In the evenings, the Watchers lit the church candles. Warmth seeped between the pillars. The center aisle turned golden and warm, while the side aisles were streaked with grey shadows. Flickering light and thin, steady smoke sprawled between the arching stone walls, stretching the heat of the afternoon a little further, so long as no one ventured outside. The close air hugged and held and gave an excuse to shrug out of the cover of coats and cloaks.
Ren did not come to church in the evenings anymore. His parents had stopped dragging him through the doors years ago, about the same time he had learned to embarrass them with a well-timed swear, and just a little after had started sailing on a ship of his own choosing.
He preferred the afternoons, the step down onto an echoing floor while sunlight flirted through the high windows and never quite reached the floor. A haven of cool air, set halfway below the street, chilled relief from the city two steps above him. His coat hung unbuttoned, and the small bite of the air reminded him gently what it felt like to be made of real flesh and bone and skin.
It was not a reminder he felt he needed, until he was standing there. Then he craved it. He swallowed it down, breathed it in, and soaked it sweetly into his bones before exhaling purely air.
And it seemed wrong, standing in the sharp face of the divine, to want to feel so animal.
Warden Ballo saw him arrive and, in her usual patience, airily ignored him. Sweeping the floors, she tidily removed the dust and dirt the morning crowd had brought in with them, brightening the flagstones back to wind-washed glory. She smiled as she worked. Head bent, it was hard to catch, but her hair was bound back in a knot, and the cheerful, straight lines of her face were obvious at least. When she was finished, she threw the pan of dirt out the door. She put the broom away. She disappeared into the back for a few minutes, returned and walked a cursory circle around the room before finally bringing herself face to face with Ren, hands hung loosely at her sides.
“You’re back sooner than I expected,” she said. And bent around the tone of her voice, her smile felt suddenly cocky. Wry and glinting.
Ren held her eye with a little more difficulty than before, smiled awkwardly in response.
“I’m expected now?” he asked, trying to put his feet flat on the ground again.
“You always manage to come back,” she said. “When you feel like shedding a skin.”
He blinked, just once. It was a sharper phrase than he would have used to for the short fall to the church floor, but he felt the precision of it. He always felt cleaner after he left here. Stripped and scrubbed, he realized, and more for having lost whatever clung on. He settled his hands in his pockets, more comfortable in the chill than before. His father had always come to wash himself in tears, hidden in the shadowy corners. His mother had come to scrub away her secrets. He hadn’t liked how that settled, in the sticky warmth of the evenings. This felt pleasant and raw and welcome.
But he narrowed his eyes at Ballo, for using such a bestial phrase.
“I thought you didn’t like the way I talked about this place,” Ren murmured.
She turned, titled her head back to look at the vaulted ceiling. He waited to see her brace her smile and turn back to him, but seemed she was hiding the stretch of it from him.
“I think you’re wrong,” Ballo said languidly. As if the laziness of her conclusion would help keep it from nipping tender skin. He glared at her a little harder.
“You feel different here,” she said. “Step inside these walls, and clean yourself up. Clean yourself down. Get back to whatever it is that you think you are on the meaty inside, where you’re all bone and blood and instinct.” She gave him a sideways look, face still tilted toward the window light. “It could be.”
Ren rolled his eyes, looked back at her and hoped she’d seen it before she returned her gaze to the ceiling.
“You think you become a brighter animal than the rest of us,” Ballo murmured. There was a small hesitation. Her voice turned a little deeper. “But even foxes don’t come to the bathhouse. This place is so very, very human.”
Ren watched the steadiness of her expression, the strength of her conviction carved in the stone of her mouth. For just a moment, it was impossible to argue with, and he felt his heartbeat more than his pulse, his breath more than his bones.
Then she faced him again. “But I’m glad you come,” she said.
He glared at her again and Ballo smiled, happy in what she knew.
I’m a thief! The diplomat over here asked us to write something inspired by the phrase, there are no foxes in the bathhouse. It took me long enough. Check out her original piece here. Then take a peek at what all the other thieves got away with.