Chapter Twenty Eight
It was two whole days before the hospital would release me, and let me tell you what a relief it is to be in a warm bubble bath, in your own tub, in your own home. It turned out, the brain damage was minimal – yes, that sounds like a bad thing. But as precious Dr. Mills explained, we suffer a some brain damage every single day. Some more than others…
As I rested in my tub with papaya conditioner in my hair, there was a knock at the door. I’d forgotten to lock it, so Sarah and Cat decided to rush right in.
“I’m fine!” I told them. “One bump on the head, seriously…”
“We just wanted to show you something…” Sarah sang. Her eyes were clear and bright for the first time in years, and she was even starting to put on a few pounds since she’d sworn off drugs and dancing. She’d also accepted my offer to help with culinary school - that is if dear old Dad would reinstate my allowance.
Which he did. And it didn’t take a lot of convincing, either. The only stipulation was that I keep working a job – any job.
“What?” I asked, sliding farther under the bubbles. “What’s so important that it couldn’t wait?”
Cat left and returned with a basket of wild-flowers so huge it obscured any view of her head. “Guess who sent them?” she asked on a giggle.
“Oh gee…” I rolled my eyes and pretended not to have a clue. “Marcus?”
They both laughed.
Cat set the flowers on the toilette where I could reach for the tiny card attached. “What’s it say?” she asked, practically jumping up and down.
To my favorite healer of all time. I miss you like crazy. –Smith
Mason had taken me home from the hospital and stayed for a week to make sure I was taken care of. Now that he was back at his own apartment, I was getting flowers every other day, and Sarah and Cat were missing him almost as much as I was.
I handed them the card with a sigh. “Okay, now get out. I need to get ready.”
“Actually, we both need to get ready,” Sarah corrected. “Greg’s coming along, too.”
After Mason had promised nothing fancy, I’d agreed to go out with him - on our first official date. So, Sarah went to her room, and I dried my hair. By the time the guys were knocking on our door, we were ready.
“Hey.” I smiled shyly when they entered.
Even though he’d seen the worst of me, that didn’t deter him from pulling me into a long hug. “I missed you.”
“Are you ready?” Mason was wearing a long wool coat over dark jeans and a black sweatshirt. The hood was visible above the collar of the jacket, and none of it was clue enough as to where we were headed.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he teased. We escaped the apartment to the sound of Cat telling us not to be home early. Outside, the cold was blistering as we walked two blocks to a coffee shop I had somehow never noticed before. Mason opened the door for me. “After you.”
Sarah was giving me a knowing look as she and Greg swept passed us on their way to a table in the back.
“Coffee?” I asked Mason.
The room was washed in a soft, orange glow from several old-fashioned table lamps. The furniture was quaint, if not new. Several wooden tables were scratched up and surrounded by mismatched chairs that had at one time been painted a version of blue or green. Behind the counter, two girls were wearing their street clothes – no uniforms – and frothing milk while laughing about some unknown joke. Everyone else in the café was busy staring at their laptops until Mason locked the door behind us and turned the open sign to closed.
“Hey guys, I want you to meet someone.”
Suddenly self-conscious about so many assessing eyes, I looked down at my boots and took a deep, steadying breath. “What are we doing here?” I whispered to Mason.
He chuckled and took my hand. “You’ll see.” To the rest, he said, “This is Laura, AKA Heals.”
A few people snickered. There was a chorus of hellos. If I was confused at entering a closed coffee shop, I was more-so at having several strangers recognize my gaming moniker.
But I waved, nonetheless, before asking a second time, “Seriously, what are we doing here?”
Mason stepped behind me and took me by the shoulders as he pointed out each person in turn. “Well, you know Greg and Sarah, That’s Monika and her boyfriend Samuel. Jen and Barb are making drinks. They own the café - they let us meet here sometimes.”
“For what?” I turned partway around, glanced up at Mason.
“You know you’re on an east coast realm, right?”
“Basically, most of the people you’ve been running with live here in New York.” He waited for me to register understanding. “I found a couple of them. That’s Zekari…”
Zekari stood from his table and offered a hand to shake. I took it, mesmerized. “The hunter?”
His hazel eyes warmed with a laugh. “Some days. It’s good to finally meet you.” He offered me one aristocratic hand to shake.
I took it, mesmerized by the silver in his short, dark hair. He was thirty, or maybe forty in fantastic shape. “Ditto,” I offered, sounding like I was fourteen.
“Martin and Cashe,” he waved toward a couple fighting in the corner. He was very dark skinned and probably seven feet tall, and she wasn’t much shorter. They paused for long enough to wave back.
“And that’s Fire back there.” Mason pointed out the little, balding man sitting near the restrooms. He waved and grinned the biggest smile I’d ever seen on such a small face.
I grinned back, realizing how right I’d been about his appearance. He did look exactly like a gnome. “And the rest?”
“And the rest are friends of mine,” Mason answered.
I followed him to a table where two matching laptops waited.
“For you,” he said.
“A new laptop?”
He winked. “I figured, given our circumstances, that a LAN party would be the perfect first date.”
And he was right.
We played for hours. Joking and laughing, sharing stories and making fun of each other, drinking lattes and listening to music. Greg patiently showed Sarah how to run her level one character around while the rest of us did higher level content. She squealed whenever she made a few copper or found herself a new piece of gear.
By the time we were packing up and heading home, Mason and I let Sarah and Greg walk ahead.
He took my hand. “How was it?”
“It was great,” I told him, enjoying the warmth of his skin against mine. Never ending traffic passed in a blur of noise. Streetlights illuminated the first flakes of a wistful snowfall.
“Hey, how were you planning on getting that money from your dad,” he asked.
“Why? Do you need a million dollars?”
He laughed. “You said you had a plan. What was your plan?”
I took a deep breath. “To make him a deal.”
“What kind of deal?” he asked, suspicious.
“Basically, I was planning to tell him the money was for a house... In California...” I answered slowly. “Where I would be close enough to work for him.”
A silence followed.
“You were planning to leave?” Mason sounded hurt.
“I didn’t want to,” I told him. “But I would have - if it meant keeping you all alive.”
He didn’t say anything for several steps. We paused under the red glow of a street light. I looked up at him, the frigid air stinging my eyes.
“What would you have done if I’d left?” I asked. Not testing him, just curious.
Mason grinned. “Follow you?”
“Seriously?” I asked, punching his arm. “I am not a stalker.”
He laughed. Then sobered quickly. “There are lots of jobs down there.”
“And lots of apartments, and lots of grocery stores,” he added.
My stomach did a little flip as he stepped closer.
“We could find a place with a yard and go shopping on Saturdays,” he whispered.
“Would you buy me apricots?” I asked.
His look told me he was serious - we could make a life together.
“Thank you,” I told him.
Standing on my toes, I leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. “For being my warrior.”
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