This, Gideon decided, could well be the ultimate dining experience.
At present, he was lounging in a tub filled with steaming water, a plate in one hand and the last bit of naan in the other, using the second to mop up every drop of sauce in the first.
He’d already done justice to one of the skewers of aurochs (Elvis devoured the second), and the soup (foregoing the spoon and drinking it straight from the bowl), setting each empty dish back on the tray, which he’d set on the floor, in easy reach, and on which only the bowl holding the traditional piece of laden honeycomb remained.
A cup of tea, poured from a squat clay teapot, also on the tray, sat on the tub’s ledge, adding its own modest trail of steam to that of the bathwater.
On the edge of the sink, Elvis, still uncertain about this whole “water” thing, was grooming himself after neatly dispatching his share of the aurochs.
Gideon had been worried the draco would prove resistant to food that didn’t squeak just prior to being devoured, but so far he seemed to be adapting nicely.
And if the warm, sleepy glow infusing his body was any indication, so was Gideon.
With a satisfied sigh, he set the all-but-licked-clean (okay, fine, completely licked clean) plate alongside the rest of the empty dishes, contemplated the honey and decided to hold off, content for the moment with the tea, of which he managed one or two sips before his muscles began to melt into the warm water.
Going with it, Gideon set the cup aside, let his head rest against the back of the tub, and soaked in the tangible proof of his freedom: food (not a dehydrated, rehydrated food-like substance but actual food); unlimited amounts of (clean) water; and a door that closed (with—and this could not be overstated—a lock on the inside).
It was close to perfect.
Certainly closer than he’d any right to expect.
Lounging, eyes closed, in water up past his chest, he could only assume events of an unpleasant nature would soon infringe on the near perfection, and then everything would once again be unpleasantly normal.
Cynic, a voice from his past chided him.
Realist, he corrected the memory, before sliding easily into the dream.
“Of course. Forgive me, how could I forget your motto?” the memory said, standing at the side of the tub, studying him. “How did it go? ‘Don’t get comfortable, don’t even make dinner plans because if you do, life will just serve you up a dish of pain.’” She leaned over and let her fingers trace the scar over his collarbone. “You’ve tasted more than your share.”
“Dani…” Her name came out as little more than a breath, stirring the water.
“Who else?” She sat on the edge of the tub, seemingly unconcerned that her uniform was getting wet.
She brushed her fingers over the water, head tilting as she met his gaze. “Why are you looking at me that way?”
“Because you’re not real.”
“True,” she said with a smile.
Mia had just come even with her target’s window when a motion below prompted her to flatten herself against the granite.
Peering down, she saw the man in the garish green coat and yellow pagri making a beeline out of the hotel.
Did that mean he’d already gotten to the draco?
She focused on the retreating back to confirm there was no sign of a pouch or box, no suspicious lumps; just the bright, slim figure of a man in a hurry to be someplace else.
In short, no sign of the draco.
Which meant either he’d been unable to get hold of the creature or the draco wasn’t his goal.
But what would be the goal, if not the draco?
As she asked the question, she heard a small crash, like a bit of crockery breaking, from inside the window.
Normally, that level of noise would have sent her in search of cover, but this time something—a sense of curiosity or foreboding, she didn’t know which—made her look through the fogged window and into the brightly lit bathroom to see the object of her fagin’s desire.
He was perched at the edge of the sink, rearing up on his hind legs, and he was brilliant, with his iridescent brown-gold scales, and bright cat eyes, and her breath caught in her throat, and for a moment she forgot she was standing on a ledge in the rain with her fingers and toes going numb with the cold of it.
Only for a moment, however, and since there appeared to be no one else in the room, she angled for a better view of the draco, whose neck and wings were now outspread. He was so close, she could even see his pupils, thinned to mere slits as his head turned to the bathtub.
So intense was his focus on that particular feature, Mia couldn’t help but follow the draco’s single-minded gaze.
The first thing she spied was the broken teacup on the floor. Then her eyes moved further left and she saw the tub, and the water sloshing over the edge and, lastly, the draco’s owner sliding, all unaware, under the surface of the steaming bathwater.
Her smile had always undone him. “I missed you,” he told her.
Even saying it, he knew how inadequate that sounded, even though it was nothing but true.
“Then why did you send me away?”
“It’s—complicated,” he said.
“That was a pathetic answer six years ago,” she chided him, though gently, “and it hasn’t improved with age.”
“Does anything improve with age?”
“Wine, the Infantry long-coats,” she glanced at his, where it lay folded over Gideon’s clothes, “‘Blue Suede Shoes’—the song, not the footwear—and us,” she said lastly, no longer smiling. “We could have improved with age, if you’d given it half a chance.”
“There was no chance.” He wondered how it was possible for a dream to hurt so deeply. “Not after Rand. Not after Nasa.”
”And yet, here you are, holding on to a dream.”
She wasn’t wrong. And not only because, without thinking, he’d taken hold of her hand.
Carefully, he released it.
“Gideon,” she murmured his name.
He would never know because, though she’d been his for a brief, bright once upon a time, life had indeed served up a dish of pain.
Gideon, refusing to let Dani share that particular dish, had pushed her away.
She’d pushed back, hard, but in the end his stubbornness proved greater than hers.
But even then, even after Gideon successfully shut Dani out of his life, he spent the next half dozen years dreaming about her every night.
There had even been some days when his memories of Dani—her smile, her tragic inability to bake anything without turning it black, her passion for classical Earth music—were all that stood between him and a one-way stroll through the crystal veins.
Still he knew, even on the worst days the Barrens could offer, he knew setting Dani free had been for the best.
It had to have been for the best.
He’d spent the better part of six years telling himself that.
He blinked, looked up to see she was studying him with an expression he could only hope wasn’t pity.
“You need to wake up now.” She placed the hand he’d released to his cheek.
“I don’t want to,” he said, sounding, even to his own ears, pathetically bereft. “If I wake up, you’ll leave.”
“Gideon,” she leaned close, “I was never here.”
Then she placed her lips, warm and silky as the bathwater, over his. “Wake—”
“—up already, won’t you?” Mia didn’t know how many times she’d shouted at the man since dragging his head out of the water. Her arms were already trembling as she tried to keep him from sliding down again. Though she’d pulled the plug first thing, water was draining too bloody slow, so she just kept holding on and yelling and hoping she wasn’t shaking a dead man.
Not that he felt dead.
Not that she knew what dead felt like.
From the way the draco was acting, shifting from leg to leg to leg and crooning anxiously, she wasn’t the only one.
“He’ll be all right,” she told the frenetic beast, then turned her attention back to the inert head on her shoulder. “You better be all right,” she said, giving him a massive shake and a thud on the chest, which she vaguely remembered seeing a riverman do to one of his mates who’d been pulled from the water after too long a spell.
When did Dani’s voice get so high? Gideon thought. And why is she hitting me?
He opened his mouth to ask just that, when a mouthful of brackish water erupted from his lungs, and he coughed so violently, he fell over on his right side.
“No, no! Not that way!” The voice that wasn’t Dani’s bounced around his ears.
“What way?” he asked, or rather, tried to ask. What came out was more a wet gurgle as he inhaled a mouthful of water.
He thought he heard a “Nononono,” but everything was muffled.
Why is it muffled? he asked himself. And why is not-Dani yanking at my arm?
Because, you idiot, you’re drowning, his self replied.
Himself (selves?) thought he should probably do something about that, but they couldn’t come to an agreement as to what.
Which made it almost a relief when a deep and tearing pain dug into his left shoulder, shredding the fog and galvanizing Gideon’s body into action.
Jerking out of the wet, and with the aid of a pair of fairly determined hands, he got himself upright enough to cough out the water he’d sucked in while not-Dani thumped him vigorously on the back.
“Bleeding keepers!” Not-Dani ceased the thumping as his eyes opened, then she began to curse like an infantry drill sergeant.
Gideon appreciated the sentiment, and would have echoed it, but at the moment he was still working on basic respiration.
He did manage to lift his head enough to see his savior, but closed his eyes again because it appeared there were three small fuzzy people in front of the tub, along with an entire talon of dracos flying from one end of the bathroom to the other.
Yup, he thought, he was right, life had indeed reverted to unpleasantly normal.