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Prodigal Rat

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I didn't get the news from Shion. It pissed me off a little that I had to hear it from the old man. Not so much because Shion didn't tell me--I don't talk to him every day, or even every week, and Shion's a space case to begin with. Mostly I was pissed at my own nose. I always figured I'd smell it, I guess, when the gutter rat finally deigned to show his face again in our vicinity. Maybe the wind was trying to do me a favor by wafting the stink of him in any direction except mine, but it's disheartening when your own nose lets you down.

So I wasn't in a mood to go behold the second coming for myself right away. It's not like I don't have better things to do--I've got my own stuff going on, with the hotel and the dogs and the kid. I waited until Shion sent an actual letter, all dear Inukashi, you've probably heard from Rikiga already--no shit, Sherlock--but Nezumi's back. He's staying with us for now. I'm sure he'd like to see you--bullshit, Sherlock--and so would I, and so would Mom. Let us know when you can come to dinner.

I decided not to give advance notice. A few days later I took my best guard dog with me, left Shion Junior at home with the rest of the pack, and rode the bus into the city. It was just after closing time when I got to the bakery. The door was still unlocked, so I let myself in. I took a deep whiff of the air inside, but all I could smell was bread and pastry. A voice--Shion's voice--called from the kitchen, sorry we're closed, and then he came out of the kitchen, and it didn't matter how useless my nose was, because I could tell who else was back there just by looking at his face.

"Inukashi!"

Even his smile was different. Bigger, for one thing. Stupider, for another. It had always been sort of vapid, but I hadn't seen him beam like that in years. Three years and change, to be exact about it. I strolled into the kitchen and looked down my nose at the cause.

"Well, well," I said. "Look what the cat dragged in."

He was sitting at the table like he belonged there, like he'd never left Shion in the lurch. Peeling apples, for fuck's sake. Apples that were probably destined for turnovers or pies or what do you call 'ems--galettes--that would be eaten by Karan's customers all unawares. He looked more or less like he always had. Taller, I guess. More meaty in the shoulders. Same foxy face. Same rodent henchmen crouched at his right hand, ready to do his evil bidding. He spared my dog and I a careless glance.

"Sorry," he said, "this is a food-service establishment. No dogs allowed."

Same foxy voice. It was a voice that could inspire a whole slew of bad decisions. "Better dogs than rats," I said.

He set the peeler down and looked at me more squarely, giving me the once-over, head to toe. I had to set my teeth against the urge to pull my cloak around my chest. "Shion," he said in a drawl, "tell your mama she needs to get a sign for the door. 'Only service animals permitted.'"

"'Service animals'? Hah. Is that what you're playing at now?" I jerked my chin at the heap of naked apples. "I bet the audience loves it. Bet you've got them eating right out of your hand."

He didn't like the taste of that--I could tell by the way his eyes narrowed--but then Shion stepped between us. The dog I'd brought with me went to stand by Shion's knees, wagging her tail.

"Now that you two are all caught up," said Shion. "Where's Shion?"

Nezumi stared at him, then threw back his head and grinned like it was the best joke he'd ever heard. "That has to be a new apex of airheadedness, even for you."

Shion gave him a look, but the look was soft around the edges. "You know I don't mean me."

"He's at home," I said, making an effort not to wrinkle my nose. "I thought the introductions might be awkward. You know, 'Meet Nezumi, your Uncle Shion's friend, the one who wanted to leave you to die in the street when you were a baby'?"

Nezumi's eyebrows rose. He leaned back in his chair, twirling the apple peeler like a knife between his fingers. The gleam in his eyes told me what he wanted to say, what he would've said if Shion hadn't been there: you'd have done the same thing, bitch, if Shion hadn't foisted him on you. It was the truth, most likely, but I didn't care. Aloud he said, "Speaking of awkward: nothing against the merits of your specific choice, but did it never occur to you that naming your kid after a person with whom you regularly associate might bring with it a certain, oh, I don't know. Potential for needless confusion?"

"Somehow we manage," said Shion. "Context clues." He sat down at the table next to Nezumi, gesturing at the open seat on the opposite side. "Inukashi, did you have a chance to register the dogs yet?"

I must've made a face, because he launched into full official Reconstruction Committee mode. "I did explain registration, didn't I? It's different from a license. There's no fee. It's not about the city trying to monitor you, or regulate your business--"

"Fascist pigs," said Nezumi sweetly. He resumed his peeling.

"--it's about preserving genetic diversity. So many domestic animal breeds have already been lost. We need to take stock of what we have left in order to preserve them. Judging by their behavior, some of your dogs are clearly descended from breeds used for search and rescue--"

"First they came for the dogs," murmured Nezumi, "and I didn't speak out, because I wasn't a dog--"

"Nezumi, please."

"Damned right you're not a dog," I sniffed. To Shion I said, "I've been busy. I'll get around to it sooner or later."

"Busy doing what," asked Nezumi, "catching fleas?"

"Contributing to the local economy," I said. "And looking after things that needed looking after around here, unlike certain vagrants who ran off with their tails between their legs when there was work to be done--"

--and tears to be wiped, not that I was planning to say that in front of Shion. Then the bell on the door jingled, announcing the lady of the house, and suddenly we were all on best behavior. I wanted to give Nezumi shit for it, but it was hard to give him shit when she had the same effect on me. You don't mess around in front of the den mother. I didn't know what Karan would look like if she showed her fangs, and I didn't want to find out.

She roasted a chicken and fed us--dogs and mice alike--until we were so full we could barely grunt. There were leftovers for my Shion, along with butter rolls and ginger cake. After dinner Karan set her Shion to cleaning up the kitchen, and asked Nezumi to walk me to the bus. Twitching, I pointed at my dog and tried to protest, but she wouldn't hear it.

"I worry," she said, "with it being so late. Humor me, please?"

You don't argue with the den mother, either. I hooked the bag of bundled leftovers around my arm and yanked up my hood when we stepped out into the street. Nezumi pulled on his gloves and fell into step beside me, close enough to intruding on my space that my dog gave him the side-eye. He offered me an arm, hamming up the performance, which I ignored. There was something obscene about him acting like a gentleman, even if we both knew it was only an act. By the time we rounded the corner to the main road my hackles were raised.

"Enough already." I raised a hand. "I don't need an escort. Especially not the likes of you."

He sauntered along on his long legs. "Snippy, aren't we. That time of the month?"

He'd eaten up a lot of ground with those legs, I supposed, over the past few years. In all kinds of places. I didn't really give a rat's ass where he'd been. Anywhere but here, that was where. I glared at him, but didn't snap.

"Look, I don't know who you think you're fooling with this earnest suitor act--"

"Who says I'm fooling?"

I curled my lip. "Excuse me for having doubts about your staying power."

"Who says I'm staying?" His tone was dismissively smooth. "I'll be here through the winter, maximum. No reason to stick around longer than that. Shion thinks he can wrap up his projects by spring, and find help for the ones he can't."

It was spoken so easily that I nearly missed the sense of it. You bastard, I'd been about to spit at him. You miserable gutless piece of shit. The spite wasn't easy to gulp down, not when surprise had caught me like a bone in the throat. A pair of headlights flared toward us from the far end of the street: the bus, of course. I blinked up at the signpost beside me. We'd come to the stop.

The dog beside my hip was whining. I stared at Nezumi, who stood in the looming headlights like they were spotlights, like he was on a goddamned stage. Then the lights swooped past as the bus pulled up, brakes hissing. My dog jumped in as soon as the door opened, startling the driver, who let out a yelp.

I stepped up after her, digging into my pockets for a bribe. The driver started to raise the obligatory fuss: no unleashed animals allowed. Suddenly Nezumi was leaning against the door frame, batting his lashes at the driver, making suggestive noises about service dog and special permit and invisible leash.

"Like an invisible fence, you know? It's the latest tech."

The driver was female. She seemed fully aware that she was being fed a stream of fragrant bullshit. She waved me aboard without tearing her eyes away from Nezumi's face.

If he was expecting me to thank him--to let him off that easy--he had another thing coming. I turned around in the aisle long enough to scowl. Nezumi pushed off from the side of the bus and skived backward, shoving his hands into the pockets of his jacket. The driver probably thought he was smiling at her.

"You've got your own Shion," he called out, as the door began to slide. He made it sound like a taunt, even if it wasn't one. "And I'm taking mine with me, so you can shut your yap."