken nose, blood steaming down his face. The rage that filled the man's eyes, though, got turned onto the wrong person.

Hilde was standing between Soren and the man, feet planted and staff in hand. The other hand - the one she had connected with the man’s face - was shaken out, as if her hand stung from the blow. But even if he trusted her to hold her own - be it magic or melee - he didn’t dare let the man try.

"Submit!" Soren Commanded, the spell slamming into the man still nursing a bleeding nose. Soren found himself braced against an arm and realized Garlock had put a protective arm across his chest. He couldn't remember grabbing at it, let alone pressing against it in his attempt to get to Hilde, to put himself between her and that man. Soren vaguely registered he was quaking against Garlock's arm.

Said man snarled against the spell, turning that anger on Soren. Soren increased the spell's strength and repeated the Command, though this time the word lacked the frantic energy that had bolstered the last one. "Submit," rolled off his tongue as the magic wrapped around his target. The man briefly lost his rage and sank to his knees, as did two of his persons. He sucked in a breath before confirming what he guessed Garlock and Hilde were probably suspecting. "Cyrus."

The spell was fleeting, relinquishing its hold as soon as the command was met. But where Cyrus's two people returned to their feet, Cyrus remained on his knees. The man grinned at him. "Soren." The man all but purred his name and he suppressed the shudder as best he could. "How has life been since you ran away?" The glint in the man's gaze was the only warning he got. "Has my genasi been happily spreading its legs for its new Master?"

There was a surge of movement around him and a different panic filled him. "No!" escaped his throat just as severe as any Command but there was no magic behind it. Regardless, those that had surged forward to defend him stilled. Hilde was still firmly planted between him and Cyrus, unmoving and clearly ready for a fight but he did gain her gaze, though it was partial and over her shoulder.

Cyrus laughed. Soren was unable to hide the shudder that raced through him. “Well, well,” Cyrus drawled, amused as he slowly got to his feet. The grin that stretched across the man’s face was not kind. “Looks like you’ve found yourself quite the company, genasi. Did you buy them or did they buy you? I doubt it was anything mutual.”

It was Hilde’s voice that answered, unnaturally calm with the given situation. "No one needs to be bought in order to find better company." Hilde's eyes narrowed as she turned back to Cyrus. "And last time I checked, he isn't yours."

"He belongs to no one," Garlock pitched in, voice low and threatening. Pinned to Garlock's front had the orc's voice vibrating through his back and it soothed the edges of the painful memories. Soren closed his eyes and worked to get himself back under control. "And you will never have him again."

Cyrus gave a bark of a laugh and a cold rage started to replace the panic and fear. "You think you lot are enough to keep it out of my grasp?

He opened his eyes finally in a mindset he wished he had ended up in when Cyrus had first grabbed him. Calmer and annoyed, Soren took a step forward. Garlock’s arm tightened around him but he gave the orc a soft smile and a softer, “I’m alright. I’m just going to talk with him.”

“Please,” Cyrus drawled. “I've easily dealt with threats for things far more valuable. That genasi is nothing more than unfinished business and you will not keep it from me."

Garlock frowned, the anger and concern warring on the other’s face. For half a second he expected Garlock to fight him, to tell him no and keep him pinned there, but Garlock’s arm fell away and Soren was left a pace ahead of Garlock.

When he approached Hilde’s side, he was not surprised to hear Garlock stepping up behind the both of them.

“Enough, Cyrus. What do you want?”

Cyrus sneered at him. “Really? You have to ask.”

He raised an eyebrow at that. “I highly doubt one measly genasi held your interested enough to chase after, unfinished business aside.” He caught Hilde shifting beside him and he wondered if it was due to his phrasing. Not that he was going to be overly kind for this conversation. “We’re a dime a dozen according to you.”

“A dime a-you were going to go for more than any whore I sold!” Cyrus spat, taking a step forward and pointing a finger at Soren. Hilde and Garlock impressed Soren by staying in place but even he could tell that it had been a fight to do so. “A fire genasi like you, burned and far more human than the others was an oddity - an interest point for a number of sellers. Your ability to shift between male and female so easily made you especially tantalizing.”

Soren scoffed at that, waving the comment off. “Any genasi can do that.”

“Over a few months and with some difficulty,” Cyrus corrected, the words arrogant, like he had the upper hand again, “but you could do it in less than an hour with apparent ease. And that makes you as rare as they come.” There was a laugh in the following words. “You truly do not know how valuable you are, how rare you are, which makes you a prized possession on the auction block.”

Soren glanced at his companions, curious. Most were glaring at Cyrus or the man’s goons, but when they caught his gaze, they acknowledged him. Alok and Soala gave a stoic nod, Aelfwyne gained a grin full of bloody promises, and Rava smiled from around her drawn bow, giving a sharp nod. Hilde and Garlock’s expressions were serious but both reached out; Hilde gave his hand a squeeze and Garlock placed a hand on his shoulder. None of them were letting Cyrus take him anywhere.

Soren returned his attention to Cyrus. He shrugged. “Well, unfortunately for you, I’m not one of your slaves to sell.”

“Do not test me, genasi. I trained you to submit to me and I know that training is still there.”

Soren returned the man’s glare with a dark look. “Oh, the training’s still there, but that doesn’t mean you can control me with it.”

Cyrus gave another bark of a laugh. “Want to bet?”

A vicious grin stretched across his face. “I wouldn’t if I were you, Cyrus.” The man’s name came off softer yet heavily emphasized. If the man didn’t take this seriously, it wasn’t on Soren. “I am stronger and far more capable than I had been the last time you had seen me and my companions are a force to be reckoned with. You try and follow through with your desire, you will not leave here alive.”

Not that the man would remain alive for long. Soren wanted him dead if for nothing more than the assurance that Cyrus couldn’t sell anymore people.

Unfortunately - or fortunately - Cyrus hadn’t changed and pulled a nasty looking scimitar in response. Soren sighed. He chuckled, shaking his head. With a smirk at Cyrus, he offered, “Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.”

A well aimed arrow shot past Hilde’s head, embedding itself into Cyrus’s shoulder. A second arrow came from Soren’s left - Alok must have pulled his own bow - and as that arrow took out one of Cyrus’s goons, two very pissed displacer beasts materialized. A growl from behind spoke of a Grim coming out to play as well.

Soren was certain this was the first time true fear showed itself on Cyrus’s face, even if it was just for a second.
 
Springtime Joy
He turned his face towards the still rising star, closing his eyes so that he could focus on the warmth he could feel on his face. Where the darker material of his body absorbed the heat greedily, the material of his head warmed slowly from the sun’s touch.

“What are you doing.”

Amusement filled him at the disapproving tone of the other. He had grown used to driving them all crazy with the habits he had picked up from her and found he enjoyed it more and more as time went on. His kind were certainly stubborn and deserved all the discomfort he could allot them.

“Enjoying the sunlight,” he offered pleasantly, eyes still closed and face still towards the sun. The smile was very apparent in his voice, though. “Yourself?”

A hand pushed at the base of his head, forcing it over. “Stop that. You are not human.”

He let his head move with the force, unperturbed by it. He simply kept his head aloft, letting it roll completely over before pulling it back to center over his neck, the face pointed at the sun once more. He had yet to open his eyes. “Never said I was,” he returned cordially. He did open one eye at the other, letting his cheekiness be very apparent. “You and the others keep insisting as if I’ve fully revoked what I am and have become one of them.”

“Your behaviors say you have.”

He huffed, though it was a mimic of the sound and motion since he had no lungs to compress and no nose to make the noise with. He closed his eye and returned to feeling the sun on his face. “My behaviors are nothing more than idle things you all should try at some point. Humans have the most interesting behaviors.”

“And you’ve partaken in every single one.”

It was an accusation dripping with derision. He laughed. “Oh, not at all,” he offered, finally turning his face towards the other and opening his eyes. A part of him was disappointed he had no mouth for he was certain he would be grinning at the other. It certainly felt like how she described it would feel to want to grin, to show just how vindictive one can be by baring teeth. “I lack a number of the organs to try many of their behaviors.” He straightened himself out, properly facing the other. “But that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried what I can.” His gaze drifted over what counted as the other’s shoulder. Unlike him, many had refused to take on anything that could be counted as humanoid. He was unsurprised to see the movement that had drawn his attention was someone of importance. “Are you here for a reason, Commander Durnranth?” he asked, focusing back on the other. “Or are you here to simply kill time by harassing me.”

“Are you harassing Ambassador Rejak again, Commander Durnranth?” The voice was light, airy. She had said that it reminded her of a young girl which she had then explained made the owner of the voice all that more of a threat to humankind; no grown male adult ever wanted to be commanded by a child. Unfortunately for the human race, his kind did not do gender and age was a novelty very few held any value to, let alone to such standards as to consider it any form of ranking. Highest Jur was Highest for a reason, their vocal choice and apparent ‘age’ never questioned. Each of his kind held their place for a reason and while that place may change over time, he was lucky enough to be in Highest Jur’s favor even after everything he had done. “You know what happens when you pick on my favored, Commander Durnranth.”

Commander Durnranth gave the equivalent of a bow. He noted offhandedly for not the first time and certainly not the last that since he started paying attention to human behaviors and mannerisms, comparing the two had become habitual. To watch Durnranth’s form bend in a fashion he was familiar with only to note how differently it was for humans for the same term was both amusing and tiring. He doubted that he would ever be able to stop doing such a thing.

“Rejak.” Highest Jur’s voice had settled into an alto, almost tenor range and he realized that it was just him and Highest Jur. Commander Durnranth and Highest Jur’s escort had vacated the area. He was fairly certain this was not the first attempt at getting his attention. “Is everything alright.”

“Of course, Highest Jur,” he assured them, amusement and gratitude coloring his tone. “Just lost in thought as of late.”

“Missing the Little Miss.”

He chuckled. He had forgotten that Highest Jur had latched onto that nickname after Obith had called her that once. She had put a stop to it immediately but it seemed she never broke Highest Jur of it. “Yes. Missing Bethany.”

Highest Jur simply looked at him for a moment before they turned their body, gesturing with what equated as a hand for them. “Accompany me, Rejak.”

He fell into step beside Highest Jur without a thought, his feet barely leaving an impression in the grass. Highest Jur - like most of their kind - simply floated over the grass. Unlike him, Highest Jur was holding the material that created their form in a shape that was most definitely not humanoid but was very recognizable for any of his kind. The shape had no “legs” but there was a very apparent “head”. After that, the only other distinguishable thing humans seemed to care about were the “hands” and even then the appendages couldn’t truly be called “hands”. Still, she had grown accustom to his kind’s ability to mold their forms and it seemed the rest of her kind was adapting to that notion as well, though a lot of them far slower than she had.

They traveled the grounds in silence for some time but he didn’t mind. It allowed his gaze - and his thoughts - to wander the fields and structures. This particular area didn’t house very many humans but the fields were tended to by human hands and with the day still young and cool, the field was alive with movement.

Content and joy filled him as he watched a spattering of children run around playing some game. There were a few older children working too but most of the workers were adults. He remembered the short time where the humans had worked far harder to tend to their tasks than they did now. To the humans, it had been a good two or three generations worth of time but it had been enough for the humans to accept the knowledge that he and his kind were not there to rule them to breaking point. He had worked very hard to make sure that hadn’t happened.

And so had Beth.

He caught broken pieces of their language as he and Highest Jur passed. The adults were working, sure, but they talked and laughed and took their time. His favorite time was when the whole field would erupt into some song. He could hear the faint start of one but it didn’t sound like any that had covered the fields before.

“They are interesting beings.” He looked to Highest Jur, curious. Highest Jur, for their part, was looking at a trio of humans not far off. The trio were working in the ditch; from what he could tell, they were digging but for what task, he didn’t know. “Resilient. Forgiving. Patient.”

“Very much as we are,” he offered, though he wasn’t sure if that had been Highest Jur’s intent.

Highest Jur’s eyes fell upon him and he could make out the amusement and pride in the way their eyes were shaped. “Which is why I have been supporting you in your endeavor.” Highest Jur started along some path he couldn’t see and he realized that he had stopped at some point and Highest Jur had stopped with him. He fell back into step beside them. “I am glad it has not been wasted, even at the cries of outrage for the others.”

The path Highest Jur walked had them passing the trio in the ditch. Despite the generations that have passed, there was still some unease in the humans around those that did not take a humanoid shape. He heard one of the humans mutter something, potentially a slur that still clung to the fear that persisted. But when the humans slipped sideways in the ditch when the bank gave out under their foot, the human did not flinch when his hands wrapped around them, supporting them, the human did not flinch from his touch and even sent him a gracious smile, as did the other two. It wasn’t till the human was standing on their own two feet again being checked over and he had brought his hands back to himself that he realized why. The humans were working to clear some debris from the ditch and had he not interfered, the human would have been impaled by a sharp piece of debris. It wouldn’t have been deadly but it would have been a long recovery.

Maybe that lingering fear had less of a hold than he thought.

“I am concerned that you are getting too attached, Rejak.” He focused back on Highest Jur. The encounter hadn’t slowed him down and Highest Jur hadn’t changed their pace. “Or, more accurately: there are many that think the human influence is too great on you, that you have been and will continue to be corrupted by them till it consumes all of our race.”

He blinked at them, mildly surprised and put off by Highest Jur’s bluntness about the matter. “They sound as the humans had at the beginning of all this,” he pointed out, keeping his tone neutral as he pointed out his perspective. “Are you asking me to withdraw? The humans are not quite self sufficient yet to maintain this planet.”

Highest Jur laughed, their head thrown back in a distinctly human manner. “Oh, I am very much aware, Rejak, and I care not that there are those that have picked up the more negative human traits and characteristics.” Had Highest Jur teeth to bare, he was certain they would have been giving him a toothy grin. “This makes it easier for us to weed out those that would corrupt.”

“We are not as easily corrected as the humans,” he cautioned. “We live too long and our way of life does not hold value to time like the human lifespan and way of life does.”

“True. But it is a place to start.”

A gaggle of children raced by, all laughing and squealing and all just past the age of learning to run. They were being chased by a few older children and two young adults. All seemed to be having a good time.

“They are certainly a lively bunch,” Highest Jur commented, their amusement very clear in their words.

“Bethany would say it had something to do with the season shift, as if the warmer weather encouraged brighter moods.” For a moment, he couldn’t quite put together the tidbit she had given him. “She had called it something but I can’t seem to remember what it was.”

Springtime joy.” He looked to Highest Jur but they were not looking at him. Instead, Highest Jur’s gaze was on a bird circling high above their heads. “If I remember correctly, Little Miss would use that term with derision and yet they partook in the joy themself.”

A bittersweet amusement filled his center. It felt like something was compressing the chest of his form from the inside. “She did not care for the behaviors of the other humans but her favorite season had been spring.”

A breeze curled around them and he closed his eyes to relish in its touch.

“It is a pity they live such short lives. Little Miss would have been so proud of how far the human race has come.”

That compressing feeling in his chest tightened and a set of hands curled against his chest without prompting. “Agreed,” he offered meekly.

Silence settled between them. After some time, he managed to open his eyes and bring his gaze to the world around him once more. Highest Jur didn’t speak but he knew that they had time to just be with him, to allow him the moment to miss her, to grieve her.

He wondered if the pain would ever lessen.

With how brightly humans burned, he doubted the mark she left would ever fade.
 
Dancing in the Rain
Everything was soaked. Her clothes were soaked, her bag was soaked, the work papers and her phone - all of it completely soaked as she stood under the shop awning. Tears blended with the rainwater on her face, sobs pouring from her chest unhindered. It was all she could do to remain standing tucked against the building.

“Hey, you ok, miss?”

The smell of cigarette smoke curled around her as her head snapped up, surprise interrupting the sobs. The shop door had opened and a man was leaning from the door frame looking at her. He took a step out of the door and straightened, facing her properly. “Want to come in and dry off? I’m sure a coworker has something you can wear while your clothes dry.”

She glanced at the shop, overwhelmed. The shop itself looked sketchy with things she didn’t recognize being sold and promoted. The man himself was in black skinny jeans, black tank top with some sort of graphic on it, and black knee high boots that had a full lace work and buckles. He wasn’t overly build but his tattooed arms looked like they could hold her in place with ease.

His brown eyes, though, were kind, careful, like he knew what he must look like to her and was doing his best not to scare her off. He felt bad for her - it was clear on his unshaven face - but it wasn’t demeaning like it could have been. If she was reading him right, he felt bad for her situation than anything else.

Her grip on her bag tightened. “O-ok,” she finally uttered.

He grinned at her. Beyond the slightly yellow coloring, he had a perfect smile. “Awesome. Come on in and we’ll get you wrapped up in something warmer.” He gestured into the shop even as he called into it. “Hey, Lacy! Come give this lady a hand!”

There was a shout from the back of the shop as she stepped in. He closed the door before stepping around her, whatever response sent back at his words jargon to her ears. He kept walking towards the back and seemed to understand the jargon because he shouted in turn, “Well then it’s a good thing she isn’t a customer!”

He disappeared between a set of shelves near the back. She remained dripping at the entrance but her gaze didn’t stay where he had vanished.

Now in the shop, she could see that it was a lot of everything. The area she stood in held the register to her left and music of all formats to her right. Instruments were tucked in along the walls or hung from the ceiling. The short racking that separated the music section from the rest of the shop was filled with knickknacks, small purchase items, and snacks. There was a section at the end that held a few clothing items. The section beyond the music section was books. Lots and lots of books packed into tall bookcases. Beyond the register was all sorts of games and game components. The short glass cases that defined the register area were packed with card packs, boxes of loose cards, all variety of video games, and dice. A lot of dice. The high shelves behind the counter that stretched along the wall were packed with figurines both in and out of boxes. There were wall units under the high shelves beyond the counter that held DVDs and video games for a wide range of consoles.

She found herself coming to a stop at the end of the music section at the start of the book section. The shop was far larger than it looked from the front. The tall shelves that held the games hid the opening in the left wall that led into a space full of tables. The tables were empty and the chairs tucked in neatly but the walls were covered in posters and a number of white boards and tv screens. There was a second counter that looked like a coffee shop counter with a display case of goods and a menu hanging on the wall. The remainder of the back area of the shop and wall were filled with racks of clothing and other accessories.

“On top of being a popular hangout space, we do an assortment of tournaments and DnD nights so the cafe’s been the best decision we’ve made with the old restaurant kitchen.”

She jumped, spinning around to face the new voice. The stranger she found herself facing had sounded female but her first visual impression said male. The stranger’s hair was short, the strands barely tall enough to hide the fingers that ran through it briefly. The outfit didn’t help. The stranger was wearing a blue jeans overalls dress over a black and white striped short sleeved shirt but there was no bust to be found. If the drape of the dress was anything to go by, though, the stranger’s body shape was more female than male with narrow shoulders and waist and wide hips.

“There’s also a few old arcade games in an office offshoot of the gaming room but I doubt that’s of much interested sopping wet. I’m Alix. Or Lacy, if you listen to Lent.” She frowned and the stranger grinned. They too had a slightly off white perfect smile. “It’s a blend of Alex and Alice. Just replace the ‘e’ in Alex with the ‘i’ in Alice and you get my name.”

“Why?” she found herself blurting through chattering teeth. The shop wasn’t exactly cold but it was cool enough that she was now freezing.

Alix shrugged, the grin now an encouraging smile. “Why not?” They gestured towards the doorway on the other wall. “Come on. Lent’s running a few towels through the dryer to warm them up for you and I’ll see if I have anything you can wear.” The stranger started for a door opposite the space full of tables. “If nothing else, we’ll find something in the shop in your size that you can have.”

The door led into a hallway that ended in a door a stretch to the left. A staircase ran along the opposite wall. The stairs and the hallway itself looked recently renovated compared to her first impressions of the shop. Her gaze drifted as she waited for Alix to close the door and take the lead; there were two other doors on the wall that had the door for the shop.

Alix took the stairs slowly, looking to her as they kept talking. “Lent owns the shop with his husband and leases out the second floor apartment to a small fraternity of a nearby college. Good batch of boys. They do a lot around here.”

They came to the second story landing as the only door opened on the wall opposite the top of the stairs. Two young men looking like stereotypical jocks stepped out and immediately beamed at Alix.

“We wondered what Lent was hollering about,” the first of the two commented, both of their gazes drifting to her for a moment.

“Do you need us to get anything?” the second offered, voice softer, calmer than his companion. “We’re doing a quick grocery run Picking up Lent’s list while we’re at it.”

Alix shook their head, starting for the next stretch of stairs. “I have an order in for the shop so don’t buy anything for it, regardless of what Lent says.”

“Ay, Captain!” the two men chorused. The softer spoken one started down the stairs as the first one paused at the edge of the stairs. “You sure you don’t need anything Alix? I could always call Brooke. She and a number of her girls live close by.”

“I’ll send a text if I need anything,” Alix returned, a large smile on their face. “Promise.”

The young man gave a determined nod before barreling down the stairs. Alix rolled their eyes before leading the rest of the way up the stairs. “Good batch but they can be a bit much sometimes.”

The third landing had a slanted ceiling over the stairs, as if they had stepped into the attic of the building. The only door on the landing was open into the apartment beyond and she hesitantly followed Alix into the very modern, very well kept living space. The apartment was an open floor plan with vaulted ceilings. The entire right wall was windows. Whatever view was beyond was obscured by the rain and she turned her attention to the rest of the space as Alix disappeared through a door at the other end of the space past the kitchen.

Chatter drifted into the living space as her shivering subsided. It was warmer in the apartment than it had been in the shop - not to mention the two flights of stairs she had climbed. A man she didn’t know stepped out of the bedroom with Alix.

“This is Lent’s husband Derrek.”

“Pleasure.” Derrek offered his hand and a soft smile. She shook it, unsure. “Lent’s getting the towels laid out in our bathroom. We figured you’d appreciate a hot shower before changing into something else.” Derrek turned his gaze onto Alix. “You were checking to see what you had?”

“Yeah. It’s downstairs, though, so I’ll be right back.” Alix paused at her side, meeting her eyes with a serious expression. “Are you comfortable with that? I can have one of the boys go check, or even Derrek if you’d feel more comfortable with me here. Not that either Derrek or Lent will do anything.”

“I-I-”

“Bathroom’s set up,” Lent announced, stepping out of the bedroom. He met her gaze with that kind, careful look again. “ And we’ll just negate that situation. Derrek and I will start prepping the shop for open while Lacy takes care of you. Bathroom door does have a lock on it, as does the bedroom door if you need to barricade yourself in.”

She found herself nodding, watching the tension leave the two men. “Take as much time as you need,” Derrek encouraged. “And if you need anything, just let Alix know. They know where everything is at.”

“Thank you,” she offered quickly as the two men started for the door.

Alix shifted their weight, gaining her attention again. “Checking to see what I have will only take a few minutes but I can stay outside the apartment for fifteen or thirty minutes, if you want to be alone.”

“Why are you all doing this for me? Letting some stranger into your home like this.”

Alix smiled gently. “Lent told me he found you crying on the doorstep looking like a drowned rat.” Her cheeks colored in indignation and Alix laughed, hands gesturing in a placating manner. “It was said as an expression rather than a description. He was very concerned about you. Derrek had to actually talk him down from the panic that started to set in.”

“Panic?”

Alix’s expression softened. “He may look gruff but Lent’s a mess like the lot of us. He over thinks everything and, while he’s getting better, he still frets over every little action. It’s why we’re all a little more blunt that what people expect around here, why there is so much communication. It helps everyone not worry about misstepping or poor impressions.”

She gave a breathy chuckle at that. “That doesn’t seem real.”

Alix grinned. “Oh, trust me. It was extremely difficult adapting to it. But, it’s been worth it. I love working here because of them.” They shrugged. “Clientele helps a bit with that too.”

She glanced at the front door. It was still open and the sounds of happy, very enthusiastic chatter was echoing up the stairs. Her grip on her bag tightened.

“Hey.” She looked back at Alix. “If you’d rather, I can just call you a lift and send you out the back door without anyone being the wiser. You don’t have to take their offered hospitality if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.”

She looked towards the stairs again as a roar of several different laughs came from the stairwell. “You’ll stay out for the time I ask for?”

Alix nodded. “I’ll either put the clothes or a note saying to raid the closet outside the bedroom door. Won’t even get close to the bathroom.”

Some of the tension left her shoulders and she smiled. “Thank you.”

Alix grinned. “Of course. How much time do you want? 15 minutes? 30?”

“Fifteen’s just fine.”

“I’ll be back at half past, then.” Alix paused in the process of closing the front door. For a moment she watched as their expression turned thoughtful before they looked back at her. “Hopefully the next time you find yourself soaked like this, it’ll be from dancing in the rain rather than whatever it was you went through; that it was by choice, rather than bad timing.”

She chuckled softly at that. “I don’t really dance.”

“What if I was dancing with you?” Surprise filled her. She wondered if Alix noticed as they added, “Could make it a bonding moment with new friends.”

“Friends?”

Alix grinned again and despite all the stress and apprehension, she found herself mimicking it. “I will bet you that if either Derrek or Lent let you out of here without gaining your name, number, and a few tidbits about you at minimum, I will call you a limo to take you home. The fanciest limo I can find on such short notice.”

She laughed at that. “Seriously?”

“Absolutely.”

“What an absurd thing to bet,” she commented around giggles. “And what if you are right?”

“I teach you to dance.” She blinked, taken aback by that. Alix’s smile was soft, endearing. “That way you have no excuse to keep you from dancing in the rain.”

With a waterlogged phone in her bag in some stranger’s home over a shop she’d never dreamed of visiting conversing with the strangest of people, she found herself relaxing in this stranger’s presence and taking the bet. “Only if you agree to dance with me.”

Alix beamed at her. “Always.”
 

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