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The bedroom of an anonymous, well-fortified apartment in Manhattan, way too damn early

Dominic wakes instantly to the sound of tiny, scrabbling feet, and is across the room, weapon in hand.

“Show yourself --” he barks, and --

A troupe of mice come forth from the shadows. Mice walking on two feet, wearing clothing and carrying tiny weapons.

Dominic relaxes, fractionally.

These are Verity’s Aeslin mice, although what they want with him is a mystery.

The lead mouse comes forward, and clears its -- his? her? -- throat. “We bring a message.”

Dominic blinks. “Go ahead -- ah, I mean to say, you may speak your message.”

The lead mouse bows, and proclaims “In one sennight’s time, we shall hold the Celebration of the Natal Anniversary of the Arboreal Priestess. You are hereby invited to attend.”

“HAIL THE CELEBRATION OF THE NATAL DAY OF THE ARBOREAL PRIESTESS!!!! HAIL!!!!!!!!!!!! the other mice proclaim.

Dominic processes this and -- “You mean it’s Verity’s birthday.”

“Yes, as I just said,” says the mouse.

Dominic shakes his head. It’s too early for this. The mice look at him expectantly, and he belatedly realizes they are waiting on him to speak again.

“Thank you for bringing these tidings unto me,” Dominic says, trying to mimic the speech patterns of the Aeslin mice. “Know that I appreciate the invitation, and will attend the celebration.”

“And you will bring a suitable offering?” asks the lead mouse, and Dominic could swear it has narrowed its eyes at Dominic.

“Er, yes. Yes, I will … do that,” says Dominic.

“HAIL THE BRINGING OF A SUITABLE OFFERING!!!!!!!!!!! HAIL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Dominic gives up on the idea of going back to sleep anytime soon.

*****

The bedroom of an anonymous, well-fortified apartment in Manhattan, still pretty damn early, but at least the mice have gone home

Now Dominic just has to figure out what to gift to get Verity. He ponders. Weapons are always practical, and Verity would appreciate them, but it seems like he should get her something else, something a little more thoughtful. Still, it would do as a backup idea.

Something related to dancing? Possibly. But what? It had been made painfully apparently to Dominic that he knows very little about the professional dance world she inhabits as easily as she does the cryptid hunting one.

Dominic winces as he remembers how, in an attempt to outdo (and possibly impress) her, he’d ruined Verity’s chances at the Regionals He hadn’t known -- or cared -- at the time, but now he does.

Dominic shrugs. He has a week. He can worry about it later.

*****

The kitchen of an anonymous, well-fortified apartment in Manhattan, three days later

“Have you selected an appropriate gift yet?”

Dominic nearly drops the dish he’s washing. (A monster hunter with the best training money can buy, and a talking mouse gets the drop on him. Verity would laugh herself sick if she were here, and then tease him about it, constantly.)

Dominic turns to see the lead mouse from the other day standing on his kitchen counter, brandishing a tiny staff in his direction.

Because apparently such absurdities are commonplace in his life now.

“I have not, but rest assured that will I bring one to the celebration in four days time,” says Dominic. Verity has told him the best way to placate the mice is to simply go along with what they ask of you.

He does hope the visits to his place will not become a regular occurrence, though.

*****

A coffeeshop close to a five-star hotel

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate the free coffee,” says Sarah. “But we both know I wouldn’t have to pay for it anyway. Why am I really here?”

Dominic appreciates a woman who can cut to the chase. “I wish to get Verity a gift for her birthday, but I am having trouble selecting something appropriate.”

Sarah’s eyes narrow. “How do you know that? I know she didn’t tell you -- OH. The mice. Of course.”

“Yes. The Aeslin mice informed me, and have been most insistent that I bring ‘an appropriate offering’ to the celebration,” Dominic tells her.

“Hmmmm,” says Sarah, considering. “Well, your first problem is that you’re asking the wrong questions. What Verity would like as a present, and what the mice consider an ‘appropriate offering’ are two different things.”

After his visit from the Aeslin mouse priest? acolyte?, Dominic is not so sure of that. But he files away the information for later.

“So then, what do the mice consider to be a suitable offering?” Dominic asks.

*****

The sidewalk outside of Gingerbread Pudding, preparing for an awkward social interaction

 

Dominic pauses outside the door of Gingerbread Pudding. He hasn’t seen the brothers Sunil and Rochak since they’d helped each other dispose of the servitor bodies, and retrieve the body of Sunil’s and Rochak’s sister Piyusha. Not exactly the best note to continue an acquaintanceship on.

But Verity really likes their gingerbread. And so, apparently, do the mice. (“You can’t go wrong with cheese and cake,” Sarah had told him.)

Dominic steels himself and pushes the door open. At least, at this time of day, the shop is empty. Small favors.

Rochak looks up from behind the counter, and freezes.

There’s no way this is going to be anything but awkward, so Dominic plunges ahead. He clears his throat. “I’d like to buy some gingerbread, please.”

Rochak blinks at him. “Sure, okay.” He looks sidelong at Dominic. “May I ask why?”

“It’s Verity’s birthday in two days, and she loves your gingerbread. ‘The best gingerbread in the city’, she calls it,” Dominic says.

Rochak’s face softens a bit. “Well, that was definitely the last thing I expected when you walked in here. But yes. How much would you like?’

Dominic thinks about how much Verity will want, and how much the mice will want.

Then he orders twice as much.

And then he changes his mind, and orders three times as much.

Their dubious history aside, Rochak is perfectly happy to take Dominic’s money.

*****

An small, semilegal sublet in Greenwich Village

Verity looks surprised when she opens the door, and Dominic has a brief moment of panic that he squashes.

“I was informed that today is the Celebration of the Natal Day of the Arboreal Priestess,” says Dominic. “And was invited to attend, and to bring a suitable offering.”

Cheers break out from behind Verity, who grins ruefully and lets him in. “I should have known the mice were up to something. They’ve been agitated all week.”

“Happy Birthday Verity,” says Dominic, handing her two of the packages of gingerbread. He then turns to the mice and tosses the other package of gingerbread at them. They receive it with more cheers.

Verity is grinning at him, for so long that Dominic starts to get a little disconcerted. “What?” he asks.

Verity tosses one of the other packages at the mice as well. More cheering. “I invoke the Sacred Law of Food for Privacy. Bedroom privileges are revoked for the night,” she says, and then grabs Dominic by the collar and dragging him to the bedroom.

Verity’s birthday turns about to be a very happy celebration indeed. And the gingerbread turns out to be delicious.