Fire. Water. Burn.
In the two months since the All Hallows’ Eve party, Tally has courted Haru, buying expensive gifts, taking the two of them to upscale restaurants and trying to find a balance in earning Haru’s fragile trust while being new parents to the Cohen joeys. Tally sees hope in the new domesticity the family has settled into, despite having some bumps along the way.
Gifts and treats have satisfied Haru’s otter, but the human half remembers the brutal lessons of giving their trust away. How can two lijun who barely know each other anticipate what will happen when times get tough? There are circumstances Tally doesn’t understand yet, and Haru struggles to find their feet with an Urusar who doesn’t know the rules.
A revelation not only throws the tentative relationship between them askew, but also starts Tally and Haru down a path the two of them can’t escape, one so heart-wrenching Haru’s not sure their heart will survive.
Traditionalist concerns that have always nipped at the Bastille clan’s heels come roaring to the forefront with demands and ultimatums. Tally needs to fall in line or face further threats to his otter, his family and his clan. Haru needs to find the strength to believe in the good despite the bad. In an environment where it’s vital to know ally from foe, Tally and Haru need to stand united or watch the community Tally’s family has built fall under the thumb of heartless, greedy autocrats.
- 1 To Be Read list
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Publisher: Pride Publishing
There was a tug on Haru’s yukata.
Two adorable pairs of brown eyes gazed up at them. Livy and Jackson leaned against their legs, the children’s chubby little arms wrapping around and hanging on tight. If the joeys weren’t about to make them all fall over, Haru would’ve found the pleading adorable. The little cannonballs were going to break their neck if the kids kept hitting them at full speed, though. Haru stumbled, but managed to brace a hand against the wall to steady themself.
“Uppie?” they asked.READ MORE
Livy’s lower lip came out in full-on pout mode. Then Jackson’s eyes went big and wide. The children were perfecting the art of manipulation under the guise of innocence. Haru felt pride and slight panic at how easily the joeys’ little expressions of woe could sway them. When Livy’s eyes watered up, Haru knew they’d been outflanked and outmaneuvered. They sighed, and two nearly identical squeals of triumph split the air at surprising decibels as Haru lifted their pups up.
“What trouble are you getting into?” they asked.
Jackson sniffled. “Nothin’.”
“Uh-huh. I thought you were supposed to be with Lahi and Mindy?”
“They hafta get Amelia unstuck.”
“Unstuck?” Haru paused their descent back downstairs and gave their pups a once-over. Livy and Jackson smiled openly, eyes wide, little fingers holding onto the front of their yukata with ease. Those expressions were not so innocent. They looked angelic, seemed perfectly cute and disarming, unless one looked closer. Livy and Jackson were hiding something. The pups were trying to distract them.
What had Lahi done?
Haru closed their eyes, took a deep, settling breath in then let it out. They’d thought if Mindy were helping to supervise the pups, fewer hijinks would occur. Apparently, Haru had been wrong. They leveled a patient but perturbed expression on their pups.
“What did your aunt do?”
Jackson rubbed his black curls against Haru’s shoulder but didn’t answer. Livy settled her long, dark brown tresses against their chest and started petting their yukata. Gods, exactly how ‘stuck’ was Amelia? Where was she stuck? Or, rather, what was she stuck in? The past couple months had proved Melia could fit into almost anything she set her heart on, unless she couldn’t.
Those two sets of adorable brown eyes lifted to Haru’s gaze.
“My loving pups.”
“Yes, Uma?” Livy replied softly.
“Where are your sister and Aunt Lahi?”
“On the roof. Kinda.”
Of course they were.
“Melia’s in the drainpipe.”
Of course she was.
Jackson piped up. “Aunt Lahi thought she heard a pixie. She couldn’t fit so she sent Melia in.”
Of course. “Was there a pixie?”
“It’s Jasper, but he’s not stuck,” Jackson replied with gusto. So certain. “But he can’t get out.”
Oh no. Ever since Kaho-chan had chomped on their little friend, Amelia had gotten bitey with him too. “Is he screaming?”
Livy and Jackson shook their heads in unison. Bad sign. Completely and utterly horrible sign.
When they found Lahi and Mindy, the two wayward babysitters were on the roof by one of the chimneys. It made sense. Lots of the pixies hibernated by them because of the heat. Nests dotted the roof everywhere. More than one sleepy-eyed pixie watched their group as Haru tried to contain their annoyance. They had one obviously distressed opossum squeaking frantically and a crying pixie whose wails reverberated up and down and through the gutters.
“Why would you send a three-and-a-half-year-old down a drainpipe?”
Lahi shrugged. “She fit.”
“Melia also likes to chomp on pixies right now.”
“She promised she wouldn’t.” Lahi frowned, then glanced down the pipe. “I couldn’t just leave him in there.”
“No, I know.”
“I really thought it was a quick drop in, pull out.”
Haru glanced over at Mindy, who waved her hands frantically. Lahi? Was a reasonable adult with periodic bad ideas. Mindy? Responsible to the core. Or she had been. They’d really expected better from her.
“I went inside to get some blankets,” she said. “I thought Jasper would need some warming up once Lahi got him out.”
No wonder. Also explained the wet blankets tossed into the hall through the window. Poor Mindy actually looked positively green around the edges. The pinched lines around her mouth only made her peregrine-type features more noticeable. The way her eyes focused on the pipe, how her head turned as she listened to the noises Amelia and Jasper made. Ten bucks said a part of her wanted to hunt the distressed pixie. The hawk part.
“Do we know how Jasper got stuck?” Haru asked slowly, working hard not to yell. They pictured the nice prawns Tally had flown in special for them.
“The pixies sometimes use the gutters and downspouts as quick transports to stay out of the wind. Probably got his wing caught.”
The sobs got louder, followed by some chirp-humming. Impressed that their little girl had learned how to make the noises, Haru almost wasn’t mad at the ridiculousness of the situation. Almost. The fury they’d felt climbing onto the roof had lessened, though. Scary how hearing one of their pups chitter made them calm down.
“It’s okay, Jasper,” Lahi called down the pipe. Several pixies crowded around the opening too. “We’ll get you out.” Then under her breath said, “Somehow. Amelia! Little girl, be gentle with him.”
A chirp reverberated up the pipe.
All of them, lijun and pixies alike, were staring down the pipe discussing options when Tally showed up. Their Argaze slide a hand slid around Haru’s waist before pulling them back against his chest. Tally didn’t yell, or curse. In fact, he seemed all too calm about the situation to Haru.
“How can you not be upset?” they whispered.
“Do you know how many times I or one of my siblings got stuck in these pipes?”
Haru stared. Blinked. Then blinked again.
“Melia and Jasper will be fine.”
“You are not serious, about the pipes?”
“Completely. Mom and Dad decided to install a different kind of downspout because frantic kid serpents stuck in drainpipes can get a little harrowing. Lahi’s just never had to do this since she’s almost the youngest.” Tally let go of Haru and bent to pick up the stepladder he’d apparently dragged up without Haru noticing. Joey and pixie noises covered up a lot of sound. “Just give me a minute or two here.”
With one hand, Tally lowered the stepladder so its bottom feet rested on the roof of the front porch below. His long black braid swung free on his back as he eased over the edge of the second-floor roof onto the ladder and pressed his ear to the downspout. Some of the pixies flitted about his head, offering high-pitched advice and instructions.
“Shh. I have to listen. Hush now.” Tally moved his head down, knocked on the pipe and nodded to himself. The cold reddened his long fingers. Silly snake, out without his gloves. “Haru, are you watching? Just in case you need to do this at some point?”
Still flummoxed, Haru edged over to where they could observe Tally’s hands. “Yes. But what are you doing? Do not drop Melia.”
Tally shot them a grin and began to unscrew a bolt on the downspout near his knees. As the bolt loosened, Haru was able to discern the band of metal it had been holding, then the line of separation where one corrugated piece of downspout ended and another started.
Oh. It comes apart.
Tongue caught between his teeth, Tally pulled up on the top section, slowly easing it out of the joining section underneath. He moved quickly when the section came loose to put his hand beneath, then nodded to the pixies.
“Go on. See if you can get Jasper.”
Two of them, one green, one orange, zipped up the pipe and Tally winced when the sobbing became a shriek. But whatever had been caught was now un-caught. Jasper thunked into Tally’s hand and was immediately retrieved by a mob of pixies. One, at least, had to help keep him upright. Jasper did look like he’d been mouthed some.
Tally leaned to call up the pipe. “Melia! Do you see the light? Can you slide toward it? Usar will catch you.”
With a squeak and something that sounded like the opossum version of wheeee, Amelia slid free and smacked into Tally’s waiting grasp. He scooped their girl against his chest, scolding her quietly for chomping Jasper. She sneezed then climbed his sweater to sit on his shoulders.
“Not going to admit you tasted him, are you?”
Amelia sneezed again.
“Didn’t taste good, did he?”
Amelia squeaked, essentially affirming Tally’s tongue-in-cheek remark.
Jasper blew a raspberry toward her but just huffed as the pixie mob ushered him to the roof. Tally screwed the pipe back together then climbed up, pulling the ladder up after him. He winked at Haru, who was scowling at their Argaze.
“Lahi just let me panic.”
Speaking of the devil… She and Mindy had mysteriously disappeared with the other pups.
“A little bit, yeah.”
“Still, she should not have sent Melia after into the downspout after Jasper.”
“We’ve done worse to each other as siblings. Lahi was just trying to help.” Tally shrugged. “Frozen pixies are not fun to find in the spring.”
Haru’s stomach turned violently, but then they saw the slight upturned smile Tally wore. “Not funny.”
“It’s a little funny.”
“They could seriously get hurt in those pipes,” Haru insisted, not understanding why Tally was grinning. They shuddered. “Please tell me we will not find frozen pixies in the gutters.”
“No frozen pixies. Promise.”
Several of the pixies flitted around Haru, giving them pats, offering up reassurances that while pixies sometimes got caught in the gutters, the little devils were always found—just like their teary-eyed friend. Whom himself needed a thorough inspection. Luckily there wasn’t much damage. More pride than anything else. Jasper’s right wing was crinkled and listed to one side. While the words helped, Haru still had visions of pixie-icicles floating around in their head. Then the reassuring pats from the pixies turned into stroking their hair. Haru knew in a minute or two they’d be down a few strands if the ‘comforting’ continued.
“Let us get off this roof before we break something else,” they said. Haru cupped Jasper, explaining to the pixie mob, “I want to have his wing checked. You go back to bed.”
The mob’s gaze volleyed between Haru’s head and Jasper, the pixies flitting and weaving between them and Tally.
“Go on, get snuggled up in your nests. The temperature is supposed to drop tonight.”
The pixies darted past, Haru and Tally both yelping as the little sneaks stole strands of hair. They really should not have mentioned the weather. Haru rubbed the back of their head then glanced over at Tally, who was chastising the pixies for not asking. Melia stood on her back paws, holding onto his head with her forepaws, squeaking right alongside him.
Haru shook their head. What a picture those two made. In fact, Haru pulled out their phone and snapped one. The pair was just too adorable for words—Usar and pup chewing out the pixies in the middle of a roof on a cold December afternoon.
Life had certainly gotten weird, but a fun weird, since moving to America and putting the murders behind them. It was sailing along smoothly. Almost too smoothly.
“Are you in geta?” Tally suddenly asked.
“Are you climbing around the roof in geta?”
Haru glanced down then back up. What else would they wear with a yukata? “Yes? I needed something for my feet.”
Tally’s normal robust russet coloring yellowed. It almost looked like he was going to shout, but instead Tally moved next to Haru and placed a hand on their lower back. It was big, warm and insistent until they climbed back through the window. The ladder came in after Haru, followed by Tally and a smug-looking Amelia.
Could opossums look smug? Yes, it was the smile. Opossums definitely had some kind of smile. Amelia sneeze-chirped, tugging on Tally’s hair until he reached up then plopped her on the ground. She took off like a shot down the hall, stopping when Jasper called out.
Amelia scurried back and Haru leaned over, holding Jasper out toward her.
“No. Eating. Pixies,” they reminded her.
Jasper leaned over and gave their little girl a one-armed hug. He thanked her, then screeched when she licked him. Haru muffled a laugh, because Jasper should’ve seen that one coming. Amelia turned tail, running off again, most likely in search of her siblings.
“Go straight to Lahi and Mindy!” Haru called after her. “Please! You should have a bath!”
“She’s fine,” Tally assured him. “Normal kid stuff.”
Haru studied their Argaze.
“Normal lijun kid stuff.”
“You Americans have a weird definition of normal.”
Tally pulled Haru close, holding them. A kiss was pressed against their temple. Perfect moments like this one made Haru afraid, so afraid of losing everything. Tally chuckled. “Tell me you never got into trouble as a kid.”
“Shush, that is different.”
“Mmm-hmmm.” Tally kissed their temple again.
“It never involved pipes and downspouts and pixies.”
“Mmmm-hmmm.” Tally kissed their cheek, right next to their mouth.
Haru turned, because if Tally was going to kiss them, he should do it properly. Was there a reason he wasn’t? Had their Argaze found out? Haru assessed Tally’s expression nervously. No, he couldn’t have. But they were running out of time to tell him. Problem was, Haru wasn’t sure how Tally would take the news. It was…complicated. They licked their tongue over their lips, hoping to entice their Argaze into something. Instead, Tally swiped a thumb under their lips. Haru frowned, angling their mouth closer. Tally chuckled and gave them a chaste peck.
“Don’t want to mess up your lipstick,” Tally said by way of explanation when Haru scowled at him. “Or upset pixies.”
“You can mess it up.” Haru covered Jasper’s eyes and cocked their head back.
“Weren’t you getting ready?”
“When you left my office you were headed upstairs to change.” Tally chuckled as he took a step back, his heat leaving Haru. “For the party.”
“Party, what—oh, my Gods. The Winter’s New Year Ball! I am never going to be presentable in time.” Haru turned tail and bolted for their suite, Jasper’s protests in hand—literally—and Tally’s throaty laughter following them down the hall.