Sasha and I stampede through the door, shaking ourselves and breathing heavily in an act of feigned desperation. Although I can't see them, I can sense that there are people here.
My eyes take care to scan the spacious room carefully as I run a deliberate hand through my hair. The place looks to be straight out of an old Western movie. The floors are wood-lined, though a rather elaborately-patterned rug lay before a stone fireplace between rustic and wicker furniture alike. Adjacent to the fireplace sits a large but dated television set. It's almost identical to the one my dad owns to be honest, if not for a few minor details. Neatly stacked magazines lay on an end table as well as a few forgotten mugs.
The rafters arced high above our heads, giving view of the second floor boardwalk. I follow the carved wooden banisters to two flights of stairs connecting and leading downward to our position. I can easily deduce that the rooms the tenants would be using are on the next level. Overall, it appears very quaint and gives off a homey vibe, but regardless of that, I keep my guard up.
"Ahhh, it feels good in here." Sasha sighs graciously and I nod in agreement. Compared to the heat and humidity outside, this place has a nice circulation of cool air going around.
Definitely feels like they have A.C., guess they are keeping up with the times in some areas…
"Hello!?" I call out, stepping forward to lean on the high counter of what has to be a type of receptionist desk. And complete with one of those old-fashioned service bells… Hmm… I cock an eyebrow at the small silver instrument, the polished shine of it tempting me to give it a ring.
"What in tarnation…?!"
Not as soon as I lift my hand, a middle-aged woman comes pattering briskly from two swinging saloon-style doors to greet us, her hands busy wiping themselves on her flower-printed apron. Her face is a bit pale with plenty of worry lines etching throughout, and there's a dull shine to her flaxen hair as it was pulled back into a messy bun.
A wary scowl mars her features, but when her eyes fall on us, surprise and disbelief is all I can see.
"Goodness… Where on Atlas' claw did you two come from?! Don't y'all know there's black showers happenin' out there?!" She questions incredulously, making her way to us while pointing in blatant warning towards the door we just came from.
I hastily lower my hand. "Uh… Yes, Ma'am," I reply earnestly, taking a dip into my acting skills. I throw her a sheepish grin and make a grab for Sasha's hand. "Sorry to intrude upon you like this. We came from the town of Vash, hoping to get to Foxworth City. We hadn't planned on stopping here at Monsoon, but when we saw the blackening of the skies…"I let the notion hang and shrug helplessly for good measure.
The lady nods grimly and stations herself behind the tall counter. "Find shelter as quickly as possible, huh? Right on ya. But y'all must've left Vash pretty darn early to be here now." She jerks her head over to an antique-looking grandfather clock standing in the corner. "Barely pass nine."
"Yes, Ma'am," Sasha continues on politely. "We left Vash a little past five this morning so that we could use as much daylight as we could since we were traveling on foot and all. We had just reached the outskirts of Monsoon when we saw the ink start to gather. We couldn't beat the downpour, but luckily we found your abode before the rain got too hot." Her eyes become downcast in guilt before flickering back up to the one across from us, a very convincing expression of sorrow masking her face thoroughly. "Again, we are so sorry for barging in like we did. We know you probably weren't expecting anybody, but this cabin was the closest too us."
The woman's hand flies in front of her face in a bothersome way as if she was swatting away an annoying fly. "Oh humbug," she says dismissively. "No need to go apologizin' for wantin' to live to see another day…unlike that husband of mine…" she grumbles, snorting derisively and rolling her eyes at her partner's presumed absurdness. I want to try subtly pressing her for more details, but she sobers up too quickly and gives us a pointed look. "I'm just glad y'all didn't go a knockin' on one of them home cabins. They don't open their doors for nothin' or nobody during black showers, bad luck and all that."
That little bit of news isn't all that surprising considering the abundance of folklores and superstitions surrounding the infamous black storms, so I think nothing of it. Sasha and I both simply nod vigorously in agreement with the woman and the worry lines on her face smooth out some as she lets a smile slowly stretch on her thin lips. Gentility replaces the circumspection in her eyes as she gestures to us with a wave of her arm.
"Well y'all were sorry 'bout manners and all, so ain't it polite to introduce yourselves to folks when meeting 'em for the first time?"
"Oh! Right you are, Ma'am." I glance over at Sasha with a smile and she plays the blushing bride role superbly by sending me a secret grin in return and leaning in close in order to nuzzle my shoulder affectionately. My heart thumps readily in fondness, not only for her fortuitous actions but for her in general. "My name is Cole Belmonte and this is my wife, Sasha."
The slight smile gives way to a full-blown beam. "Ah-ha! I knew you two were together! And what a lovely couple y'all make! The name's Rosemary McGunther and welcome to McGunther's Bed and Breakfast! The finest B&B you'll find on this side of the bayou!" Rosemary exclaims enthusiastically and extends a hand.
After pleasantries are exchanged, Rosemary gives us an informative run-down of the place like a proper hostess. Apparently, it's been in her family for four generations and was now run by her and her husband, Montgomery. And interestingly enough, it appears Mr. McGunther has another responsibility. As it turns out, he's also in charge of organizing and leading the caravan.
"Well I sure hope he's not planning to go out today," Sasha remarks worriedly and Rosemary rolls her honey-brown eyes for a second time.
"I told him not to!" she admonishes exasperatedly. "But that hubby of mine can be as stubborn as a water buck! He says he'll wait it out 'til the appropriate time to see if the showers let-up, but regardless if they is or ain't, he plans on callin' up the boys!"
I open my mouth to respond, but just as I do, the door to the right and behind Rosemary suddenly swings open, revealing an older man.
"Don't be spouting our business to strangers, Rose," the gruff-looking man growls with narrowed blue eyes in our direction. "They're just boarders, ain't they? So stop flappin' yo gums and just help them get settled."
Rosemary lifts her nose and plants her hands firmly on her narrow hips. "Oh please! Women have been doin' this for centuries so don't go tryin' to stop it now!" She snaps back then cuts her eyes angrily at the newcomer. "I just don't want you out there sacrificin' our boys, Monty!"
I eye him warily. So that's Montgomery…
Montgomery's upper lip twitches into a sort of snarl. "Ain't nobody sacrificin' nothin', woman! I said I'd wait, didn't I?!"
"Yeah, and you gone be waitin' 'til the showers completely pass over us!" Rosemary counters fiercely.
"Ain't nothin' but a little hot water!" Montgomery rebuttals, his steely gaze now fixed firmly on his wife. "All we gotta do is cover up good!"
I frown at his reasoning and speak up before Rosemary can fire back a retort. "But Sir, surely you know the black showers are transitional? While boiling temps may be the most common that can change in the blink-of-an-eye. It's not worth the risk. Think of the lives of your men. And yours for that matter."
Montgomery sucks his teeth and glowers at me from his peripheral. "Ain't yo business, Boy," he sneers and I can see the threatening glint in his eye. "You a guest here, so act like it." His attention refocuses on Rosemary. "I'll be in the back. Bring me my coffee when it's ready." And with that, he turns on his heel and stalks the short distance back to where he came from, the door closing behind him with a loud click.
Rosemary huffs indignantly, blowing her stringy bangs from her forehead. She juts a thumb at the closed door and eyes us. "See? Water buck. And not just any water buck, an old water buck," she quips with a smirk and Sasha giggles softly.
Rosemary's merriment fades and she graces me with an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, Cole. I sure hope Monty didn't offend you."
I shake my head for reassurance, but unfortunately I can't get my frown to drop. "I'm fine, don't worry about it. It'll take a lot more than that to ruffle my feathers." Not that I enjoyed being called "Boy" when I'm clearly not. Hadn't been a "Boy" in years.
I'm a grown-ass man, damnit! Sasha touches my arm and I glance down at her gentle smiling face. She can see right through me.
My frown loosens. "I'm okay, Hun," I say softly and she dips her head empathetically before turning it upward and taking a few sniffs.
"Mmmm…something smells good," she breathes with approval and gazes at Rosemary with an almost childlike eagerness. "What is that?"
Rosemary claps her hands happily and wags her finger. "Oh I see yo wife has a nose for fine cookin', Cole!" She boasts with obvious pride. I take a few sniffs myself, but I can't say the smell is good per se, though it's not bad either, just…different. "What you are smellin', Dearie is a Monsoon specialty. My very own, one of a kind Swamp Snake Stew! Guaranteed to put a smile on your face and hair on your chest!" She laughs out loud and Sasha laughs with her while my stomach just turns in revulsion.
Swamp Snake Stew?! Wouldn't that be the same as eating the Serpentine?! Urgh! Gross! I hate snakes in every shape or form!
"Should be just about done simmerin' actually," Rosemary carries on with sparkling eyes while opening a large book and grabbing a pen. "Want me to bring y'all a bowl when it's done?"
My stomach clenches painfully. Eww! Hell no! "Uh, no thanks," I decline quickly and muscle a pacifying smile on my face. "It hasn't been that long since we ate breakfast so—"
"Actually, I am kinda hungry, Cole," Sasha interrupts and I turn wide eyes to her. She taps her chin thoughtfully, seeming to ignore my incredulous stare and grins over at Rosemary. "I wouldn't mind trying some, it smells deliciously spicy."
"That's because it is!" Rosemary bursts as if Sasha made some million-dollar observation. "My word you have got a good nose!" She stops her jubilatory candor and gives my partner a sly sidelong look. "You wouldn't be pregnant now, wouldja? You are practically glowing!"
My heart stutters at the teasing notion. What had been lingering at the back of my mind now resolutely thrusts its way to the front. However, Sasha is none the wiser and just laughs joyously. "No, not yet, but some day hopefully. I can just identify culinary talent is all."
"Oh then well! Why don't we mosey on over to the kitchen so you can taste the culinary talent of Monsoon, shall we?" Rosemary sings confidently and slaps a key down on the desk right in front of me.
I blink at the coppery gold piece in bewilderment for a second then glance up just as Rosemary winks at me. "Upstairs. Third door on the right, Stallion. No charge."
My mind had completely veered off track, still caught on the possibility of Sasha being pregnant. I know Rosemary said something, but unfortunately I didn't catch it. I can only stare at her wordlessly.
"No charge? Mrs. McGunther, are you sure? What about your husband? Wouldn't he be upset if we stayed without paying?" Sasha asks, coming to my rescue.
"Well of course I am! Do y'all really think I'd be heartless enough to charge people who just want shelter from those mean ol' black showers?" She flips a page and scribbles something down in her book, her eyes focused on her task. "And don't worry about my hubby, he don't actually run anything here. His main responsibility is that caravan. Oh, and no more of that "Mrs. McGunther" hogwash, okay? Just Rose or Rosemary will do."
She closes her book with an almighty sigh and puts down her pen. "Takes care of that. Now come along Sasha and follow me into the kitchen and Cole, you head on up to y'all's room to get settled. Those bags and case look mighty heavy."
I mentally shake myself out of my stupor and express my thanks. "We really appreciate your hospitality, Rosemary. Uhh…" I raise a hand to scratch at my head. "What room did you say again?" I ask, feeling my cheeks warm shamefully.
Rosemary chuckles. "Upstairs, third room on the right." She keeps her voice light and warm. "Make yourself at home and call me for anything."
Sasha's lips graze my cheek. "If you're not hungry, I'll bring you something nice and cold to drink, okay?"
I smile. "That'll be perfect, thanks, Hun."
She steps around me and joins with Rosemary. "Oh, I reckon I have a fresh pitcher of peach tea in the fridge. It's my own special blend 'cuz I sweeten it with gooseberries instead of sugar."
"Wow really? Have you ever tried boysenberry extract? You'd be surprised at its potency."
"Why no I haven't! I'd have to remember to try it next time! I can't wait 'til you try my stew, it's not for everybody, I admit, but I have a good feelin' you'll like it…"
The two women saunter their way to the double saloon doors which I guess leads to the kitchen, talking and laughing amicably amongst themselves as if they'd known each other for years despite their age difference. My eyes follow Sasha's every move, the pep of her steps, the radiance of her smile… She doesn't appear too tired anymore.
Could she really be pregnant…? Surely she would've told me if something was wrong by now… Unless…she doesn't know…
Once I'm alone, I grab the key from the counter and begin my trek towards the stairs to make for the second floor. I can still hear the black showers rage from outside, reminding me of my true purpose for being here to begin with. By sheer force of will, I refocus on my objective and start piecing together the information I learned from Rosemary as I climb the slightly creaky steps.
Okay so, Rosemary's husband, Montgomery, is in charge of the caravan and he might or might not wait out the black showers. I take a glimpse at my watch. Still got about an hour and a half left before the "appropriate time", so we'll keep watch and see what happens. Hmm, and he could be the same "Montgomery" Jay and the others ran into the other day although, he wasn't chewing anything… Anyway, what gets me though is how against Rosemary was to Montgomery trying to leave during the storm. If she's hypnotized, wouldn't she be agreeing with him? Or maybe she is and that was just an elaborate ruse down there she played to throw us off… Damnit! If only we knew more about Hypnobrai power! If only we had something to look for to give us a sign of hypnotism besides physical aggression!
A frustrated frown twists my lips as I stop at the top of the stairs. My mind is a little too pessimistic right now to appreciate the retro décor, but I do take notice that the place doesn't have a lot of rooms. I only count eight doors in the hallway, all of them numbered accordingly: five on the right and three more on the opposite side passed the banister's opening overlooking the entrance. I finger the key in my hand and head for me and Sasha's borrowed room.
But if knowing that Rosemary's behavior might be a ruse…is it really wise for me to leave Sasha down there with her? No, what am I talking about? Even if Rosemary were to suddenly attack her, Sasha is more than strong enough to overpower her... But…she was pretty lax down there… What if she let her guard down too much and Rosemary got the drop on her? What if she got hurt? What if her…and the baby got hurt…?
The black case I'm holding slips from my grasp and lands on the floor with a thunderous bang. My heart almost stops beating as cold fear grips me at an alarming rate. I try to swallow several times to regain moisture in my mouth and when I finally do, I impulsively whirl around and open it.
Don't you dare! A voice growls deeply in my head, the stern vehemence of it stopping me from crying out Sasha's name. What on Leviathan's scales are you doing?! Pick up that case and get inside that room. NOW!
My mind is a convoluted mess, but I know Lord Atlas when I hear him. "B-B-But, Sasha…"
Be silent! It is not sociably acceptable to stand alone and talk to oneself, is it?! Now move it! You have no definitive proof that your mate is with young! So behaving like an emotional imbecile is unnecessary! Giving into any type of fear during a mission can lead to fatal consequences! This logic has been inscribed onto your very bones, Cole!
With each word Lord Atlas roared, I found more of my resolve. I quickly pick the weapons' case back up and with a shaky hand, insert the key in the door to our room. Unlocking it, I shuffle into the darkness and close the door, taking several deep breaths.
That's it, Young Titan…one breath at a time. Keep your wits about you though, you are on foreign territory. Keep those keen senses sharp and go about checking these quarters like any competent shinobi would.
Letting my lord's rumbling alto soothe my nerves, I listen to his coaching and fumble along the nearest wall for a light switch. My hand lands on a small protrusion and I flick it up. Bright light instantly floods the room and I start forward with steady and cautious steps, keeping my senses alert for any hidden dangers. I place the weapons' case on the round wooden table near the front and set me and Sasha's duffel bags on the floor at the foot of a plaid-covered bed. Like the rest of the establishment, the room is charming, homey, and purely done with the Old West in mind.
"Damn, this place will light up like a roman candle if it ever caught fire with all the wicker furniture around," I observe warily, eyeing the rocking chair near the window and the fancy armoire.
Another old-fashioned television set sits in the corner of the room though it's not nearly as big as the one in the reception area. I try turning it on, but am only greeted with blaring static no matter what channel I pick. "Can't say I'm surprised…" I mumble just as a crack of lightning rips in my ear.
After checking every nook and cranny of the room, I check the two doors next: one leading to a small closet with…wicker hangers and the other leading to a nice clean bathroom complete with a two-in-one shower and tub combo. My eyes search for any possible traps or unnecessary obstructions in both spaces and after finding none, I walk back over to the window (moving aside the rocking chair) and push back the plaid curtains.
"Perfect…" Well the scenery is just as dark and dreary as ever except for the peppering of gold from the lanterns strewn about the town. And thanks to them, I'm able to discern the imposingly sturdy silhouette of a storehouse on the opposite side of the General Store. From Hayate's surveillance feed, that's where the caravan is located, and when it's ready, those barn doors will open and set out en route for the forest located in southeast.
I check my watch again. We still have to wait well over an hour before seeing who or what will break first, Montgomery McGunther or the black showers.
With any luck, this will be an uneventful stake-out. However, if the showers recede before or even after the designated time, you'll have to make communications with the ones you assigned to watch the caravan and make sure they are in position. And if that human proves mentally deranged and charges out during the storm, call for a convergence immediately.
Yeah, I know… I tell the God of Earth. I've calmed down considerably since my little "freak-out" in the hallway and I think it's about time I express my gratitude to the armored grizzly. Thanks, Lord Atlas. I…I don't know what came over me back there.
The bear growls a chuckle. I do, he huffs. Fear-driven instinct took over and all you could think about was protecting your mate and the offspring within her…which you don't even know if she has.
I swallow down my anxiety, my heartbeat already pounding in my ears. What about you, my lord? Isn't there a way for you to tell?
Hmph! Afraid not. Not even Levi knows. Hehehe,it is rather amusing though to witness the mighty dragon squirming from not knowing. Although, I'd be lying if I were to say I didn't feel tremors of anticipation coursing through my pelt. The possibility of more advocates is very appealing to us… But no. All we are able to discern is that your Elemental Tethering with her is strong, which in itself is a good sign.
My brow furrows in thought. There've been other signs too… I remove my gloves and stick them in my coat pocket. I glance at my left hand. One of the most recent is being this ring. She made it clear that there was no real sentiment behind it and was to only be used to make our guises as husband and wife more authentic. She got so furious at me for saying I liked it, which I admit was sort of a lie. I mean gold jewelry does look kinda gaudy on me after all. But those mood swings… And then the whole deal with the snake soup…urgh… And there have been signs at home too, and I'm not the only one who has seen them. Almost everybody on the Bounty thinks something's wrong with Sasha, especially Ayane. She's actually the one who confirmed my suspicions.
Ah yes, the human born with the spirit of a wolf, Amaterasu's daughter. Yes, I can definitely see her "sniffing" that out first. Another gruff growl of a chuckle. But seriously, communication between mates is very important… Talk to her.
I sigh heavily. Yeah, I can't wait any longer. If Sasha won't say anything then I will. I have to know.
It's been eating you up inside, hasn't it?
Now more than ever. It's like a carnivorous bacteria's been unleashed.
Hehehehehe… Oh, and I will divulge something I've learned from Levi which he learned from Waves about the Kunoichi of Water.
I listen intently. Despite the contraception medication your mate is taking…she is still quite fertile. And with you being so young and robust…the same goes for you.
I release the breath I had unconsciously held. So there is a good chance Sasha could be pregnant. I could be a father soon, and Sasha a mother. We could have our very own little family…soon. An impetuous smile curves excitedly on my lips. "If it's true…then they'll be a lot to plan."
"Hey Cole, can you open the door please? My hands are full!"
Sasha's voice carries through the barrier of the door and I rush to open it for her. I open the wooden access to see her grinning broadly with a copper tray in hand, a steaming bowl and two mugs resting on top. She utters a quick "Thanks." as I step aside and let her pass.
"Whoa, didn't expect to see an alligator skull over the bed," she muses while sitting the tray down on the table beside the weapons' case. "Or is that a crocodile's? I can never tell the difference. Ayane probably could." She dips her finger into the murky reddish-brown broth of her stew and sucks on it. "So how's it look in here?" She asks, glancing about.
"Well…" I check the hallway once then close the door before facing her again. "As long as someone doesn't throw a Molotov cocktail through the window, I think we're good."
She approaches me with a mug, a light chortle playing from her pretty full lips. "Yeah, they must really love their wicker," she remarks, handing me the cup. I frown apprehensively down at the floating ice cubes. I can't tell what the liquid sloshing around is. The interior is much too dark.
"Don't worry, it really is peach tea and it's very good. Go ahead." She turns around as I lift the mug to take a tentative sip. As soon the first sweet drops hit my tongue, I'm overcome with thirst and greedily down more of the refreshingly cool beverage. Soon, my upper lip hits nothing but ice as the last streams of tea careens heavenly down my gullet. I lower my mug and wipe my mouth with the back of my sleeve.
Yeah, that really hit the spot… I look up to find Sasha standing by the window where I was previously and I make my way over to her.
"Is that it?" She asks, pointing vaguely to the darkened barn and I nod at her dank rainy reflection.
"Yeah, the caravan's in there. Hasn't been any movement, or people scurrying towards or away from it yet," I reply, casting my critical gaze along the mudded streets below.
"And hopefully it stays that way for the time being," she mutters, then exhales roughly through her nose and moves haughtily away from the window towards the table where she left the tray. "God, I just hate the Serpentine," she spats, grabbing her bowl. Her spoon stirs around viciously enough that I can hear the *clink clink* of silver against glass.
I walk towards her cautiously as she gathers a smoky spoonful and shoves it into her mouth. A disgusted grimace crosses my face when she slurps up what had to be the end of a tail. She chews ferociously on her mouthful, scowling all the while, and points her spoon at me.
"I understand Lloyd, ya know?" She says over a mouthful of snake and whatever else is in the soup. She swallows and licks her lips. "I'll never commit genocide or anything, mind you. I just can understand the need to kill 'em all off. They're just too damn vindictive!"
I can only stare at her as she gulps down another savage spoonful. But then, her face softens and she moans in satisfied appreciation. "Mmmm…. Man, Rosemary really put her foot in this. You really are missin' out here, Cole…" She reaches down to retrieve her mug and takes a hearty swig. "Oh but don't worry, she was kind enough to give me the recipe, so I can make it for dinner one night for everybody."
Her face brightens even more. "Mm! I almost forgot to tell you, Rose is making ambrosias later! Doesn't that sound delicious?! You know she uses Clementine oranges as well as peaches? Leviathan, I hope we're here long enough for that—"
"Sasha!" I cut in quickly before she can continue her burbling. Does she really not realize how rapid her mood swings are? She just passed through five different emotions all within a span of two minutes!
She looks at me expectantly, eyebrows lifted. I remain cautious as I come within reach of her, like how one would approach a wild animal. I put my mug on the table behind her and place a hand on the small of her back.
"I'd like to talk to you about something," I say quietly and gently guide her to the bed. I take a glimpse at the window, glad that I can still see the barn and sit down in front of her when she lowers herself. Platinum irises gleam brilliantly in intensity as she watches me with curiosity.
She holds her bowl comfortably in her lap. "What is it, Cole? Is something wrong? Did you find out something?" She asks and I peer deeply into the eyes that I have come to love, trust, and admire.
Okay, use careful deliberation here, Cole. Say the right words, no foul ups.
"Yes Sasha, I think I might have…and it's about you." Her brow crinkles and I take inaudible breath. "I've noticed some things about you recently and…"
"Oh really?" The "look" settles in on her face. "And what, pray tell, did you "notice" about me?"
*clink clink clink clink clink clink clink*
I look down at her lap and see that the fingers of her left hand are moving. I realize then, the bottom of her engagement ring must be tapping the bowl repeatedly to make the restless sounds. I raise my gaze back up to her face and swallow. She's already getting defensive, and that seemingly passive expression on her face is a definite "red flag" for me to tread softly.
I keep calm and push forward. "Alright, but before I do, is there anything that you want to tell me? Do you notice anything…different about yourself?"
Her eyes thin and her lips form a silent question. Then, realizations dawns, and the rapid "clinking" of her bowl stops. She seems to deflate with relief and I frown when she releases an airy chuckle.
"Oh Cole…" She smirks and eyes me with clear amusement. "I'm not pregnant, okay?"
She lifts her spoon to her mouth; it filled to the brim with a mound of saucy chunks. "Are you sure?" I blurt out and the spoon stops its ascent. "Can you really look me in the eye and tell me with one hundred percent certainty that you aren't pregnant?" The hand holding the spoon trembles and thick broth collects and drips from the bottom and into the bowl.
She looks at me, the passiveness having fled from her face to be readily replaced by uncertainty and doubt. "I started noticing some…irregularities in your behavior a few weeks ago," I begin with confidence. It's time for me to tell her everything. "You remember that time you and I went to the grocery store in Nellyville? You wanted to get the ingredients to make a bunch of sweet potato pies to donate to the bake sale Ebony informed us about for Starlight."
Her eyes narrow and she lowers her spoon to her bowl. "Yeah, I remember. So?" She asks defiantly.
I cock a deliberate eyebrow. "So you don't think you were unnecessarily rude to the girl who was bagging our food?"
Sasha sucks her teeth. "Cole, everybody knows when you have either heavy or a lot of canned goods you're supposed to double bag them. It's not my fault she didn't have any common sense."
"True, but that was no reason to make her cry."
"She shouldn't have rolled her eyes at me then," she counters back with a sneer of contempt. "I'm Sasha Graciano, damnit! I don't play that crap! And did you see the way she was dressed?! And at a workplace! Hmph! I bet her bed was as easy to get into as a community college."
I bite the inside of my cheek to keep a grin from spreading, knowing I have to stay serious and firm. Composing myself, I barrel forth. "But that's just it, Sasha. I know you don't take any smack, but you've never added maliciousness to your sassiness. And it's not just in public where I've seen you lash out. It's at home too. Remember when you threatened to kick Mydnyte through an electric fan?"
"She scratched-up my favorite pillow!" She defends furiously, nearly rising from the bed. "And she knows she's not supposed to be in me and Ayane's room to begin with! She knows Howard and Lilia are nesting in there! Those eggs are going to be hatching any day now!"
I know I don't need to remind Sasha that Mydnyte's just a cat, so I only look pointedly at her. Her chest heaves and she puts a stressed hand on her flushed face. "Okay, maybe I have been a little hormonal, but that doesn't mean I'm pregnant."
I shake my head in agreement with her. "No, it doesn't. Not alone anyway. But when coupled with your new eating habits, I'd say it's a sign."
She levels me with a withering glare. "Now what are you talking about?"
"Well…" I take a moment to glance at the window. A flash of thunder illuminates the outside for a few seconds allowing me to view the barn clearly. Still nothing. However, the showers seem to be weakening if only slightly, the rain not falling nearly as hard as it was before.
I turn back to Sasha and have to ward off a physical flinch; her eyes are raging like a hurricane! Rarely am I on the receiving end of such an intimidating look and from it, I can guess that my head is just above water. I've boasted before about having no fears, but the wrath of women is a new type of terror that I'm not very immune to.
Especially the wrath of a woman as strong as Sasha…
Willing my stomach not to freeze up, I soldier on. "It's just that…you've been eating more than your fair share as of late and…frequently. Take last night for instance; you ate two burritos, a plate of enchiladas and tamales, a quesadilla and some rice, and three tacos. Tell me that's not more than your usual intake?"
I'm encouraged when her gaze wavers and she averts her eyes to her lap. "That's… I'm just… I love Mexican food…" she mumbles weakly and I place a hand on her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her.
"Yes, I know you do, Hun," I say soothingly. "And that's why I got really worried when you developed an aversion to avocados." Even at the name, her face wrinkles in distaste, but there's also a hint of nervousness too. "You used to love avocados, Sasha. Boasting about how they were so much better than apples, trying to see if you could hit someone on the back of the head with the giant seed."
She grins a little at that, but doesn't comment. "And last night, when I saw you didn't put a drop of guacamole on any of your food, only scrunched up your face and asked for salsa instead…?" I shake my head with a shrug. "What was I supposed to think?" I remove my hand and gesture to her half-filled bowl. "And now you're having these weird cravings and…eating Swamp Snake Soup. Sasha, all of these things are early signs of pregnancy."
I blink. "Huh?" Her head hangs low, but I see her shoulders seize and her body begin to shake. "It's stew *sniff* not soup," she gasps and wipes at her face. My heart clenches painfully at seeing her distress. "I-It smelled good and—and…I was hungry and…"
Her words turn to tears and I instinctively reach for her. "Hun…" I gently take the bowl of stew from her limp hands and put it on the nightstand beside her. I then bring her to me. "C'mere, amore. You know I didn't mean to make you cry, right?"
Her head bobs against my shoulder as her body convulses into heart-wrenching sobs. Our position is a bit awkward, but I hug her as best I can and kiss the tightly braided red tresses.
"Va tutto bene, amore. Tutto sta andando bene. Prometto." (It's okay, Love. Everything's going to be fine. I promise.) Though she's not fluent, I have been teaching Sasha Italian as she was teaching me Portuguese. She once told me that my voice changes pitch when I speak my native tongue and that she loves the soothing vibe it emits. So I hope my merited words reach her in earnest.
Her sniffles had quieted and her breathing wasn't as ragged anymore. "Meglio?" (Better?) I ask and loosen my hold somewhat as she pulls back. Her eyes are red-rimmed from crying, but she's still so beautiful.
"How do you know? The symptoms, I mean?" She asks and I wipe a stray tear away from her cheek with my thumb.
"Well frankly, I had my suspicions that something was off with you, and everybody back home came to me asking if I knew what was wrong with you because they noticed things too. But it was Ayane who flat-out asked me if you were pregnant. And after my initial dumbstruck, we decided to catalogue all of your symptoms and go online to check. There were a number of possibilities, of course, but pregnancy was the only one that lined up all your new behavior patterns."
"But Cole," Her grip on my shoulders tightens and I can see more fear creep onto her face. "I don't have morning sickness and-," Her lips purse angrily and the beginning of another storm brews in her rainy depths, "-my God, I haven't had my period in seven years! I'm on birth control! I don't ovulate regularly! How is it possible?!"
My hands move to frame her face. Her emotions are running rampant again. "I know, Sasha. You told me in Temblor. But birth control isn't infallible, its sole purpose is to regulate your uh…" I falter and fumble with my next words, "y-your uh…"Womanly Days"… and reduce your chances of becoming pregnant. It doesn't eliminate the chance."
She stares at me for a long while, her eyes wide and disbelieving. Then suddenly a dark scowl shadows her face and she jerks herself away from me and rises from the bed. I sit motionless as she gestures wildly at me.
"So that's it! You and the others notice that I've become a little moody and greedy and chalk it off as pregnancy!? Well let me tell you somethin', Adonis!" Her finger pokes my chest hard. "I'm not on just an 'ol birth control! It's top-of-the-line, you hear me?! I was twelve years old when I went to that gynecologist with my momma and even though I was young, my understandin' was pretty damn good! He said as long as I was on this pill, it would be very difficult for me to have children, but when I decided to get off it, it would take my ovaries six months to a year to start producing eggs regularly! Now are you tryin' to say that that man lied to me and my momma!? Or is it because of your giant cock and rock-hard sperm that this is happening?!"
Her breathing is sporadic, causing her ample breasts to rise and fall rapidly. Her voice had grown hoarse from yelling and fresh tears streamed in rivulets down her flushed face. She shakes her head once and takes a few steps back away from me.
She then covers her face with her hands…and weeps.
Sasha has never cried so much and my heart instinctively went out to her. But…her words had caused a throbbing ache within me. I stand up slowly and approach her quivering form.
My hand lifts, but it feels heavy. Too heavy to put on her delicate shoulder, I let it drop. My voice comes, solemn and quiet. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry that…I'm putting you through all this and…" I nearly choke on my next words. "…I'm sorry that…" I swallow thickly, "…that…you regret…giving yourself to me…"
Despair and self-loathing was settling in like a dark cloud, but my anguish is overruled by surprise when Sasha abruptly hurls herself into my arms and we're sent stumbling and falling back onto the bed. We bounce from the sheer momentum and I'm left feeling slightly winded.
Sasha's guilt-stricken face is above me, her legs on either side of me, straddling my hips… We've been in this position many times before. She sniffs and cups my cheek, her touch is warm and I can feel the metallic coldness of her ring.
"Oh Cole… No, you're wrong and I'm sorry I made you think that I regretted our lovemaking. Because I don't, not at all. I gave myself to you because I love you, and I'll continue giving myself to you for the rest of my life and then some. I'm just…" Her eyes close and her frame shakes violently. "I'm just so scared," she confesses and opens her eyes to look despondently into mine. "I don't know if I'm ready for this yet."
The painful throb in my chest instantly dissipates and happy relief floods my body gratefully. She really scared me for a second there. Even though we've only made love a couple of times, words can't describe how much I relished in each moment. It's like I developed eidetic memory just for the times Sasha and I engaged in intercourse, and more often than not, I sometimes find myself escaping to those precious memories. They were more than just physical acts of pleasure; they symbolized the mutuality of our love for each other. And if she really had regretted our time together, I know I would've been left completely devastated and heartbroken.
Smiling, I carefully sit up and lean back on my elbows. "I'm really glad you feel that way, Sasha. And remember, this is all just speculation here. We won't know for sure if you're pregnant until you've…ya'know, tested."
She nods silently and wipes her face again. She looks so drained and weary… I sit up straighter and wound my arms around her body. I rest my brow against hers and hold her gaze. "Hey, I'll tell ya something else I noticed…" My smile widens. "Your maternal instincts are really kicking in. I've seen the way you handle Dominique. I'd say you'd rival even the great Ayane."
"Oh please…" she chuckles, her stormy depths glittering with gratitude. "If anyone's ready to be a mother, it's her and…Dominique's not a baby. She's just small and delicate. Who wouldn't want to protect her?"
"Maybe," I whisper, my hands smoothing over the soft fabric of her coat. "But I'm just saying that you have it in you. You'd be a wonderful mother, Sasha."
Her caramel cheeks lift a bit. "Maybe," she repeats me. "But what about you, Cole? Aren't you scared too?"
I reply without hesitation. "No, I'm not. Sasha, we both want kids and if they come sooner than expected then that's fine. It won't hinder me from supporting and taking care of you. As convenient as it would be if everything was planned out in advance, life doesn't work that way. But I know some things will happen for sure, without a doubt." My gaze hardens in resolution. "You are going to be my wife and you are the only woman I'll allow to be the mother of my children."
"Cole…" She stares at me dumbstruck, her eyes filling with more tears. But before they get a chance to fall, I press my lips gently against hers, effectively sealing my promise and dedication.
Her lips are salty from her previous cry, but are still so intoxicatingly moist and soft. I try to keep the kiss innocent, though it becomes increasingly difficult when she presses more firmly against me. Yet, to my surprise and albeit chagrin, she pulls back. My discontent is short-lived, however, when I see a lovely smile to match her blushing cheeks.
"You sound like you really want this…" she whispers breathlessly, but a flicker of worry touches her face, "…but, what if I'm not? How would you feel?"
I frown in quick thought. "I'd be lying if I said, I wouldn't be disappointed. Contrary to what Jay says, I'm not made of stone." I smile fondly at her quiet giggle. "But since I'm confident it will happen in the future, I'll simply hang on to that and move on."
She lowers her head and turns away. "You're so strong…" she mumbles. I'm not sure if I was meant to hear that or not, but before I could question her words, she swivels her head upright and faces me. "Nya has a few home pregnancy tests stashed away for emergencies. So when we get back, I'll…I'll use one."
My heart flutters in anticipation. "Okay," I exhale with obvious delight and she smiles somewhat shyly in return. My eyes widen, though, as I get a sudden epiphany. "Or, there is a general store right across the street. I could go and get one for you now?"
She shakes her head. "No, I think we've already proven to be too negligent in our duties for one day, don't you?"
My brow knits in confusion at her culpable expression. "Cole…the mission?"
Oh, shit! I hurriedly bring my arm back and glance down at my watch. 11:17. Thirteen minutes until the daily departure of the caravan. I turn back towards the window. The outside world is brightening with grey, dispelling the black and welcoming the rays of sunlight. I can now see the barn in greater detail…and the clutter of people in front of it. Montgomery must be out there. They're getting ready.
A small moan from Sasha has me turning back to her, her face contorted into a pained grimace.
"Sasha?" She places a hand on her head.
"I'm really sorry, Cole, but I've got to lie down. My head is pounding…must be from all the crying… I'm sorry."
"No, no don't worry about it. Here…" I reposition myself so that I can help make her more comfortable as she stretches out on the bed, her head nestles snuggly on the pillows. "Relax and rest up. We're not going anywhere right now."
She sends me a small tired smile and closes her eyes, though her brow is still puckered in discomfort. I place a chaste kiss to her cheek and roll off the bed and onto my feet, moving to stand at the foot. I make quick work of unzipping her high-heeled boots and sliding them off, at the same time, keeping an eye on the growing activity outside.
Once I set the boots on the ground, I amble to the window. I easily pick out Montgomery, his gruff appearance and gestures seeming out of place amongst the more pleasant mannerisms of the other men.
"Grumpy old terd…" I fork out my PMS from my coat pocket, ready to text Zane, when I see that I already have one from him. I read the message carefully.
(Jay and Nya finished the amplifier and gave it to me for installation at 9:17 A.M. As a safety measure, Jay came up with the notion to install the same hardware and acoustic of the sacred flute melody to the Bounty's computer system just in case your order of convergence was given. He and Nya had begun executing this plan right before Ayane and I left at 9:33 A.M. As it stands, we are now in position in the southeastern forest awaiting the approach of the caravan.)
I look at the time the message was sent…over an hour ago, at 10:17. I sigh shamefully and finally text my reply to him.
(Understood, and remind me to praise Jay for his wit later. Sorry for the late reply, I got very distracted with something important. Anyway, the caravan is getting ready to pull-out now and as you know, the black showers have ended. Keep your guard up though and keep communications open.)
I scan my message once before hitting the "send" button and tuck my phone back into my pocket. I take one last glimpse at the scurrying men outside the window then make my way back towards the bed. I'm relieved to see Sasha is wearing a more serene expression and I settle down noiselessly on the other side of her.
I take her hand in mine and watch her sleeping form, once again losing myself and letting the prospect of her possible condition become the forefront of my mentality.
I squeeze her hand tenderly. "First and foremost, you'll have me, Sasha. But you know what they say: "It takes a village to raise a child." And I'm sure everybody at home would be more than happy to be our little village."
I know it's improbable for us all to stay together forever. Sooner or later, we'll all have to strike out on our own and live our own lives with our chosen partners. But until that time comes, I will cherish the fact that my Ninja brothers and Kunoichi sisters are here with us and that for now and hopefully forever, we will be not only a respectable clan, but most importantly, a close-knit family.