A/N: I've been out every night for four days straight and now I'm in bed with food poisoning 😆 So I thought I'd treat myself to a new story. I love starting new stories and I'll do my best to finish it too (and the other ones I have waiting) 😅
I hope you like this one! And I hope you're having a wonderful summer with refreshing drinks in the sunshine ☀️
This is unedited!
"Lou! Front window!"
A tray filled with four bowls - of steaming meat and vegetable stew - pressed into Louis's hands. He shouldered open the door to the front room and carried the bowls to the table.
The tavern was full tonight. Rain was pounding against the shingles on the roof and any late workers had sought refuge in the cozy warmth of the inn.
"You're a saint, Louis!" A slap on his back nearly had the bowls spilling to the floor, but Louis was prepared for it, and he gripped the tray hard.
"My ma's your saint! She wanted me to say this is her best batch yet." He said jovially and placed the bowls on the table, along with a basket of hot bread rolls and a plate of butter.
The men dug into the meal appreciatively and Louis grinned. It was good to see his ma's hard work appreciated.
He swerved past the tables, back into the kitchen and refilled the tray, winking when he placed a bowl in front of Sofia. A sweet-faced girl with large brown eyes and black curls.
She returned his smile and stirred the broth with her spoon. "You working a long shift tonight?"
He wiped his brow with his wrist and tipped his head towards the window. "In this weather, I think it'll be another five hours at least."
"Oh, that's a shame." She dropped the spoon and leaned on her hand, staring up at him through long lashes. "Maybe you could sit and talk to me?"
"Maybe he could do his job and fetch my stew." A hard shoulder knocked into Lou's back and Sofia's older brother, Isaac, sat with a scowl.
He was a few years older than Louis and fiercely protective of his younger sister. If they'd been outside of his ma's tavern, Lou might have returned that shove, but Isaac had a point.
"Aye aye, sir." Louis didn't keep the irony out of his voice and Isaac sent him a dark look.
It was two hours past their regular closing time, when Fiona finally called it a night. The six rooms available were booked and the last patrons finished their ale and left.
Louis cleared the tables, with the three other youngsters his ma had hired that season, and prepared the kitchen for breakfast the next morning.
"Lou, fetch the eggs?" Fiona called, as she scrubbed the counters.
Louis grabbed a basket, and the key above the door, and slipped outside. The temperature was cold enough to sting his cheeks and the rain was still pouring.
The faint light from the tavern illuminated the coop and he froze when he noticed the fence was open and feathers were spread over the ground. His first thought was a fox, but foxes didn't leave boot tracks in the mud.
His pulse quickened and he backed away and aimed for the shed instead, opening the lock and grabbing his pa's rifle off the wall.
He propped the rifle against his shoulder and returned to the coop, stepping past the fence as silently as possible.
He kicked open the door, hoping the bang was loud enough to shock a thief still, and aimed the rifle straight at the perpetrator crouched in the corner.
Terrified green eyes stared up at him from a thin face and Lou's breath caught.
The boy's skin was as red as a poppy flower and his bright green hair looked like it was cut with a knife and no mirror.
His clothes were drenched, and too big for his small frame, and he had a chicken pressed to his mouth. He released the bird instantly and it dropped lifelessly to the ground.
"What the hell you doing?" Louis barked, thoughts racing through his head.
The boy was a Sai-ran. A people that came from the tropical forests down south, but most of them had been chased from their home long ago.
"I...I was hungry." The boy wiped blood off his mouth with a shaking hand and Louis noticed scars on his thin wrists.
Some countries had trapped the Sai-ran as slaves and others had hired them to do the work nobody else was willing to do. They hadn't seen many of them in this part of town and that was probably why his ma had chosen to settle here.
"I'm sorry for the chickens." The boy huddled against the wall and met Louis's gaze above the rifle. His green eyes looked sad and resigned. "I can't pay for them, but I can work. I know how to muck out a stable or wash dishes."
The boy didn't have any noticeable accent and Louis could guess he'd been raised away from his home.
He lowered the rifle and the sadness on the boy's face changed to wariness.
"Can you stand?" Louis asked, a little wary himself.
His parents had been rescued by the Sai-ran during a flood, many years back on one of their travels. His ma had told him they had some strange habits, like drinking the blood of animals, but they were just as decent as the friends she knew back home.
The boy gripped the side of the wall with a fine-boned red hand and stood slowly. He was putting more weight on his right leg, but trying to hide it.
"You hurt your leg?" Louis asked and the boy's lips thinned.
"Hey, it's alright." Louis was beginning to feel low - standing over an injured, hungry run-away with a weapon in his hand. "It's warm inside the inn. We don't have any spare rooms left, but you can stay with me."
The boy's head flew up and Louis actually took a step back at the wild look in his eyes.
"No! I won't go inside with you. I won't lie next to a Ke-pé." He flashed his fangs and they looked ridiculously small, like stunted needles beside the rest of his teeth. But they were still sharp.
Louis had to remind himself that the Sai-ran was nearly a head shorter than him and probably frail as a kitten. But he'd still butchered plenty of their chickens. Lord knows where the rest had gone.
"Nobody's going to hurt you." Louis said, keeping his voice low, as if he was talking to a spooked horse. "But you just ate a bunch of our chickens and I don't trust you near the cows."
The boy's fierceness faltered and he looked uneasily towards the carcasses on the floor.
The door banged open and both of the boys leapt a foot in the air. Fiona stood silhouetted by the rain, with a gun pointed at the Sai-ran, and Louis felt a burst of pride. He hadn't even heard her approach.
The jump had the boy crumpling to the ground with a yelp of pain and Fiona's eyes went wide with shock.
"He was hungry." Louis explained quickly. "His leg's hurting too."
Fiona stared at him and then her eyes cut to the boy on the ground. Her expression tightened and she lowered the gun. Fiona was fierce when she ran her business, but she didn't like to see anyone suffering.
"Yuk-sept." She said and the boy looked up with a small sound of surprise. Fiona spoke a few more sentences in Sai-ran, words guttural and sharp, and the boy's eyes became glassy with tears.
He responded haltingly, stumbling over the words, until he stopped.
"...that's all I know. I'm sorry about your chickens." He whispered thinly and Fiona frowned.
Louis knew it was because her heart was softening further, but to someone who didn't know her she might come off angry.
"What's your name?" She demanded.
The boy hesitated and then his shoulders sagged with defeat. "Holly." He mumbled without offering a last name.
Louis raised his eyebrows. That sounded more like a girl's name.
"I'm Fiona Brown and this is my son, Louis. We're not going to hurt you, Holly. You can stay in Lou's room tonight and we can have a talk in the morning." She said firmly.
Holly's head whipped back up, mouth open and ready to protest, but his words died at the steely look in Fiona's eyes.
"Yes, m'am." He whispered and Louis had to bite back a smile. No one said no to his ma.
"It's too late to look for the chickens now. You can go in the morning." She said to Louis and gestured to Holly. "Help him inside."
Louis handed Fiona the rifle and leaned in to put his arm around the boy. Holly's face was tight with dread and his jacket bunched around his waist. He was even thinner than Lou had originally thought.
He was a little uneasy being so close to them sharp teeth, but Fiona was right behind them, rifle in hand.
Holly limped bad enough that Louis had to adjust his hold and pull the boy's arm around his shoulders. The Sai-ran's skin was so warm, Louis could feel the heat rising from it, even in the icy rain.
Fiona stepped around them and opened the door to slip inside. Louis could hear her bellowing instructions to the staff finishing up and he shuffled Holly up the stairs as quickly, and as quietly, as he could.
He liked to think everyone at the inn was as openminded as him and his ma. But if Fiona wasn't taking any chances, then neither was he.
He had a good sized room with a bed, a small fireplace, a chest of drawers and a closet for his clothes. A colorful rug softened the floor and posters and trinkets from his pa's travels decorated the walls.
Holly stared at the bed with naked fear in his eyes and Lou's heart squeezed.
"Don't worry, this bed's just for you." He lowered Holly carefully to the embroidered quilt.
"And where will you sleep?" Holly whispered and Louis pointed to the rug with a smile.
"Right here. I've done it before when my cousins visit. It's more comfortable than it looks."
Holly looked skeptical a moment and then his head lifted, like a dog catching a scent, and he stared alert at the door. Fiona entered an instant later with a basin in her hands and a basket on her shoulder.
"It's just me." She reassured and Holly's head drooped in relief. "Let's take a look at that leg."
She pulled off Holly's too-large boots, and rolled up his baggy trousers, to reveal a swollen red ankle. Dark marks bruised the skin and Fiona inhaled sharply. "What happened?"
"I stepped in a rabbit trap." Holly muttered, dark green pupils focused on his lap. "It pulled my foot."
Fiona's eyes narrowed in a way that always made Louis elaborate on his story, but Holly's thin mouth was pressed tight.
Fiona eventually lowered her eyes and cleaned the Sai-ran's slender feet and rubbed his ankle gently with a cooling balm. Holly's brow scrunched with pain, but he gripped the quilt and endured in silence.
Fiona bandaged the ankle and left to retrieve two bowls of steaming broth and a basket of leftover bread rolls. The Sai-ran drank blood now and then, but they could also eat just like regular folks.
Holly looked more pained by the offer of food, than he had by the care to his ankle.
"I...thank you. I don't have any money." He stumbled and Fiona cut him off with a sharp gesture.
"I won't hear it! My husband and I were rescued by Sai-ran many years ago and they treated us like family." She said and Holly stared up at her with large eyes. "I'm ashamed of what my people have done. But I hope you know, we're not all like that."
Holly's thin fingers clenched around his bowl and something like fury flashed in his eyes, before his green lashes lowered.
"Yes...alright." The boy said very softly and Fiona cast a troubled look to her son. Louis shrugged and smiled to reassure her, but he was uneasy too. Holly was definitely bothered by something she'd said.
Fiona left to get some sleep and Louis lit the fire to warm the room. The flames crackled soothingly and Holly's shoulders softened.
The boy finished his stew quickly and mopped up the juices left in the bowl with a bread roll. The bowl was spotless when he was finished and he looked hungrily towards the rest of the rolls.
"Go ahead. I'm full." Louis took the bowls down to the kitchen, making sure to check the corridor for any guests looking for a washroom or a late night snack.
He wasn't sure if Sai-ran drank animal blood exclusively, but he brought up two cups of water, just in case.
Holly was watching the door with tight-faced fear when he entered and Louis felt bad for not offering to lock it first. "You want to sleep with the door locked?"
Holly swallowed, eyes flashing between Louis and the door, before he reluctantly nodded. He might be wary of Lou, but the strangers outside worried him more.
Louis turned the key in the lock and placed the cups on the nightstand. He searched through his cupboards for a spare quilt and pulled off his damp shirt.
"Here." He tossed Holly a night shirt and took his time putting on his own, facing the wall to give the Sai-ran privacy.
He listened to the rustle of Holly's clothes and when he finally turned the boy was huddled under the quilt and watching Louis tensely. His wet clothes were hung on the footboard and he hadn't touched his water.
"You're not gonna attack me in my sleep are you?" Louis asked, only half joking.
"No. I won't." Holly answered slowly, red face solemn and serious.
"...alright." Louis didn't think his ma would leave him if she felt an inkling of danger and her instincts were usually right. He hoped this wasn't an exception.
He thought of the tribal dagger his pa had brought him last summer. It was in his bottom drawer and, if he needed to, he could reach it with just a stretch of his arm.
The boys lay quiet for awhile. Both listening to the crackle of the fire and the lash of rain against the window - and it wasn't long before Holly's breaths evened into sleep and Louis turned to watch him.
The boy had pulled the quilt up to his chin and his slender fingers clutched the pillow. His face seemed a little flat, compared to what Louis was used to, and his thin lips were slightly parted. Strange that his fangs were so tiny, compared to the rest of his white teeth.
His nose was small and curved a little towards the tip, his cheekbones were sharp, and his wide-set eyes were shadowed by dark red bruises. The poor guy was exhausted.
Holly's bandaged leg was lying on top of the quilt and it was surprisingly shapely, for such a scrawny frame, with a sensuous curve to his calf. His skin shone like red wine in the warm glow of the fire and Louis felt a familiar interest stir in his lower belly.
He'd been with a few boys before, girls too, and he wondered if Holly would be anything like them.
He quickly turned around and closed his eyes. He shouldn't be ogling an injured person in their sleep. Especially not someone as skittish and frightened as Holly.