Fat flakes of snow swirled in the milky teacup of the sky as The Dedsled slid to a halt. The steady chug-chug of the engine had changed in the last hundred miles to a whoosh-whoosh and Tink had a serious furrow in her brow as she marched with tools in hand to the massive twin engines. The outskirts of Hayven were blanketed in cold and ice, glinting white-washed in the sinking sun. A different sort of desert, this. Rajah thought as she sank her soft split-toed shoes into the heavy wet snow.
It was impossible to travel in The Dedsled and not attract attention. Already lights were flaring across the field and along the treeline, drawn to the plume of black exhaust rising into the snowfall sky and the roar of the powerful center stroke motors. The Vegasian turned her steps along the length of the caravan, trailing one gloved hand across the steel and chrome as she walked. Slight gap as The Dedsled ended and the headlight of the Rosie bumped into her hand. Winched behind, the rebuilt pickup still shone bright red beneath the smattering of snowflakes accumulating on her hood.
“Looking good, old girl.” Rajah released the catch on the winch. “Now let’s get you free and find someplace warm.”
The Rosie’s pale cones of light illuminated the road as she wound her way inward towards the settlement. The snow was coming down much harder now, covering zed and travelers alike and transforming each into unrecognizable lumbering dark shapes silhouetted against the opaque wall of snowfall.
“Clear the road!” Rajah stuck her head out the window and tapped the horn. A few shamblers turned towards the noise and she gunned around them. Another shape stepped into the middle of the road and paused. Zed? She peered through the windshield and waited for the wipers to clear the glass. It was staring at her, bundled in cloth and scarves. Rover? She squinted as it moved its arm to its chest, shaking gloved fingers in handsign. Shadowed against its body, the red glow seeped out more clearly.
She flung open the door to the cab, jumped down. //Ynk?// her fingers tapped her chin.
//Hey Rajah-snake.// came the answering sign, the scarf around his face sliding down to reveal a grin. //Can I hitch a ride?//
The rest stop consisted of a half dozen caravans and a lot of complaining, full of travelers and merchants inconvenienced by the shutting down of the roads. Rajah backed the Rosie under a low-hanging willow and set the brake.
“Grab the blankets from the back, we can sleep in the cab.” There was a roaring fire in the center of the rest stop and she marched resolutely towards it with their kettle. Ynk watched her pace around the ring of stones while he pulled his loose leaf tea from his pack. She seemed agitated – twitching her leopard print blanket about her shoulders fitfully and glancing at the other travelers suspiciously.
He laid out the red teacups carefully. The one with the broken handle for her, the chipped one for him. Two spoons of sugar. Extra cream. Steeped liquid hissed into the cold ceramic.
Traditions were important.
He watched as the steam rose from the rim of the cups. She was bustling about their campsite now, pulling patchwork curtains into place. Counting out their food supplies. Rerolling a pile of bandages.
The steam was no longer rising. He pressed his fingers to the side of his cup, felt it cooling, and still she did not sit.
//Rajah.// she wasn’t looking at him.
//Rajah.// she paused looking down at the ground.
“Rajah.” she turned towards him slowly now at his call, reluctantly.
“Come back.” he beckoned.
She came to him then, tucking her feet up on the tailgate and clutching the teacup in bone white fingers. She seemed ready to strike or slither at any second.
“I fucked up, Ynk.” she whispered into her cup. There was a quiet tap as his cup settled on the metal, then the familiar weight of his arm pressing against her own.
“Being a Deputy Mayor that hard? I thought it was right up your alley.”
His reward was a thin-lipped smile.
“Oh the Lineage League is none too pleased with me, I imagine.” she wrapped her arms around her knees. “I’d tell them my father was a pureblood but I feel it’d just make it worse.” Sharp laughter cut off suddenly when a chunk of ice fell with a thud on the top of the truck. Her teacup slipped from her fingers and Ynk snagged it from the air before it could shatter, lukewarm tea splashing on the ground.
//Sorry.// her hands were shaking.
“Shh…” Teacup placed carefully to the side, he turned back to her, concerned. “What’s got you jumping at shadows?”
Wide-shot stare. “How did you know?”
“Who told you? Do they know up here already? I left as soon as I could.” She slid from the bed of the truck, started gathering up the supplies. “I gotta get out of here.”
“Woah woah… Calm down. Rajah! What’s wrong?” he snagged her wrist, tugged her back towards him. Her breath formed rapid white puffs in the cold air, pulse racing against his fingers. “Talk to me.”
“Shadow.” she gasped.
“Yes, yes. Shadows. We make them. What about it?”
“No. SHADOW. A SHADOW.” her fingers clawed the air trying to say what her words could not, but there were no words in their hand sign for this yet.
“They’re hunting me, Ynk.” her voice was rising higher, more shrill, her eyes darting, dilated, focusing on everything and nothing.
“Who’s they?” He gently shook her by the shoulders, gripping her chin to turn her face towards his. “Raj, who is hunting you?”
“The Sisters, Ynk…” she slumped against him then, her words whispered in his ear.
He woke to strained, struggled breathing. Rolled over to see her clawing at her throat. Her eyes squeezed shut, her skin pallid.
“No, no, no, no.” he peeled her fingers away, looked for crushed windpipe, for blue lips. Frantically checked the pickup cab doors and windows. How had they gotten in? Poison?
“Rajah!” he shook her desperately. “Don’t go. Don’t go. Stay with me.”
Swift inhale, her eyes cracked open. “Ynk?” her breathing calmed and he slumped forward, pressing his forehead to hers, glow reflecting in the sheen of sweat on her brow.
“They were choking me.” came her hoarse, sleepy mumble. “Said they were gonna make me into a disco ball.”
He tucked her against him, stroked her hair long after she’d fallen back asleep, watched his glow fade on her skin as the sky lightened with dawn. He’d wait a little longer, then make two strong cups of tea.
Traditions were important.