Davitts narrowed his eyes at the newcomer who'd charmed Aunt Lana into giving him the corner booth for dinner and bringing him a cushion to prop his foot up on the bench.
Leaned back against the wall, hiding their grin behind a sip of kelver, Essenin nudged him with their elbow. "You'll set your aunt's new guest on fire if you glare any harder."
"Not sure I like him," Davitts muttered, though he turned to his dinner, which did deserve his attention. Nothing was as good as Aunt Lana's marsh hare stew.
"Oh?" Essenin had dropped the grin, though their dark eyes danced with amusement. "What don't you like? How charming he is? How interesting? How very pretty?"
Davitts shoved at two of Essenin's many black braids so the beads clacked together. "Stop thinking with your nethers. He looks shabby, but paid up front for four days. No luggage. No pack, Auntie said. I think he's on the run."
"As long as he pays, how's that your business, Davs?"
"Don't want any trouble coming here, is all. And I'll keep an eye out for my family so long's I'm in town, thanks much."
"Fair." Essenin's gaze had hardened to something more considering. "Best that we make sure of him, then."
Davitts stared in horror as Essenin picked up their plate and mug, and meandered toward the stranger's table. "What? Ess, wait!"
He knew better than to think Ess would listen, of course. With a sigh, he gathered up his own dinner and followed, plunking himself down opposite while Essenin cozied up next to the stranger, who neither glanced up nor took off his hat.
"Pardon, but I didn't ask for company." The stranger's voice held the soft consonants of the northlands, polite, measured, but definitely not pleased.
"You didn't." Essenin nodded cheerfully. "But you looked like you needed it. I'm Essenin ky Soll na Reabis and my friend here is Davitts ky Antris na Damil, security for hire."
"Mercenaries," the stranger said, tone flat and even less pleased.
"Oh, not usually. We mostly take jobs as caravan guards and private bodyguards. That sort of thing." Essenin leaned closer, probably trying to see under the hat. "Now you're supposed to give us your name."
"Am I?" The stranger let out an exasperated sigh. "Fine. I'm Zie."
They both waited for the rest of the name. There had to be more. Essenin broke first. "Just Zie?"
"Yes. Now please go away."
Instead of leaving, Essenin pointed to the propped up, stocking foot. "You've injured yourself, have you? I'll have a look, if you don't mind? Pretty good with this sort of thing."
"I do mind." Zie's head came up far enough to show the horror in his purple eyes—huh, those were pretty—as Essenin strode around the table to the other side and began working off Zie's sock. "Don't…stop that! Let go! Leave that on!"
While it was amusing to watch Essenin steamroll someone who wasn't him, Davitts couldn't help a small internal cringe at how desperate Zie sounded. Frightened instead of annoyed. "Ess, maybe you shouldn't—"
But the sock was already off and Davitts found himself staring at the delicate, though rather swollen foot so suddenly revealed. There were no toenails. Not that they'd been ripped out or anything horrid. They just didn't exist. The bottom of the foot appeared to have pads, like a feline's would. Essenin let out a surprised hiss and released his grip, which allowed Zie to yank his leg away and hide his foot under the table.
"You're sylvas," Essenin said softly. "We'd heard something terrible happened up north. That you were all wiped out."
"Go away," Zie whispered with his eyes squeezed shut as if that might make them vanish.
Davitts blurted out, "Were there other survivors? What happened?"
"You don't have to tell us if you don't want to talk about it," Essenin hastened to add.
"There might be others." Zie shook his head slowly. "I couldn't say."
Essenin shared a stricken look with Davitts, both of them obviously at a loss.
"Now that I've answered all your burning and necessary questions, please give me my sock back and leave me alone."
Essenin had enough sense to look sheepish as they relinquished the sock, but they persisted. "You don't have to hide here, you know. No one cares that you're not human. Not like those bigots in those human towns inland." They pulled down their shirt collar to show their gill slits. "I'm half selak, myself. Davitts' granda was a taur. That's where he gets those big hands."
They accompanied that last bit with an eyebrow waggle and Davitts' face heated. "Ess. Not the time."
Zie heaved another little sigh, removed his hat, placed it carefully on the bench, and went back to his dinner, apparently bent on ignoring them if he couldn't get rid of them. His ears…Davitts hated to admit it, but they were adorable. Set just a bit higher than human ears, pointed at the top with little tufts of fuzz at the very tip, they twitched and turned in reaction to sound. He'd kept his gloves on, but Davitts surmised his hands also had no nails and more than likely had retractable claws instead.
In a silent show of solidarity or maybe just not wanting to frighten Zie off, Davitts started eating again. He felt terrible now for his suspicions, mistaking a tired refugee for a possible criminal. He hoped Essenin would get the hint.
They did not.
"That ankle looks painful. I could wrap it for you. You really should have it wrapped."
For the first time, Zie met Essenin's eyes, and though wariness and exhaustion were topmost, Davitts thought he saw something else. Relief, maybe. "All right. Thank you."
With a smile that looked a shade too triumphant, Essenin hurried off, probably to wheedle medical supplies out of Aunt Lana. They returned quickly with a damp cloth, soaked in teo root extract for the inflammation by the sharp smell, and a length of linen wrap. Gently, and no one knew better than Davitts how gentle their hands could be, Essenin laid the teo cloth on the worst of the bruising and wrapped Zie's ankle securely and efficiently.
In their line of work, they both certainly had practice enough with that sort of thing to do it well.
"How long are you here for?" Essenin asked as he placed Zie's foot back on the cushion and gave it a final pat.
Zie regarded his foot with a frown, then Essenin, and finally Davitts. "No more than four or five days. I need… I'd like to find a ship that will take me."
"I'm asking out of concern, but can you afford ship's passage?" Davitts inquired softly.
"Perhaps." Zie spun his fork in his gloved fingers. "But I can do wind work. I'd hoped someone would need a sail impeller."
"We can help you with that." Essenin patted his knee. "We know people at the harbor."
"Why—?" Zie stopped himself and shook his head. "What do you want for this?"
Davitts opened his mouth to say nothing, they would help someone who needed it without demands, but Essenin spoke before he could, with a bright smile. "Nothing but your company, lovely sir. As much of it as you're willing to give."
But Zie held up a hand and caught Davitts' gaze hard. He couldn't have looked away if he'd tried. "The offer applies to you both?"
The first noise out of Davitts' mouth was a rusty-hinge squeak. How did Essenin just proposition people so…so brazenly? "Ye… Yes?" He cleared his throat. "Yes."
"Done, then." Zie rapped the table three times. "But tonight, I'm going to finish my dinner and go back to sleep."
"And we'll meet you here for breakfast," Essenin suggested, though it didn't sound like a suggestion.
After Zie had limped upstairs to bed, Davitts dropped his head in his hands. "Ess, what in all screaming pits?"
"Oh, come on." They shoved Davitt's shoulder. "He needs help and it'll be interesting."
That was something Davitt couldn’t argue with, not at all.
Angel writes (mostly) Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around queer heroes. Currently living part time in the hectic sprawl of northern Delaware and full time inside her head, she has one husband, one son, two cats, a love of all things beautiful and a terrible addiction to the consumption of both knowledge and chocolate.