Ron quickly closed the door of the Inn and leaned heavily against it, ready for the person chasing him to break it down. He tried to catch his breath. His heart was pounding so hard he was sure anyone looking at him would see it beating out of his chest like a cartoon rabbit in love.
Ten seconds went by. Then a minute. But the door didn't move. The knob offering not so much as a jiggle.
Ron was unconvinced. Darkness was beginning to cloud the edge of his vision, but he managed to grab a solid-looking wood chair and prop it under the doorknob. Still nothing.
The windows of the Inn were covered in delicate lace curtains embroidered with flowers. Kneeling down, he pushed them aside and peaked into the street, hoping and not hoping to catch a glimpse of his pursuer.
There was no sign of his shadow, but there was also no sign of… the street. Outside the window, Ron could see a large grassy field surrounded by mature trees and an impressive stone building in the distance.
"That's the Waterford Courthouse." Said a familiar voice. Ron turned and saw Mary standing a few feet away, surrounded by dogs, cats and birds. They'd been so quiet he hadn't even noticed them.
"The what? "Was all Ron could manage.
Mary smiled. "The Courthouse. She's trying to tell you you're safe."
"Safe?" Ron repeated, recognizing his answers were getting shorter.
"Yes." Replied Mary. "Now tell me, where have you been? I've been worried sick."
Ron wanted to reply, but the floor suddenly looked very cozy, and he promptly told it so with his face.
"You're my hero Ron," said Kay, planting a wet kiss on Ron's right cheek. "Thank you for saving us from those terrible men at the bar."
"No, you're MY hero Ron," said May, planting an equally wet kiss on Ron's left cheek. "You're going to save the Children of Veil."
"He's mine!" Hissed Kay. Stealing another kiss.
"You had your chance," growled May. I'm your favourite, right Ron?
"You're both wrong," said Mary, planting one on Ron's lips. “I'm his favourite.”
"Liar." May & Kay said in unison. "Tell her, Ron."
"Tell me what, Ron?" Mary asked.
Ron smiled as he opened his eyes, only to come face to face with two dogs vigorously licking his face.
Standing above him was Mary, her look of concern betrayed by a smirk taking up residence in the corner of her mouth.
"Ron! I'm so glad you're awake. You had me worried."
Although Ron knew you couldn't die from embarrassment, he wished he could at that moment. He sat up quickly, wiping the layers of slobber from his face and unceremoniously shoeing away his four-legged fans.
He was in a cozy, second-floor bedroom. Ron guessed it must be Mary's. The floor was covered in flowers that seemed to be growing up through the floorboards. They snaked their way across the walls and ceiling, eventually spilling out a large window. A gentle breeze brought the smell of roses, clover and lilac, a scent Ron remembered well from their first encounter.
Mary pointed to the edge of the bed. "There are some fresh clothes for you and soap and hot water on the nightstand. Get cleaned up and meet me downstairs."
She left but paused briefly before closing the door. "And don't think I'm letting you off the hook, my silly boy. I want to hear everything!"
Ron looked down to see a white cotton shirt and jeans laid out on the bed like a flat person. The jeans spilled over the edge, ending at a pair of sneakers stuffed with socks.
As promised, there was soap and a basin of hot water on the nightstand. Ron stripped off his clothes and washed the adventure of the last two days off him. Somehow, the basin always remained full and warm, and any water Ron splashed on the floor was quickly soaked up by thirsty flowers.
As he washed and dressed, Ron noticed two Siamese cats staring at him from a high bookshelf. He was pretty sure they were judging him.
"I know. I know." Ron said to them, not expecting a reply. "I screwed up, and now I have to explain it to Gary, Carl, Bria, Kira… oh Gods!"
Ron eyed the open window, a plan forming in his mind. It began with a second-story leap and ended with him working as a Hungarian coal miner named Tibor. He looked back at his two judges.
"Don't look at me like that. I wasn't going to do it… Anyway, I'm claustrophobic.
The view outside the window was strange. It wasn't the quaint cobblestone alley where Ron and his brother Carl had first encountered the Scratch & Sniff Inn. He was looking out over a large park dotted with trees and surrounded by a low stone fence. At one end stood the building Mary called The Waterford Courthouse, an imposing structure with six stone columns in the front.
What had Mary said? Ron thought. The Inn was protecting me? He thought it funny, considering how she had hidden from him when he needed rescuing. But now, it seemed she was using that same trick to hide from Ron's pursuer. He had no idea how she was doing it, but as long as it kept his shadow away, he didn't need to know.
The clothes fit nicely. They weren't precisely Ron's style, but he was happy to be rid of his Girl Power hoodie. He rolled up his sleeves to just past his elbows, slipped on the sneakers and opened the door. Without invitation, the two cats scrambled out of the room in a blur of fur and judgement. Ron followed.
Whatever jealousy issues the Inn had with Ron seemed to still linger as he had trouble finding Mary. Long hallways doubled back on themselves and ended in stairs that always seemed to be going up.
Eventually, the Inn relented, and Ron found Mary in the kitchen, surrounded by a mountain of empty platters. The only sign they had once contained food were piles of bones, picked clean. Ron could smell all four food groups, chicken, beef, pork and venison.
Mary looked distraught. "She's protesting all the meat."
"Who's protesting?" Ron asked, realizing the answer before he'd finished asking.
Mary rolled her eyes. "She knows how important this meeting is, so she'll put up with having it here. But she's making me clean the dishes."
Mary was indeed elbow-deep in soapy water. One hand held a half-submerged dish, the other an oversized scrub brush. Soap bubbles were popping all around her. Ron didn’t think her hair could get any curlier, but right now she looked like a soggy dandelion.
Ron thought it made sense the Inn wouldn't like animals being eaten inside her. (No, that didn't sound right at all. Under her roof? Better). She loved strays, including, it seemed, naive seventeen-year-old werewolves. Mary said the Inn was a protector. Killing animals for any reason would be a terrible betrayal of that title.
But this mission was critical. And the Inn's willingness to have meat eaten within her walls was proof of that. Plus, since speaking with the sisters, Ron knew it wasn't just the lives of werewolves at stake; it was the lives of all creatures Beyond the Veil.
"Help?" Mary asked, as much with her eyes as with her voice. Ron was tempted. He felt good around Mary and wanted to please her. But he had to face his brother and warn him about all he'd discovered. Plus, he had a hunch the Inn wanted Mary to do this alone.
"Sorry. I've got to go see my brother."
Mary said nothing and turned back to her dishes. He'd have preferred one of Carl's childhood beatings to her silence. Without another word, he left the kitchen.