Hubal had really been hoping that this was the day he made Lianna smile her absolute biggest smile. At him. However, that hope had been born early in the morning when he’d done something good. Which had now backfired.
“Fire! Fire! Fire!” he shouted, sprinting down the tight street and incredibly thankful that the horrific late night hours of this job meant that he didn’t have to bother with pushing mortals out of the way. “Why did nobody bother to mention that it breathes fire?” He yelled.
Hubal smacked the sleeve of his suit jacket as he went, trying to put out the flames.
Lumbering behind him but still far more nimble than he would have liked was the Chimera. Head of a lion where it’s head was supposed to be, head of a poisonous snake for a tail, and the head of a goat stuffed somewhere in the middle just for fun. Lion. Snake. Poison.Goat.
And apparently fire-breathing.
Thus the running.
Why in the world had he thought dress shoes were a good idea?
Someone came flying out from one of the buildings and tackled him in the side, sending them both straight into a tiny alley. The chimera went skidding by.
Apparently he wasn’t the only one who should have worn his sneakers.
Except, the reason for the dress shoes was currently lying on top of him. A little bit tiny. A little bit warm. And somehow still a blazing inferno of a demi-god.
Officer Lianna Smith.
She smacked him in the head and slid off his back, “This is why you read the briefing.”
“God of divination,” he said, “if I need to know something then I usually do.”
He could practically feel her roll her eyes even if the only thing he could see was her crouched against the corner of the alley, peering back into the street. Brown curls tumbling down her back looking almost black in the dim lighting.
“Plus, I’ve got you,” he added.
She said nothing and he once again found himself wishing that his arrows would just tell him something about her. Anything. Not even magic future-telling god powers from beyond the beginning of time could make this woman make sense.
“Well the Chimera’s gone and your flailing managed to deviate us from the plan enough that I have no idea where she went,” Lianna said.
“Hey now,” he said, straightening his jacket, “I’m the only reason we managed to find her in the first place. And I can do it again.”
She stood, turned, paused until she had his attention, and gave him an eyeroll, “My team is perfectly capable of finding her. We wait.”
“Alright,” he checked the wall of the alley for cleanliness level before leaning against it, “if you want to kill time and stare at my pretty face, I’m all for it.”
She ignored the flirt and went for the insult to her team, “We would have found her just fine without your help. It’s not as though you’re exactly specific.”
“Seeing the future isn’t a science,” he said.
“Oh, I’m aware,” she said, “I remember the ba shé.”
He smiled and said, “The sixty foot elephant eating snake? I should hope you remember it. That one was so cool with the snakes and the eating and the, uh.”
He’d sort of dug himself into a hole there.
“Elephants?” she offered. Lianna was no longer looking up as her hands were busy with the small touchscreen on her wrist but there was a definite smile on her face. Not the big one he was going for. So tiny.
But he’d take it.
“It was so cool.” he repeated, “And in three years, when it comes back for more elephants, we’ll get to do it again.”
“Yeah well, don’t be planning too far ahead,” she said and his heart dropped a little as she continued, “this is a temporary partnership, remember?”
Of course he did. Every time he walked out of the elevator into Mythical Creature Reclamation and everyone stared at him, he remembered. Stared at the god who had no business being in a demi-god only space. He was here as long as he was useful.
As long as Lianna let him stay.
Still, he kept the smile, adjusted his tie, and said, “I’ll woo you with my charm. You won’t know how you ever got on without me.”
She looked up. Eyes roving, wandering over him the same way they did the monsters they spent day after day chasing down. Sometimes, he wondered what she saw when she stared at him like that. He liked this face, a straight nose and sculpted features that reminded him of the statues they’d once elevated in his image all over Arabia.
Until they broke them all down.
But Lianna was the master of the poker face, eyes giving away nothing as they jumped over his features. Maybe seeing beyond the face. He didn’t know. He’d never seen her use her magic, didn’t know who her patron god was, had no idea what power hid behind the badge.
For all knew he could be reading all of his thoughts.
Not that they’d be very surprising. The same thing hitting him in the chest every time.
But nothing on her face said she’d heard him. Instead she took a step forward, hand coming out to press briefly against the charred patch on his sleeve, “Excellent job not getting burned alive.”
“It’s all in the suit,” he said, “cheap fabric would have gone up like I was doused in lighter fluid.”
“Elysium forbid we buy off the shelf,” she said, almost absently, “you’re okay?”
He nodded. Tongue feeling swollen in his mouth.
Her fingers played with the black spot.
Standing so close.
She smelled like fresh paper and something flowery and a little bit of gunpowder. His muscles twitched under the pressure of her fingers.
So he took a step back, directly his attention to the lining of his jacket instead of looking at Lianna. He pulled a single arrow from the extra pocket and said, “So? Are we really going to wait for you team to play with their toys or can I do my thing.”
He twirled the arrow between his fingers. There was a beat before she responded. Nothing more than a grunt.
She looked down as he looked up. Her head bent back over the watch with a scowl on her face.
“I’m sorry.” Hubal put a hand to his ear. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
“Fine.” the word was dragged from her mouth and thrown at him, “Do it.”
He shot her a wink and twirled the arrow once more. This time letting a single maroon spark jump from his fingers to the wood. With the magic in place, he let it fall.
The arrow had barely clattered to the ground before Lianna was barking orders into her mic. Moving instantly. Always moving. Heading southwest.
Exactly where the arrow pointed.
Snagging it from the ground, he followed.
Occasionally dropping the arrow to redirect their path, they found the chimera out by the lake shore where it was slowly melting the sand with its firey breath. That goal of getting a real smile seeming more likely by the moment.
He’d found it. Again.
The damage to his jacket was almost worth it. Besides, a really good drycleaner might still be able to salvage it. A suit this lovely deserved nothing but every resuscitation effort.
They ducked behind the tiny shack that held dusty city tools, peering down the sad excuse for a beach that was stuffed in the heart of a major city. Minimal sand. Everything kind of gray. Dirty lake water.
Not to mention the three-headed beast that was now chewing its way through the ‘no swimming sign’. It was the goat head. Of course. It would have been just too convenient if the head that breathed fire was the one occupied.
Lianna was crouched down as he peered over her, careful not to touch. “Alright, we wait fifteen minutes for the team to get here. They’re pulling together a full squad for this one, we’re going to check over the whole area before moving in. Full protocol.”
“You want to wait for the Retrieval Team?” Hubal said, not bothering to hide his frown, “really? For this guy?”
“You recall the fire?” she whispered.
He gave it maybe three seconds of consideration, “Yeah, but you’ve got that snag-em tag-em gun on you, right?”
Lianna really hated that name.
“It’s an R-1049 and of course,” she said, “but we have no idea what other variables might be contained in the area. We wait for the report.”
“She could be halfway down the beach by then,” he said, bouncing on his toes, “If something else relevant was out there. I’d know. God of divination.”
“Then stand still and divinate,” she said, “we wait.”
He kept bouncing.
Her tone alone was a clear warning, “Hubal. We wait.”
He considered the smile goal. The chimera already finished with the no swimming sign and now sniffing down the beach. Away from them.
His shoes definitely weren’t made for sand but that didn’t matter. Hubal took off down the beach, letting Lianna’s curses trail after him. He skidded to a halt a few meters away from the monster and shouted, “Hey! Fire for breath. Over here? Remember me. Chew toy apparent?” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small metal container, “Your breath reeks. If we’re going to do this again, would you consider a mint? Icy fresh.”
The chimera whirled towards him, lion head roaring.
He popped a mint in his mouth, “Mmmmm, good point. Icy fresh. Probably not your thing.”
All six of it’s eyes were fixed on him.
Any time now Lianna.
It squatted into a pounce position and a bead of sweat made it’s way down the back of Hubal’s neck. Absorbed by the collar of his suit just as the snake head started hissing.
Now would be good.
Still he stood his ground. “Come on. Let’s not do this. It’s late. I’d like to get to bed before the sun rises.”
It pounced. Soaring through the air, paws outstretched and mouth opening. The chimera’s stomach lit up orange, revealing the fire that lived inside.
But there were footsteps coming up the beach behind him. Footsteps that were too fast for any human feet.
And Lianna was beside him, moving before he could do anything more than register her presence. Gun up. The dart rammed into the monster midair, immediately expanding into the constricting foam ball that stopped nearly every monster in it’s tracks.
He’d just forgotten about momentum.
And the fact that giant monsters hurling through the air will continue to hurtle through the air even if they’re contained.
Hubal threw himself to the left, trying to push Lianna out of the way, but his hand closed on nothing but air. Instead, she grabbed his shoulder and threw him. Back impacting on the sand just before she landed on top of him.
The chimera landed just a hairsbreath away. It impacting where they’d had been standing, flailing softly in thick pink foam.
They stared at it, necks craned from where they landed on the beach.
“Well,” Hubal said, looking up at the woman on top of him, “that’s twice in one day you’ve topped me. Officer, you only had to ask. I’m flexible.”
She shoved him and gave another eyeroll, climbing off to stand and shake sand out of her hair, “You’re an idiot.”
“Hey now,” he said, “we got him. No other creepy crawlies came out of the sand and we didn’t even have to wait for the eternally late Retrieval team.”
She paused mid-shake, hand raking through her hair. The eyeroll deteriorating into something else entirely, “No,” she said, meeting his gaze, “you’re an idiot if you think you and me would ever result in me being anything but a top. You couldn’t top me to save your life, Hubal.”
He stared. There was definitely something wrong with this tongue. And his brain. Couldn’t have gotten a word out if he tried. He was pretty sure his mouth was hanging open. Couldn’t do anything about that either.
She smirked, flipped her hair back over her head, and turned away to examine the Chimera.
Hubal pushed himself to his feet. Mouth snapping shut. A good first step. He could definitely find words but just as he opened his mouth again.
“My baby!” A female voice screeched, “What have you done to my baby girl?”
They both spun, Lianna’s gun coming up. There was a lone figure running down the beach, arms outstretched towards the monster.
Hubal squinted then took a step back, “Oh no.”
Lianna’s voice was calm, “Oh no?”
“You ever met Echidna?” he asked.
“Mother of monsters?” she said. He pretended not to see her swallow. Hard. “Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure,” she continued.
The figure was closer now. Human. But covered from head to toe in writhing green sparks. “You’ll pay for hurting my baby!” she shouted.
Her body seemed to twist as they watched. Expanding.
“What’s she doing?” Lianna asked.
Hubal winced, “She has this neat little party trick where she turns into a giant snake?”
“Wonderful,” Lianna said, priming the gun, “And to think. You thought we’d have to wait three years before there were more giant snakes. All we’re missing is the elephants.”
He kept his eyes locked on Echinda, the goddess slowly turning increasingly green, “This is going to be significantly less fun.”
She hit them like a tidal wave.
He shuffled his feet as Lianna dragged him into the elevator.
All things considered, the smile no longer seemed terribly likely when he considered the iron-like grip she had on his wrist and the horrible smell in the elevator.
Or the very thin line of her lips poking out from the green goo dripping down her nose.
He may have forgotten to mention to part where Echidna also had powers over slime. Or the fact that it was projectile. Or that technically she was a full fledged goddess and not just a drakaina.
So now Lianna was dripping onto the elevator floor and he was fine. Except the spot of green on his shoe. But he figured he probably shouldn’t mention that.
Still, he wasn’t quite ready to let go of the smile dream.
“So, at least you look really sexy in green.” He said, flashing her his best grin.
She didn’t even look over, “No. Don’t. You will keep that hole in your pretty face closed.”
He should quit while he was ahead.
But he was never that guy.
“You think my face is pretty?” He said.
“We are both aware that you know your face is aesthetically pleasing,” Lianna snapped, “now. shut it. or I will shut it for you.” The grip on his wrist tightened. Just enough to remind him that she was a demi-god with the strength to snap his fragile human body despite the immortal soul inside.
The action sent a small squelch reverberating through the elevator as the goo between her fingers got caught in between them.
He opened his mouth.
She beat him to it, “No.”
His chin went down to his chest to stare at his shoes but Hubal made zero attempt to stop the smile on his face.
She thought he was pretty.
Then he was forcibly yanked forward as soon as the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor. Lianna taking off and pulling him behind her. The joint of his arm complained.
Usually there were a couple of heads that turned his way whenever he stepped off the elevator, newbies or transfers who couldn’t actually believe that there was a god working with the demi-gods. He typically liked to give them a disarming winking and a thumbs up.
But his arm was slightly busy being almost yanked from it’s socket.
And there were a lot more people staring than normal.
He absolutely could not blame the entire Canadian division of Mythical Creature Reclamation for turning and pausing as Lianna barrelled out of the elevator and starting stomping through the room, Hubal trailing after her.
He would have been staring himself.
The impeccable and unflappable Officer Lianna Smith was covered from head to toe in a thick green goo. Slightly transparent and nearly florescent, it matted her brown curls to her head in goopy clumps and clung to every inch of her body. Her stomps squelched as the goo tracked her footprints through the building.
He’d offered to take her to his extremely close and extremely posh apartment to get cleaned up first.
She nearly took his head off.
It was amazing. The amount of fire inside one demi-god. One mortal lifespan. Completely ignoring the goo as she ordered around the Retrieval Team. Echidna fled at their arrival. Chimera to deal with. Goo inconsequential.
Until she caught sight of Hubal, then apparently the slime was a big deal because he got the worst ‘I’m going to kill you’ eyes that he’d ever had the pleasure of receiving.
Without a word to any of their colleagues, she yanked him between the desks and barged into the Captain’s office.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said, not looking at him and dropping his wrist. “I want him gone.”
The Captain looked up from his paperwork. Hubal had to commend him for not even looking phased that a slime-covered version of his star officer was shouting at him with a half-singed god in toe.
The man just put his pen down slowly and said, “Why do you want him gone? While this pairing is certainly unconventional, the two of you currently have one of the highest capture rates worldwide.”
“He doesn’t listen,” Lianna said, “he’s reckless, he doesn’t obey protocol. It’s a liability that I don’t need on my team. I don’t have the time to play babysitter to a god who’s just looking for a few kicks because he knows a few parlor tricks with an arrow.”
He grit his teeth at parlor tricks.
“He might be able to come back in a new body but the rest of us only have one kick at the can.” she continued, “I need to know that I can count on him to take his half of work and pull his weight.”
The Captain said nothing, gaze resting first on Lianna then on Hubal. “Well,” he said at last, “Hubal isn’t technically an officer and his consultancy work is on probation. It’s your call. If you think he’s more of a complication than an asset then he’s gone unless one of the other officers want him.”
Lianna was the only one they could even convince to try working with him. He still wasn’t quite sure why.
She paused, eyes finally landing on him. Again, that piercing gaze. Could she really read him? See what was on his mind? Measure him up and find if he was lacking.
Because all he could think was that she was still beautiful. Covered in slime. Some drying to her skin in crusty patches while others glooped off her skin. Sand sticking in sections. Hair matted. Skin tinged green. But she still hummed with energy and fire. Passion for what she did oozing from every pore. Slime unable to cover wit and sarcasm and dedication and everything that was Officer Lianna Smith.
At last she said, “If he’s not willing to commit to the job, really get his hands dirty, then I can’t do this.”
He nodded, said nothing, and walked out the door.
Four agonizing hours later, he was back. Hubal walked out of the elevator backwards, dragging an incredibly heavy bucket with him and trying not to splash any of the contents on the floor. It scraped across the floor of the station as he tried to navigate the desks without bumping into someone or throwing out his back from the weight of the thing.
“Hubal?” Lianna’s voice sounded over the din, “what… what are you doing here? I thought you left.”
“Had to get something,” he grunted.
Pulling the bucket the last few feet, he stopped beside her desk and ignored everyone else in the building. He let go of the bucket, stretched his back, then turned.
Lianna had managed to find a shower in the hours he’d been gone, wet hair curling loosely around her shoulders and a pair of work-out sweats replacing the slime covered clothes.
They were unsalvageable. Any clothes would be.
Her eyes were wide as she took him in, “You quit.”
He straightened his suit one more time, “I did no such thing.” He said, “I love this job. You think I’d just quit?”
Lianna’s expression straightened out, “You walked out.”
“You were going to fire me,” he said.
“I still should,” she said.
But she hadn’t. Yet. Just watching him.
“Ah, but,” he gave her a grin, “you won’t, because I dragged this bucket all the way here.”
“So you went to get a bucket full of…” she leaned over and peered into the bucket. Then froze. Slowly, her gaze came back up to his, “of slime?”
He just nodded.
She took another look, sniffed, then wrinkled her nose, “Echidna’s slime. How did you even get that?”
He waved her off, “It’s a god thing.”
Actually, he’d basically had to sell his soul to get the stuff. He’d had to go to Ruda who’d talked to Ishtar who’d talked to Ereshkigal who’d spoken to Hades who’d gotten Persephone to ask Echidna for a bucket.
One of these days he have to figure out how to weasel his way into the inter-pantheon underground that was the underworld. It was definitely cheaper to cut at least a few middle men. At these costs, he’d wouldn’t be able to replace this suit for months.
Because he definitely wasn’t going to be keeping this one.
Sacrificed for the greater good.
“I hate to tell you,” Lianna said, “but I think we’ve got more than enough slime. They’re still trying to scrape it out of the elevator.”
He was well aware. Dragging a bucket of slime up flights of stairs because the elevator was out of order, level of aware.
“You said that if I couldn’t commit and really get my hands dirty, then I was a liability.” Hubal said.
Lianna lightly gnawed the end of her pen, “Yes?”
He stared at her for a moment, cast his eyes about the room, and took a deep a breath.
He reached for the bucket.
Muscles straining as he hoisted it up.
And dumped it over his head.
It was cold and wet and oh so sticky. Hubal could feel it drench the suit, leaking through every piece of the weave to pierce straight through to his skin underneath. Clumping on his skin and literally rolling down his face as chunks of ick rolled down his face.
He opened his mouth, ready to deliver his well-planned one liner.
And started spluttering.
Accidentally inhaling the stuff.
Then he tried to open his eyes and realized that the slime was in his eyes and now they were burning and this had seemed like such a better idea five minutes ago. He probably looked like an idiot. Spluttering, coughing, eyes scrunched tight, and covered in slime.
But something soft touched his face. First wiping carefully over his left eye and moving to his right. Disappearing and returning to wipe his nose. Then his mouth.
A water bottle carefully held to his lips.
When he opened his eyes, it was his chin being wiped down. Lianna hovering just in front of his vision with a folded paper towel skimming over his face.
She paused as their gaze met.
“As requested, I got dirty.” he said.
Her lips twitched then straightened. The paper towel sweeping over his face again to travel up his cheeks, warm with the heat of her fingers behind them.
He said nothing, ignoring the slime dripping down his back and seeping into his suit. Just watching as she worked. The green slowly disappearing from his face as she fold the paper towel over to find a fresh side.
“They’re never going to be able to get this out of the floor you know.” she said at last.
Hubal wasn’t sure if there was anything left on his face but she kept going. Still sweeping.
“Well,” he said, “if nothing else, you’ll never be totally rid of me.”
“You’ll haunt this place for years to come,” she agreed, “they’ll tell stories of that god was decided it was a good idea to pour slime all over himself in the middle of the office.”
He actually risked a small smile. The paper towel was no longer sweeping but it still rested against his cheek, “And then you’ll be stuck telling stories about how you had to deal with him. You’ll be a local legend.”
“International legend,” she corrected, “for putting up with you.”
“Oh come on,” he said, “I wasn’t that bad. The hydra could have gone way worse.”
For a moment, he almost could have sworn it was the tip of a finger and not paper towel touching his face.
“International,” she repeated, “I’m sure you’ll find something else to make a bigger mess of next week.”
He would have hugged her.
If he wasn’t covered in slime.
And if he didn’t think she wouldn’t particularly enjoy it.
“Next week?” he asked. Knowing very well he sounded like an over-eager toddler and not caring.
She turned away, dodged the slime puddle, and sat back at her desk. But her words drifted over her shoulder, “Get cleaned up. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He was almost to the stairs when he realized he’d left his bucket behind. Persephone had specifically asked that he return the bucket. One did not mess with Persephone. So he retraced the trail of slime he’d left behind.
And he stopped when he saw her.
Because Officer Lianna Smith was smiling. Not at him. But she was sitting in her desk chair, spinning slightly, and staring at his slime puddle. Pen clenched between her teeth.
So he backed away.
A smile. Not at him. But. Maybe. Because of him.
He could try again tomorrow.