The bell rang just as Alice managed to seat the tip of the microdriver in the slot of the screw. Her muttered curse did not go unheard, and the strong voice of Brother Vincent scolded her for the slip.
“Sorry, Brother,” she said. She wormed the driver back from inside the tangled wiring harness and set the palm-sized device she had been working on aside. Brushing at her robe, she stood and moved to the door.
On the other side of the portal waited Kress Mrrr, her arms burdened with a large box. The cat grinned past perfect teeth.
“Hey, Sister,” she said, her tone respectful but also that of a friend. Kress always said ‘Sister’ as though she was addressing an actual family member, and not as the title it was. Of all Folk, Alice was the least likely to be offended by such conduct.
“Kress. Please, come in. Be welcome,” Alice said, stepping aside and beckoning the beautiful young cat into the temple. Her fluffy white tail came last, nearly brushing Alice’s muzzle as Kress walked near her.
“So there was a group of security Folk that went out and among other things they rescued a crawler that had taken a toothie rocket. Wasn’t much left but I scrapped the parts. I figured you and Brother Vincent could use some spare bits.”
Her voice was high and energetic as she practically danced into the temple, a snow-furred cheerleader poured into short shorts and a grease-marked shirt that barely contained her ample curves. Alice had often wondered what the secret was that let a mechanic of Kress’s talents crawl into and all over the dirtiest, greasiest machines and still come out brilliantly white.
“Spare bits?” she asked, the smile on her face mirrored in her voice.
Kress looked back over her shoulder and threw a wink at the coyote. “I find things,” she said.
“What kind of things?”
Kress stopped and slowly turned, letting her gaze linger on Alice. Her voice took on a slightly deeper edge. A tiny bit of pink tongue darted out to moisten her lips.
“For you? Oh, that’s gonna be a big list.”
Alice could feel the color creep into her cheeks as she met the appraising stare of the cat. She wasn’t able to keep the eye contact and opted to gesture at the box.
“So what did you find?” she asked.
Kress tilted the open top toward Alice, flashing an image of assorted bits of machinery and electronics beneath an expanse of cleavage. For a moment the coyote was caught up in the softness above the box, but her gaze eventually fell to the piles of metal and circuit boards, and then her expression became one of raw delight.
“Brother Vincent!” she called, using the tip of a claw to hold the box in her range of vision.
“To the cog apply oil, Sister,” said the deep voice of Brother Vincent. The aged leopard shuffled out from a door and began the walk across the room, his staff tapping on the floor as he moved. He flashed a toothy grin on seeing their guest.
“Kress Mrrr,” he said in booming tones. “As always it is a pleasure to see you here. Welcome, child, to the home of Gara.”
“Why, Brother, don’t you look wonderful,” she said. “Your spots are awful shiny.”
A purring chuckle slipped from his throat. “Perhaps a little too much grease of late,” he said.
“Now don’t be like that. I like shiny.”
The chuckle erupted into a full-throated laugh. “My child, I am far too old for your wiles, although I do appreciate the flattery.”
“Shot down before I even got out of the hangar this time,” Kress said. Another wink, slower this time.
“If you are nice, I shall let you be the first to see my new creation,” he said, dangling the kind of bait he knew she could not resist. Her eyes flashed and her lips peeled back in a grin.
“Oh, now, you know I’ll be nice for a chance to see your toys,” she said. “Did you get that resonator fixed?”
“Purrs like a mechanic now,” he shot back, his casual flirtation delivered over his shoulder as he walked from the room. Kress handed the box of parts to Alice and jogged after the older cleric. Alice blushed as she caught herself watching the hindquarters of the cat in motion.
“I’ll inventory these,” Alice called, placing the box atop a small table. She pulled items out of the box and documented them one at a time as Kress and Brother Vincent examined his latest device. From time to time, she could hear an excited meow come from the shop as Brother Vincent demonstrated some new quality of the thing. Alice had scarcely been made privy to the details of whatever Brother Vincent was constructing. It was of no concern to her, however. Her paws were being guided by Gara in her own manner, and as she slipped the control module from a targeting system from the box, her eyes twinkled.
“This will certainly make the aiming easier,” she muttered. The possibility existed that she might not be granted the module once Brother Vincent went through the list of requested items, but she recorded its presence nonetheless. She would never advance as a servant of Gara if she falsified the records in order to keep a part for herself.
She had finished the inventory for more than half of the small pieces in the box when Kress returned to the room. The cat sidled up to Alice and bumped hips with her.
“Hey there, Sister. How you doing?”
“I am making headway. There were a lot of parts in here.”
“Well, you know me. I like a nice full box.”
“I see that.”
“One day maybe you’ll help me fill it?”
“I would be delighted,” Alice said. She looked up to see Kress shaking her head.
“Right over your head,” the mechanic mumbled. She glanced around the temple and then leaned forward to gently kiss Alice before pulling away and bounding for the door.
“See you next time,” she called.
“I hope to have my teleporter finished by then,” Alice replied, waving to her friend. Her lips tingled and she wondered what the kiss meant for their friendship. It had been warm and soft, and more than just a pleasant goodbye gesture.
The temple door closed and she picked up a circuit board, logging it into inventory. She shrugged, and after a moment, her attention was riveted on the box of supplies. Still, though, she could taste the lip gloss of the mechanic.