The rhythmic swish of the broom across the tile floor was interrupted by a door slamming on the other side of the house. At the sound of her name, the broom's handler ceased her sweeping and leaned it against the wall. Tucking the loose strands of her long, blonde hair behind her ears, she made her way towards the front of the house to greet her visitors.
"Suelo! Suelo! I found him!"
Sure enough, her frequent guests had added another member to their party. Alis had let herself inside and, in addition to the yellow musk cat that obediently followed her everywhere she went, she was now accompanied by an impossibly tall, muscular man. He was clad in thick, iron armor and carried a heavy axe, but despite his imposing appearance, a quick search of his deep-set blue eyes revealed that he was clearly relieved at having made his way to a safe location.
"It's Odin!" Alis exclaimed. "The man my brother told me about!"
Suelo smiled at the newcomer. "I've heard a lot about you. Please, come inside."
"Are you sure?" he asked. "I don't want to impose..."
She waved off his concerns with a flick of her hand as she led the way to her kitchen. "Don't worry, you're not imposing at all. People are in and out of here all the time."
"Suelo takes care of people who can't afford to go to the hospital," Alis explained. "She'll patch up scrapes, burns, puncture wounds, even the occasional broken bone!"
The man was impressed. "That's very kind of you."
She blushed. "Oh, it's nothing. I hate to see people worrying about their medical bills when it really doesn't take much to treat them. I have the room and I have the skill, it's the least I can do." Facing Alis, she noticed that her arms were covered in fiery red blotches. "And what happened here?" she inquired, gesturing towards the damaged skin.
The young teenager wrinkled her nose. "We were in this cave and there were these little blobs of green slime that kept moving toward us. We fought them off as best we could, but they still sometimes got a little too close." She poked at a sore on her left forearm. "It does sort of burn a little."
"Stop touching it and sit down." As Suelo gathered her medical supplies and set them on the table, she addressed her new guest. "Are you injured? Do you need anything?"
"Nah, I'm okay. Just a little sore."
"Medusa turned Odin to stone!" Alis said.
"But Myau had the antidote and we were able to bring him back." She nodded towards her feline companion. "We're going to head towards Eppi next, but I thought it would be a good idea to come back to Camineet and rest for the night."
"Of course. You know you're always welcome here." She unwrapped some bandages and opened some bottles of foul-smelling liquid. "Are you sure I can't get you anything?" she asked the man awkwardly standing in the middle of her kitchen.
He scratched his head, running his fingers through his short blond hair. "Actually, I could use a hot shower, if it's not too much trouble."
"Down the hall and to your right. If you look around in the closets, there should be a spare set of clothes. They may be a little small for you, but it's all I have."
"Thank you, I'm sure they'll be just fine."
As he left the room, Alis gasped and winced as Suelo applied the disinfectant to her wounds. "It'll feel much better by tomorrow," she assured her. "It doesn't look too bad. I think you've done worse."
Her gentle teasing brought a smile back to the girl's face. "I got a new sword the other day. You should see how easily it slices through the monsters!"
"I'll just have to take your word for it." Suelo finished wrapping the gauze around her patient's arms and fastened it with small pieces of medical tape. "There, you're all set. I should get dinner started now so you're not kept up too late."
"Thanks, Suelo!" Alis stood up and helped clear the table. "Do you want me to go grab Odin's clothes and put them in the laundry?"
"That would be very helpful, thank you. Just don't get those bandages wet!"
Alis merrily scampered off, Myau close behind, and Suelo began gathering the necessary materials to prepare a meal large enough for all of them. Before long, Odin reappeared, fresh from his shower. The shirt he'd found was a bit snug across his broad chest and his cotton pants were several inches too short, but he looked slightly more comfortable than he had when he'd arrived. "Can I help with anything?" he offered, his eyes darting around the small kitchen.
"No thanks, I think I've got it covered. Just have a seat and make yourself at home." He followed her instructions and watched her move about, peeling vegetables and tossing them into a pot with some chunks of meat. "So how did you wind up in that cave, if you don't mind me asking?"
Odin leaned back in his chair and stretched. "It was probably very, very stupid of me to go in there in the first place."
"I'm sure you must have had a good reason."
"Perhaps. I live in Scion and we don't have the same protection there that you do here. No robotcops, no guarded gates, no massive walls."
"Myau and I did our best to protect the town from monster attacks, but it was getting more and more difficult. I'd heard that Medusa had a mystical axe, and I thought that if I could somehow get my hands on it, it would be easier to keep Scion safe."
"I don't think that's a stupid reason at all. I think it was very noble of you to want to keep your home out of harm's way."
He smirked. "I clearly didn't think things through, though. I don't know how I thought I would ever be successful. I never stood a chance against her, she was just too powerful."
"So your head may have been a little fuzzy, but at least your heart was in the right place."
He didn't get a chance to continue debating his actions with the soft-spoken woman, as his two rescuers came bounding back into the room. "It smells so good in here!" Alis said.
"It shouldn't be too much longer." Suelo produced some dishes and utensils from her cabinets and set them out on the table, leaving aside a separate bowl for Myau. She filled glasses with water from the faucet and as soon as her hastily prepared stew was ready, she served it to her visitors.
"This is delicious. I don't remember the last time I had a hot meal like this," Odin said between bites.
She looked down. "I was never much of a cook, it's the best I could do. I'm glad you like it." Glancing at Alis, she noticed that the young girl was having difficulties keeping her eyes open. "You're exhausted, dear," she gently pointed out. "Why don't you go to bed? We'll be sure to have a good breakfast ready for you in the morning before you leave."
Alis tried to respond, but all that came out of her mouth was a lengthy yawn. "Okay," she mumbled and proceeded to one of the empty bedrooms with Myau in tow.
The hungry warrior continued eating and casually looked around the dimly-lit room. "So, you're all by yourself in this big house?"
"I am now, yes."
"'Now'? What happened?"
"My husband died three years ago."
Odin put his fork down. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to..."
"It's okay." She smiled sadly at him. "I don't mind talking about him."
"You're so young, though. I can't believe it."
She shrugged her shoulders helplessly. "These things happen. Life isn't always fair and nothing's ever going to change that."
He watched as she stood up and started clearing the dishes from the table. "You sound a lot more reasonable than I'd ever be."
"I won't lie, it still hurts sometimes. Some days seem almost unbearable. I've cried my tears, I've wept for the experiences we never shared, the children we never had, the dreams we never realized. But I can't mourn what could have been for the rest of my life. And if I even if I couldn't save him, there are still so many others who need my help."
He shook his head. "You're amazing."
A small spot of pink appeared on each of her cheeks. "I'm really not. Anyone would do the same, if they had to." She turned on the faucet and started filling the sink with soapy water. "And it's good to have Alis around every now and then. It's horrible, what happened to her brother, but nothing will ever extinguish that girl's spirit. I'd like to think that in a way, we help each other out. You know, since we both know how hard it is to lose someone you love."
"At least you have each other."
Suelo remembered her teenaged friend sleeping several rooms away and her hand flew up to her mouth in embarrassment. "I'm so sorry, I've just been prattling on and on, and you must be tired, too. Why don't you go get some sleep? I can finish up in here."
"Actually, I'm wide awake. I'm feeling very lucky that I'm not dead." His voice cracked on the last word, and for a split second, there was a hint of vulnerability displayed on his face as he relived those moments of terror in the clammy cave.
She noticed this, but chose not to call attention to it. "Well, if you're staying up, you can help me dry these dishes," she said, tossing him a small towel.
"My pleasure." He crossed the room to stand next to her at the sink and they quickly slipped into an efficient routine, her scrubbing the remains of their dinner off of the ceramic plates and passing them to him so he could rub them dry.
A flood of memories and mixed emotions rushed through her as she became very aware of the man standing so close to her, recreating a picture of domestic harmony. She stopped moving the cloth over the dish and closed her eyes, remembering the feel of hands around her waist, lips upon her neck...feelings that had been abandoned for so long. They had been lost long ago, but the force with which they resurfaced momentarily engulfed her and she froze in place, trapped between the past and the present.
His voice snapped her out of her brief reverie. "Sorry, I...I was just distracted. Let me grab that pot."
They finished cleaning in silence. Suelo dried her hands on a second towel before returning to her chair and waited for Odin to join her. "You don't have to stay up with me," he said. "I'm still feeling a bit restless, must be all the adrenaline. I don't think I'll be able to sleep any time soon."
"It's okay, I don't mind. It's rather nice to have company in the evenings." She rested her chin on her hand and looked him over with her dark brown eyes. "Can I get you anything else? You've had quite the day."
"No, no, you've already done plenty. Thank you."
Her gaze remained focused on him. "What was it like?" she asked quietly.
He didn't have to ask her to clarify her question. "I thought I was going to die," he stated. "As soon as I saw her and I saw how she looked at me, I knew I was finished. I told Myau to run and save himself." When his captive audience didn't speak, he continued. "It started at my hands and feet, a crippling pain that I just couldn't escape. I couldn't move as it crept up my body, paralyzing me. I tried to scream, but it felt as if a giant hand was gripping me, constricting my chest. The last thing I remember was seeing her laugh at me as I tried to break free of the excruciating pain, but was unable to do so."
"Then what happened?"
"That was it. Everything just went black. Time stood still, I stopped existing. The next thing I knew, Alis and Myau were standing in front of me with an empty bottle."
"It was. But it could be a lot worse." He met her inquisitive stare and spoke with newfound determination. "I'm here, I'm alive. I've been given a second chance. Now I just have to make sure to do things right this time."
"It's incredible," she murmured. "You went through all that and were able to emerge without a scratch. And you're feeling okay?"
"I'm fine." He leaned his head to the side, stretching out the muscles of his brawny neck, and wiggled his shoulders. "Still just a little sore, probably from standing in the same place for who knows how long."
"That I can help you with." She stood up and took a few steps until she was standing directly behind him. Hesitating only slightly, she put her hands on his massive shoulders and, starting at the base of his neck, used her fingers to probe into his flesh. She massaged in small, deliberate circles, finding the spots with the most tension and coaxing them loose. Her hands easily moved across the thin fabric of the shirt that was stretched tight across his bulky frame and she worked her way outward, from between his shoulder blades out towards his thick upper arms.
She closed her eyes again as she felt him respond to her manipulations, inhaling the scent of his clean hair and listening to the steady rhythm of his breathing. She'd applied her healing touch to all those who had entered her home, but something about him was different. Something about him called to her; whether it was his distressing tale, his kindness towards her friend, or something else entirely, she didn't know. Either way, as she rubbed his aching muscles, she felt drawn to him.
He reached across his chest to his shoulder and covered one of her hands with his. She stopped moving, taking in the feeling of his rough, calloused skin against hers, his fingertips brushing against the top of her wrist. He got up from his chair and, never letting go of her hand, turned around to face her.
Almost afraid to make eye contact with him, Suelo allowed herself to be pulled into his arms. His chest was warm beneath her cheek and she tentatively returned the embrace, wrapping her arms around his body. The unwavering beat of his heart echoed reassuringly in her ear and despite his solid exterior, she knew there was something fragile underneath. Anticipating that he felt the same things she did, she took her chance. "Stay with me tonight," she whispered. "I don't want to be alone."
Odin smoothed down her soft golden waves with his hand and held her close. When he released her, she silently led the way to her bedroom, behind the last door at the end of the hallway. Once inside, she went straight for the adjacent bathroom and closed the door behind her.
It was a struggle to wash up and prepare for slumber as if nothing was different. Her pulse was racing as she splashed some cold water on her face and thought about how for the first time in years, she wasn't going to spend the night by herself. After changing into a sleeveless cotton gown, she brushed the tangles out of her hair before proceeding back to her bed.
Her companion had removed his shirt and was already beneath the covers, the pale sheets covering him up to mid-chest. His eyes were still open, but the expression on his face was unreadable; like her, he was likely pondering the awkward nature of the current situation. She turned out the lights and cautiously climbed in beside him, leaving a safe distance between their bodies. The strange, yet comfortingly familiar feeling of the weight of another person on the mattress kept her awake and she stared up at the ceiling as she lay on her back.
More memories came trickling back and brought tears to her eyes. She'd refused to admit to herself how much she had missed, how much of herself she had closed off. Though she had been lucky enough to have once had love in her life, it had been taken from her all too soon and she'd given up on everything that had gone along with it. But parts of her mind, body, and soul had been springing back to life and she wasn't sure if she was ready to move forward.
A small, choked sob managed to escape, shattering the tranquility of the darkened room. She didn't know whether to acknowledge it or pretend it hadn't happened and she fought to swallow back the next one. Concentrating on slowly inhaling and exhaling, trying to maintain a steady pattern, she was startled when he took her hand.
His fingers intertwined with hers and she let her thoughts linger on the sudden contact. When she turned her head to the side to sneak a glance at him, she was surprised to find him staring right back at her. Enough moonlight seeped through the curtains so that she was just able to make out the shadowy outline of his face, the glint of his eyes, the silent mouth that wordlessly beckoned her towards him.
She inched closer and laid her head on his shoulder. Though she tried to will herself to relax, she trembled at the very nearness of him and she was glad her flushed cheeks couldn't be seen in the dim light. He let go of her hand only to slip his arm around her and pull her into him, attempting to soothe her shaking body.
Suelo gingerly placed a hand on his bare chest and looked up at him. He pushed her hair back behind her ear and, without breaking their shared gaze, stroked the side of her face with his thumb. She closed her eyes and let him come to her, waiting for his lips upon hers, the moment of intimacy that had been missing for so long.
He kissed her, gently at first, as if he were afraid she would crumble beneath him. The tenderness of the gesture soon disappeared as her lips parted and she allowed him entry, urgently grasping at him with her fingers as their tongues wildly explored each other. Earlier that day, Odin had been granted a wonderful gift, and now, with that gift of opportunity, he passed along the sense of a new beginning to her.
She lifted her arms to let her nightgown be pulled away and eagerly slipped back into his embrace. Skin met skin as he held her tight, the heat between them building until she was sure she was going to literally melt into him. He was surrounding her, consuming her, breathing into her and she wanted nothing more than to disappear with him, to escape to the surreal plane where only the two of them existed, far away from any heartache and pain.
Suelo slid on top of him, still savoring the exhilaration of his entire body pressed against hers. Gone was any hesitation or apprehension; she knew she wanted to share with him, share a piece of her that she thought had vanished years ago, a part of her being that had been frozen in time, waiting to be awakened by the warmth of another. The man who'd faced death filled her with life and she clung to him as they welcomed the resurgence of what they'd each thought had been forever lost.
The aroma of the nutritious breakfast she'd promised filled the room as Suelo prepared the table for a second time. Clad only in a bathrobe, she neatly arranged the plates and utensils and waited for her guests to arrive. Odin appeared in the kitchen, dressed in his laundered clothes from the previous day, and stood in the doorway, watching her work. After a few minutes, she finally noticed him and a shy smile crept across her face. "You were able to sleep after all. I'm glad."
"Best night of sleep I've had in years." He looked around. "Where are the others?"
"Alis and Myau went to the shops to get some supplies, they should be back any minute."
He stepped forward until he was standing in front of her. "You're a special woman, Suelo," he said, brushing back her messy curls.
She looked away from him. "I'm really not..."
"Yes, you are." He tilted her chin back towards him. "I'm grateful for a lot of things that happened yesterday, but I'm especially glad Alis brought me here."
"You're too kind. And as I've told her before, you are welcome here at any time."
He sat down in his chair and took her hands in his. "After everything you've been through, you still manage to selflessly care for other people. That takes great strength." She tried to argue with him again, but he reached up to put a finger to her mouth. "Not everyone would do the same, that's just a simple fact."
"You would. You wanted to help others, that's how you eventually wound up here."
"Perhaps you're right." He grinned at her and gave her hand a squeeze. "Maybe we're both heroes."
She laughed. "At least I'm in good company, then!"
Alis and Myau returned shortly and joined them at the table. After a pleasant, uneventful breakfast, the three fighters gathered their weapons and armor and prepared to leave. Odin waved the others ahead, promising to catch up, and turned back to his gracious hostess. "I don't know what's in store for us, but I'm sure we'll be back soon."
"I certainly hope so." She cocked her head to the side and examined him with her soulful brown eyes. "I won't ask you to make any promises you may not be able to keep. But be careful. Stay safe."
"I will." He kissed her lightly, letting his lips linger near hers for an extra moment before he stepped away. "I suppose I should get going."
Suelo watched as he rejoined the others, joining Alis in waving good-bye before they proceeded towards the city's exit. She stayed in the doorway until they disappeared from view, reflecting on their stay and fervently praying for their safety. The road ahead would be difficult and dangerous and all she could do was heal them to the best of her ability when they returned, but thanks to the courageous man who had readily joined her friend, she was ready to face whatever came her way with a rejuvenated passion.