Nyx sat in a clip joint, drinking some revolting piss she’d been sold as liquor, and bitterly lamenting the end of the war. Peacetime had begun unexpectedly violently. Finding ‘lost’ people had cost her an arm, and two team-members had deserted, but the money had been good. Jepera had been a small town full of relatively prosperous people, and they wanted their loved ones back. But over the last year, the town had slowly settled into a crowded, starving decline. Nyx’s ability to pay her team had declined with it. There was no point moving elsewhere; the problem was the same throughout Nasheen.
She turned to get rid of the person hovering next to her table. But the exact shape of the man gave her pause. Nyx ruthlessly suppressed an instinctive shiver of want.
Wasn’t he supposed to be happier without her? Although, to be fair, he didn’t look very happy. She opened her mouth to say so, but Rhys stopped her with a gesture. He nodded towards the door.
Nyx followed him shakily out to a ramshackle bakkie, nursing her half-empty cup. She hadn’t seen a working vehicle in over six months. She climbed in, and Rhys drove through the crowded streets, avoiding a tiny cart yoked to two snarling sand cats. Hollow-eyed men followed with their gaze, but not with their feet. Most looked too weak to move from their stations by the road. The women looked only a little better, moving listlessly out of the way.
They stopped a short way out into the desert. Sliding painfully down from her seat, Nyx lowered herself to the ground, sitting cross-legged in the shade of the bakkie. She sipped again from the filthy cup.
Rhys walked round the vehicle and sank down himself, a good ten paces away from her. He said nothing.
Nyx studied him carefully. Rhys was just as over-dressed as he’d always been, but his gaze was as naked as she'd ever seen on a lover. She sighed.
"For fuck's sake, Rhys. Why now?"
"I have nothing else left. My father is gone. Elahyiah is gone. My children are gone. My faith is gone. I only have you."
"Rhys, you're a magician in a new world. Not a very good magician, but you'll do in a pinch. Get out of here with ‘I have nothing else left.’ I don't believe you."
Rhys looked at the sand at his feet.
"I have nothing else left that I want."
Nyx dropped the cup. She swore viciously as the remaining piss-liquor spilled onto the sand.
“Get up. We’re going home.”
Nyx was still scratching out a living, finding the dregs of lost family for the few seekers with the resources left to pay her. She’d done better before she decided she’d only bring back those who actually wanted to be found. New world, new Nyxnissa. Apparently.
Home, in Nyx’s case, was a filthy corner of the roof of her storefront. The place was too tiny even to have a back room, and she allowed Ket to sleep under the ramshackle desk. In the past, Nyx wouldn’t have cared about the close proximity. But Ket was only passing through her employment, learning how to run comm. He’d have a better chance at life with some kind of skill, and his mother (the owner of the store) couldn’t keep him forever.
Ket wouldn’t be contaminated by Nyx’s propensity for death and destruction, if only she kept her distance. So she climbed painfully up to the roof every night. Every night but one, when she’d had a little too much liquor and her badly-healed left arm had failed her. She’d woken even more painfully to Ket’s dawn-lit, worried face.
Of course Rhys didn’t own the bakkie. He’d rented it for a few hours, from a tumbledown warehouse near the train station. Nyx didn’t ask what he’d traded for it. She led him back to the store through the darkening streets. Her habitual hyper-vigilance might be less necessary than in their glory days (and really, what business did she have thinking that she and Rhys had ever had glory days?), but that didn’t mean she could actually relax.
Rhys entered the store without comment. He kept his eyes on the floor, ignoring everything from the garish advertising in the window to the tech in the corner. The bugs didn’t even stir. Apparently his skills had not improved.
Ket was out, probably visiting his boyfriend. Ket wasn’t telling, and Nyx wasn’t asking, but she appreciated his occasional absence.
She pushed Rhys over to the footholds leading up to the roof. He ascended without looking at her. Nyx wondered if she’d accidentally grown an extra head since that moment in the desert when she’d actually believed he wanted her.
Rhys scuttled over to the corner of the rooftop and folded himself into it, a surprisingly compact shape for his size. He finally looked at Nyx, who was removing her burnous. Meeting his eyes would be a mistake. She sighed and sank down, uncaring of the drape hanging off one shoulder.
“I found her.” The words slipped out before Nyx could stop them.
Nyx fidgeted under the ensuing silence, finally continuing to undress as she talked.
“She’s in Khairi, living in your old place in Shaesta with the children. And a man named Fizar. Do you know him?”
Rhys seemed to have been struck dumb.
“It’s my business to find people. I wasn’t looking for her, I was going after Fizar. I got a note from his family, through a contact in Mushtallah. Took me two months and cost me more than my retainer to get to him. But I don’t release details of people who don’t want to be found. You want a kidnapper, you go to Raine’s team, not me.” Nyx was aware that she sounded bitter.
She eyed Rhys’s downcast form.
“He didn’t want to be found, Rhys. He chose to stay with her. And the children. In that bug-infested shit-hole where you used to live.”
“How many children?” It was almost a whisper.
“Four. Your three, and another boy.”
Rhys’ shoulders shook. She scuttled over and sat down beside him, pressing her shoulder to his.
“Do you want to see her?”
Nyx felt like trembling herself. But it was just her aching muscles. She bumped Rhys’s shoulder with her own. The gesture confused her.
“No. I let them go.”
They sat, shoulder to shoulder in the corner of the roof, until darkness fell, and longer still.
Nyx was starting to doze.
“Did you speak to her?” Rhys’s voice was almost a whisper.
“No. I followed Fizar to work. I didn’t mention you.”
Ket stumbled in downstairs. Neither of them reacted to the bang of the door.
Nyx woke with the first dawn, blinking in the dim light. She’d tipped over in the night, and her head was pillowed on Rhys’s right thigh. He was still propped in the corner, gazing out over the desert.
Nyx flung off the burnous she didn’t remember covering herself with, but she didn’t move her head because Rhys’s hand was moving gently on her hair. Nyx wasn’t sure anyone had ever touched her like that before. It felt nice.
Nyx sat up suddenly, knocking Rhys’s hand aside.
“You haven’t prayed!”
“I have no business with God.”
That gave her pause. Nyx had always used Rhys’s religious observances as indicators of his wellbeing. She’d have to find other ways now. She lay back down. He put his hand back on her hair. Nyx wriggled sharply to get comfortable, slapping at the large bug taking a stroll up her leg. Too much to expect the magician to deal with that.
Much later, Ket clattered deliberately as he climbed the wall. His tousled head poked up to the roof. His eyes widened comically when he saw Rhys. Whether it was his presence, or the fact that Nyx was sprawled over him, she wasn’t sure.
“This is Rhys. He might be staying a while.” Nyx twitched her head unnecessarily upward.
Ket nodded back, and retreated hastily. Sensible boy.
Much as Nyx would have liked to stay on the roof with Rhys all day, it grew punishingly hot after the second sunrise. They tumbled down the wall into the office, Rhys almost immobile from all that sitting still. Nyx sighed. What was she doing, lying around on a roof with Rhys Dashasa, and not encouraging him to fuck her when this time, he clearly wanted to? She pushed a flask of water at him.
“So, are you staying?” Ket asked guilelessly, from his perch on the doorstep. A very good question. The boy would go far.
Rhys looked at her enquiringly.
“I barely make enough money to feed two of us. But I might do better with a magician. Even you. You can stay.”
She scowled at Rhys’s nascent smile.