Rain poured down, hammering against the windows and crashing into the walls. The cottage on the outskirts of Palaestra shuddered in the bad weather as strong winds tried their best to blow the windows in and steal its roof. But even if it took the wooden, sloped planks and the dainty little solar panels, it’d struggle to remove the heavy stone and compacted hay underneath. The only lights shined from inside the building, the fields around the house, filled with wheat and root vegetables or otherwise left farrow, might as well not have existed in the blackness around the little cottage. In the distance was the pale blue glow of Palaestra proper, where most of the beings around here lived.
Inside was much warmer, but the mood was still sour. Gath Tsoriou gazed into the small fire in the centre of the room. In the corner stood his mannequin, which carried his traditional Rethan armour plates. Bulky shoulder plates, a large, silver and purple chest plate and his arm and leg guards. On the floor were his foot plates and a large, flat, four-pronged fork-like piece that was normally attached to Gath’s 2m long tail. On the mannequin, the set of armour looked empty, plain, but when added to Gath’s already impressive, armoured body, they made him look like a monster.
There was no need for a helmet, forearm bracers or armour for his legs, since, like any other Retha, he already had natural armour (although Gath did have a dontari, a leather belt that adorned horns to his head and neck). The heavy plate on his rounded, reptilian head was covered in small scratches from recent battles which hadn’t yet healed. The plates on his lower arms had holes drilled in, specially done so he could attach even more armour if needed. In place of a chiseled, muscled chest was yet more armour, plastic-like, almost rubbery to the touch, that stopped just below where his rib cage would be. If a Thrope were to see Gath like this, they still would have been terrified. Even with just his natural armour, connected to his body since birth, Gath was still a towering brute.
The knock on the front door was barely audible. It took Gath several moments to hear it. The only vok he had been expecting, he’d long ago given up on seeing. But Gath wasn’t going to let his own anger stop him from leaving someone out in the rain. He lifted himself up out of his comfy chair and headed to the door, reminding himself that he needed to get the bell fixed. Gath hesitated briefly before turning the handle to see who it was.
“I’m sorry. Can I come in?”
Retvik was soaking wet and wearing full armour. He’d clearly walked through the storm to get there. In one hand was a small gift box, in the other were some soaking wet, battered flowers. Over his shoulder was his satchel, the contents kept dry via a plastic wrap. Gath led Retvik in and closed the door behind him. Retvik did his best to wipe his muddy feet on the mat by the door, but Gath didn’t seem to care about the stains. Retvik sighed, then tried to hand Gath the flowers and the gift box. They were roses, but the heavy rain had beaten the delicate petals into nearly nothing. Only the plastic membrane wrapped around them kept the flowers together.
Retvik shrugged. “I don’t know. I, uh, I got you a more traditional make up gift as well…”
Gath opened up the box. It was a short dagger. The hilt was just the right size for Gath’s heavy, clawed hands. Simple, but Gath cherished it anyway, along with all the other blades Retvik had made for him over the years. He put the dagger and the flowers down on the counter where he kept his keys, then led Retvik into the living room. Retvik would never admit it, but he was shivering from the cold. Gath sat him on the sofa then disappeared to get him a towel.
“Did you not like the flowers?”
There was a moment before Gath replied.
“They’re cute. I don’t get why though. Are they… supposed to mean something?”
“Considering how we’ve been arguing lately, I didn’t feel… right getting you yet another dagger. I got one for you anyway, there’s no better way of showing my adoration for you, but… It feels inappropriate. The flowers are more calm.”
Gath handed Retvik the towel as he peeled off his chest and leg armour pieces. His foot plates and most of his lower armour were caked in mud. Thankfully the floor was made of stone, so Gath could just mop away the mud later. Retvik took off his arm bracers then laid it all neatly in a pile by the fire. The warmth was nice, it dried the water from his rubbery skin. Like Gath, Retvik was also large and bulky, but rather than having mottled red, deep blue and purple armour, his natural plates were red with patches of metallic gold and small, black veins.
“I didn’t think you’d come.”
“I promised you. Us Retha and our promises.”
“I know. What happened?”
Retvik took a deep breath. “I’d tell you, but first, do you have anything to eat? I had purchased some small sweet buns, but as I rushed here I tripped and they fell into a puddle. I was most upset.”
Across the room was a small kitchen, a gas-powered cooker and electronic refrigerator standing side by side. A large sink, a good metre wide, took up half the space, with a long, heavy stone preparation area taking the rest of the space. Opposite them were a small table with four stools. On the stove was a still warm cobble pot filled with dinner from earlier.
“You want me to heat it up?”
“Heyyr, dear. I will have it cold.”
“I’ll heat it up.”
Gath turned on the gas and left it there to warm through. Retvik just stared into the fire and warmed up his feet and tail.
“You were going to…”
“Oh yes. I very much apologise for not turning up, arriving late and filling your nest with mud. I… I’ve not had a very good day. Started off fairly normal. Cooked breakfast, did a quick training session with the kid. 11 in the morning, get a call, no idea how they got Elksia’s call-number. Some Vohra, 100 kia away screaming about Zonta attacking a small village.”
“That explains a lot.”
“Not done yet. It will get worse. Tenuk refuses to teleport us there, he has been ill for days, can’t fight either, so the three of us take Arkay’s craft and get there nice and quick. Whole village is already overrun.”
“Any casualties? What’s wrong with Tenuk?”
“A couple. Tenuk? I do not know. Was a Vreka settlement, did not realise at first, they don’t understand how to treat Zonta infections properly and killed the early infected. I tell Elksia to start curing vok while Arkay and myself try and contain the situation. It’s mostly just Afflicted, but they keep on coming. Then Arkay just disappears through a hole in the ground and we realise THAT is where they are coming from.”
“An underground cavern?” Gath got up to check on the now boiling pot on the stove. He grabbed a wooden bowl from a small cupboard, spooned some of the meaty, salty broth into it then handed it to Retvik, who blew on the hot contents then took a few sips.
“Pleasant as always, dear.”
“Thank you. You were saying?”
“Ay. Did not see where Arkay fell, but he calls up to me and tells me he’s fine, and that there are even more afflicted wrapped up in cocoons down there. He starts curing the afflicted down there while I am struggling up top. Elksia in the mean time has managed to get everyone out and rejoins us just as the mass itself attacks and the ground beneath us capsizes. Kid fails to catch us both, Elksia twists her arm and I find myself limping slightly. No light at all, but Elksia can somewhat see in the dark and we follow her lead. We find the base of the Zonta mass, kill it and it explodes, covering us in black guts.” Retvik shuddered. “Horrible. Acidic. Lost one of my blades, that jag-blade knife you made me. I apologise for that too.”
“Don’t be sorry. Things happen…” Gath sat closer to Retvik, resting his hand around Retvik’s arm.
“I liked that knife.”
“I will make you a new one.”
“I wish today ended then. Took us an hour to sort out that village, two more to clean ourselves up. Thought I’d be able to make to our dinner in time. Then half way back kid’s craft breaks down, in the middle of nowhere as that storm turned up. Really not nice rain. Arkay is standing in the rain trying to fix whatever the problem is, Elksia falls asleep in the back seat. Tried to call you but you had a match, right. Did you win?”
Gath smiled. “I thought you had forgotten that too. Ay, we won. Easily.”
Retvik tried to smile back but just wasn’t feeling it. “Kalin, kalin.”
“What about you and the craft?”
Retvik’s face dropped again. “Time is catching on. Problem is that the engine has a fuel leak and we had nothing to patch it up, and with the harsh rain, damn thing filled up with water. Then I get a call about yet another Zonta attack about 10 kia away and we stomp through the rain to find that the problem is just a few stray Zonta from the earlier attack. The Cassid who made the call turns out to be a real antiallavok scum and refuses to let us borrow his craft or even dry off. You know those insane outlander Cassids…”
Gath put his other arm around Retvik, who wrapped his tail around them both. “Wow, apistev, unbelievable.”
“It was 5 in the afternoon by then. Trudging through the plains mud was bearable, but we were carrying all our belongings too. Was easier just to walk back to Palaestra and try and grab a passerby or something. Kid is exhausted, nearly lost him briefly when we walked through some pretty deep mud. His tiny legs got stuck, had to pull him up and carry him briefly.”
“That is my one complaint about Palaestra, the outer roads are awful, always overflowing in this weather.”
“Agreed…” Retvik sniffed and rested his head against Gath. “By the time we got back to camp, it was 7pm, I knew I was late, I washed myself down, got changed, picked up your gifts, jumped in my craft… Wouldn’t start.”
“You walked all the way here? In this?”
“Well, ay, yes…”
Gath couldn’t help but grin. “You silly, silly fool. You should have called me.”
“I did spend a good five minutes wrecking the garage in frustration first. Then I tried calling and the battery on my communicator was dead, all soggy from the mud and since there was no sun today. I-”
Retvik sniffed again. He still felt cold, but Gath was keeping him warm. They nuzzled each other and Retvik shifted so he could put an arm around Gath. Gath ran a finger down the side of Retvik’s face, under his eye and down towards his snout. They both sat there in silence, with only the slowly dying fire daring to make a sound.
“How could I be angry at you after such a horrible day, Retvik?”
“I have eleven years to make up for and even now I am back, I still keep on missing you. I am a disappointment, despite all my successes…” Retvik tried to turn away, to wipe away a few tears from his eyes, but Gath had already seen his sadness. There was no hiding his pain. Gath though was understanding.
“Retvik, look at me, please. I am not angry with you. You are here, are you not?”
“You always keep your promises. What more can I ask of you? I forgive you for being late, and I am sorry for doubting you.”
“You shouldn’t apolo-” Retvik attempted to speak but Gath placed a finger across his jaws.
“Nonsense, dear. Retvik, I love you.”
“I love you too, Gath.”
“Forever…” Retvik sighed as he smiled properly for the first time that day.