“This is your stop, miss.” The driver woke me gently, which I was extremely grateful for. I hadn’t gotten much sleep lately since leaving the Northlands. My body was struggling to get used to the heat of the south, which meant I spent most nights less than comfortable. Blinking my eyes, the foggy haze of sleep began to clear. I straightened in my chair and rolled my shoulders, enjoying the popping in my joints. The bus driver had his hand out to mine and I noticed immediately his kind face. My hand found his, and he lifted me to my feet.
“Thanks.” I tried to smile at him but I couldn’t make it feel genuine. I longed for home and my old pack. A small yip came from the seat beside me as my companion awoke, I opened my arms to her and the small fennec fox launched herself into the warmth of my embrace. “Good morning Ayana.” I murmured to her, my nose finding the little hollow between her eyes as we nuzzled. The driver looked at me quizzically, his gaze full of wonder.
“That’s a very cute familiar you have.” He told me, reaching his hand out cautiously to allow her to smell him. I watched as she strained forward to lick his fingers, a smile lighting up his face. “She’ll love the weather we have here, it’s so much warmer than the north.” I let myself nod at him, agreeing. The driver moved to help me get my bags out from the overhead compartment and I slid a few bills into his hand.
Stepping off the bus I was met by a cold brush of wind. The familiarity of it touched my heart, and I lifted my hand to my throat and inhaled the clean, crisp air of night. Exiled. The word slipped into my mind, it’s tone taunting. I would never be welcomed as a Northlander again. My eyes closed, and I tried to imagine I was back home. The cold evaporated from my body almost as quickly as it came on, and I was bathed in the warm humidity that came naturally to this part of the province. Ayana wormed herself under my jacket, where I knew she’d promptly fall asleep. Loneliness overtook me and suddenly really wanted a stiff drink.
“Hey there,” A pedestrian was stumbling down the sidewalk towards me. He was short and pudgy, wearing clothes that were outdated and reeked of liquor. I waited for him to reach me, and asked him a question I knew he’d know the answer to. “Where’s the nearest bar?” A wide lopsided grin crossed his face and he opened his arm to me to place around my shoulder.
“Well sweetheart, how about I take you there and we can get a couple drinks?” Tears welled in my eyes as he opened his mouth to speak, and I blinked away the acid that was his breath. I struggled to draw my gaze from the rot on his teeth. Holy Shit. Gross. The tension was coming off my body in waves, and I knew he could feel it. Ayana popped her nose out from the top of my jacket at the stranger’s approach and quickly hurried back down. Poor girl, her sense of smell was just as strong as mine. I tried to smoothly bring myself out from under his arm but he simply squeezed me tighter in what I thought was supposed to be a reassuring gesture. “Relaaaaax.” He laughed and began to tow me along while I tried to keep pace with his stumbling gait. I’ll get rid of him when we get to the bar. I vowed.
“Whell baby.. itsh like thiss..” The man- I found out later his name was Stark -was so hammered he didn’t take notice of my not-so-subtle attempts to get away from him. I’d been here for an hour with the dumbass and he’d failed to take a single hint. My patience was quickly waning, and the next time he tried to cop a feel I was going to take off his hand. Unfortunately, the last thing I wanted in my new home was a bad reputation, so I tried to keep an even head. This will never be your home. The voice inside my head taunted once again. My hand- which was set upon the sleeping fox on my lap -then lifted to run through my hair, as if I could physically brush away the agitation that was pooling in my head.
“Hey there, dear. Sorry I’m late.” I felt a pair of lips on my cheek and spun, furious. Was this whole fucking town full of creeps? My assaulter threw me a wink and a subtle nod towards the poor drunk sob beside me and my anger dissipated into understanding. “Hey bud, thanks for keeping my spot warm.” He lay his arm across the back of Stark’s chair and waited. Fury raged in the drunken man’s eyes, though to his credit he did manage to contain it. With an unintelligible mumble, he stood up, pushing the chair aside roughly and stalking out the door.
“Sir, you haven’t paid your tab!!” The waitress called after him, an unmixed drink in her hand. She slammed it down onto the bar and rubbed her forehead anxiously. “That’s the last time I’m letting him into my bar.” I smiled sadly at her.
“I got it, Ana.” My savior told her gently. He reached for his wallet and placed several bills onto the bar. “I’ll go after poor Stark for it later.”
“You’re a lifesaver. This one’s on me” The woman told him, sliding a tumbler of whiskey in front of him as he took a seat beside me. He smiled wordlessly in response. We were quiet for a moment as we watched Ana work.
“Thank you, I owe you a couple drinks for that.” I meant it. I don’t know where I’d be if this guy hadn’t shown up but I imagined it would be somewhere near a jail cell.
“No worries. Stark’s pretty well known around here. He doesn’t have a chance with any of our women so he keeps a close eye on the newcomers.” He smoothly upended his drink and placed it on the counter, beckoning over the bartender for another. “What do you drink? Margarita? Light-beer?” His eyes twinkled playfully.
I caught Ana’s eye and smiled. I intertwined my hands on top of the bar and leaned forward slightly in my seat.
“Two shots of tequila gold and a Gibbson’s and coke, please. Neat, no fruit.”
I noticed him watching me from the corner of my eye.
“My name is Trey.” He offered.
The bartender placed the shots in front of us and we downed them graciously. I let out a contented sigh and Trey grimaced through the burn. I sat back in my seat and leaned back my head, my eyes closing as I felt the swell of heat move down my body. Man, alcohol is good.
“You handled that well.” Trey complimented. I lolled my head towards him and opened my eyes sleepily. I had to admit, he was kind of handsome. I admired the gently chiseled structure of his face and spiked up hair. He caught me looking and smiled, his sky blue eyes lighting up mischievously. I looked away and spun my drink in my hand as a flush of heat rose to my face.
“I’m from the Northlands,” I admitted with a hiccup-y laugh. “We’re raised on vodka for the first half of our lives and whiskey for the rest. At this point, I’m pretty sure I could outdrink anyone.”
“Oh, you’re on.” I saw the challenge in his eyes and raised my brow. Together we lifted our hands to beckon to Ana.
He outdrank me by two shots and half a highball.