Chapter Eight: Limerence

"You know?" Narax repeated.

| love | whatever happens | I'm here |, thought Kanaat.

"Just shut up," Keo told her brother.

| whatever happens | Kanaat thought.

| love |, she thought back. She needed Kanaat, and the fact that demonstrably nothing in her head would drive him away was just as needed. That didn't mean she wanted to escalate the spat with her brother from "Keo is being avoidant about shrens" to anything more... drastic.

"Keo, what do you -"

"We're in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Everyone is looking at us," Keo hissed.

"If I thought you'd actually turn up at any other place we could move to, I'd suggest leaving," Narax snapped back. "Far as I can tell the only thing keeping you here now is that you're too frazzled to get the gesture right."

Keo clenched her teeth. She hated it when Narax was right in that particular tone of voice. | help |

Kanaat, calmer around the topic than she was, guided her hand, and she barked out the word, and she was safely at home again.

| I'm going to find a way | to keep you | love |, she thought, pulling her husband close and burying her face in his shoulder.

Ilen was good at not spending money. He took his annual allowance of generic clothes, used his art supply budget to let the babies dye them (even rainbow splotches or muddy brown were better than the plain pale grey), and made do with that. He didn't usually attend any of the house's workshops or mini-classes, let alone the ones with materials fees. Even able to leave the house, he stuck with the free cafeteria. He wasn't used to walking by shops that would sell him things and had no impulse to purchase items that caught his eye even when he was in retail areas.

It was actually possible to live in the shren house without spending any money at all, as the food and shelter were free. This meant that Ilen could do that too.

This also meant that Ludei didn't have to pay him very much for his work, because Ludei knew perfectly well that Ilen didn't have much in the way of expenses.

Before he'd been fixed Ilen had usually dumped his pay half into the budget for things for the babies, and half into an "account" with the house finance office. He'd told Hallai how much was in it and she'd sighed and shaken her head.

"Even if they'll actually cough it up if you ask for it it's not as much as we need," she said. "Not if we want to have a shot at staying out of the house in case we don't find jobs right away. I don't relish the idea of crawling back here."

"I guess I can stop supplementing the babies' budget," Ilen said.

"Yeah, let your backup do it for a change if they don't have enough stuffed animals this year," said Hallai. "But I'm starting to think the best solution is to find a job outside the house before we try to move. We might as well get paid in dirt, here, it's pathetic."

"The budget -"

"Is made of shame money from dragons and special interest earmarks from Petar, I know, but still. You watch more than a dozen little brats at a time for decades, you save half of it, I've been working longer and make even more and save about as much, and we still can't afford to live anywhere worth going." She snorted.

"We can wait," Ilen said.

"Right. Wait."

"...and so now Keo's not speaking to me. At all. I tried promising to talk about nothing but my familiar and how Neris is thinking of having a kid and what I ought to fix for dinner. I even meant it. But nothing. I'd try passing messages through Korulen, but Korulen's just a kid, and I don't know what Keo would do if her kid started pushing the issue," Narax sighed.

"Don't talk Korulen into it for my sake," Ilen said, alarmed. "It's already - it's really something that you're here. That you still come here. I didn't know if I had any brothers or sisters until a little while ago. It's not the end of the world if not all of them want to talk to me. One does."

"Well, if it were just that I'd be haranguing Vara, too. But I don't get Keo." Narax chewed his lip, then sighed. "Well. I don't think she'll sulk forever. How have you been?"

"Hallai and I don't really have enough money to move out. So we're staying here and saving up more carefully," Ilen said. "Other than that there isn't really anything unusual going on."

Narax wished his brother led a more interesting life. "Kids do anything cute lately?"

"One learned to shift, last week," Ilen said. "It's less of an... an event, now that Rhysel's helping. I mean, it's still a major thing. But not in the same ways."

"Is it going home?"

"We don't know yet," Ilen said. "Sometimes the parents take a while to answer the letter but show up eventually."

Narax nodded slowly. "I wonder," he said, "if you should send two letters. One addressed to each parent. Make them look different, so it's not obvious they're both from you... I mean, I don't know how often..." He trailed off.

"Ludei's office handles that sort of thing," Ilen said quietly. "Once they learn to shift they move out of this room and into the dormitories. I guess I can suggest it to him."

"Where do you think you want to live?" Narax asked after a silence.

"I'm not sure. Maybe somewhere near you. I can't just fly wherever I want to go, not for very far on moth wings, and haven't learned to teleport. Ehail says I have shaky hands and might blow myself up if I try to learn," Ilen said.

"Let me see," Narax said.

Ilen held out a hand. It trembled, a little.

Narax nodded, drawing breath in through his teeth. "Yeah. If you wanted to be a wizard outright, spend ten years in school starting with little spells and get soot in the face every time a wobble messed up a gesture, you could train that away well enough - I would expect - but just learning to teleport, can't recommend it. I'll take you places you want to go, though."

"Thanks," Ilen said. "But if you came to pick me up at a place I shared with Hallai - I mean, more than just us living in the shren house together - I'm sort of worried that you might wind up having a fight with her. So maybe it would be better for me to get most places I'll have to be by myself."

"Fair enough," Narax said. "Your flying form's a moth?"

"Yes, why?"

"You picked that all by yourself when you were twenty?"

"Of course. Why?"

"Preference for bug forms run in the line," Narax said, smiling. "I turn into a beetle. Dad turns into a dragonfly. Uncle Brannel's got a wasp..."

Narax hated swapping Alyah back and forth. He hated it both ways, even though he infinitely preferred having Alyah to not, because whichever way the slowly growing baby was traded, Samia just looked at him. It wore at him: getting her back in Berehel, handing her over in Pehahel, and waiting for her return the next month.

In Rohel, Alyah arrived with a rolled-up note explaining that Samia had gone ahead and exposed her to the south flu while she was still young and it wouldn't be very dangerous, and Narax spent most of his month with his daughter pouring potions down her throat and trying to figure out if Esmaar had any lights who'd work with the illness so she wouldn't have to suffer through its full course.

On the twenty-fifth of Komehel, therefore, Narax decided not to be present when Samia came to retrieve Alyah at all. He wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't hit her. Quite apart from timing it so he'd be the one to deal with a sick baby, what kind of idiocy was it to expose a thudia who couldn't shift yet to the south flu? She'd only have to get it in her other form later anyway, and if she'd been shifting age, and had infected one form and then the other, she wouldn't have had to suffer through it at all insofar as she could always be in the healthy shape.

"Neris," he said with false brightness into his communication crystal.

"What do you want? I know that voice," said Neris.

"Come watch Alyah till Samia gets her. Hand her over when it's time. Please?" Narax said.

"Does she have the flu still?" Neris asked. "I like this form, and I didn't have the flu in it to get it over with when I was young..."

"You can watch her in elf form, Neris," Narax said, rolling his eyes. "I don't think Alyah will be particularly alarmed. I don't think she's contagious anymore, though."

"All right, fine, but just the once. I'm not Samia's very best friend, you know."

"I know."

Neris teleported into his house, elf-shaped, and ruffled Narax's hair affectionately. Narax slipped out to wander Paraasilan until the window of time when Samia might come by had passed.

He came back midafternoon.

Neris was gone.

And Samia was sitting on his front step, with Alyah in her arms and tears in her eyes.

"What are you doing here?" Narax asked.

Samia sniffled deeply. "Sitting," she said. It was the kind of smart remark that had gotten her demerits in school.

"Where's Neris?"

"I think she went home. I don't know. She teleported away," said Samia, "after she gave me the baby. What was she doing here?"

"Babysitting," hedged Narax. "Why aren't you back in Ertydo yet?"

"Because... Why was Neris babysitting?"

"I asked her to," said Narax, deliberately uncooperative, "and she agreed."

"I knocked on the door and a strange woman opened it - I suppose I may have seen Neris's elf form before, but I didn't recognize her until she spoke - but until I heard her voice I thought - she was just someone, some... some woman you met around here, who was in your house," Samia said, clutching Alyah tightly. "Holding our baby."

"Well, it was Neris. She didn't want to risk catching the south flu in human form," Narax said, closing his eyes. "Is that all you wanted to know?"

"Do you -" She hesitated, and when he opened his eyes she was looking up at him searchingly.

"Do I what?"

"Do you ever think about us getting back together?" she blurted.

Narax didn't know what to make of that. Did he ever think about it? Yes. Did he think it was a good idea...? Well, that depended on the day.

Little as it tended to help, he opened up his empathy, seeking a read on Samia more detailed than the four-color division he couldn't turn off. She was unsettled, sad, and when he opened up she poured loss and longing over him.

"Sometimes," he admitted, looking at Alyah.

They were silent for a long moment, and then Narax said, "Why do you ask?"

"For Alyah," Samia said at once, and then, "But - it shouldn't have - it was - we were good together once. And... you know what I wanted."

"What you wanted to do to get it," Narax murmured, imagining harmless Rhysel handing over her lifespan to a near-stranger out of misplaced guilt.

"For a few moments, not longer," Samia defended. "If we hadn't been linked you'd never have even known I'd thought it. Most people can think without having to suffer for it like they'd spoken, let alone -" She stopped and shook her head. "But that's not - not what I was talking about."

"What were you talking about, then?" Narax asked, looking at their child. Alyah was asleep, and there were unruly dark curls brushing past her eyebrows; if her hair grew more she'd be blinking away strands constantly.

"You know what I wanted but I've gone and gotten the opposite. I knocked on your door and Neris answered, and so what if it was Neris and not some stranger, it amounts to the same thing. And I'm still alive, and even if you could never love me enough - even if I could never be enough - it doesn't have to be now, or this soon, that you'd... have strange women in your house. Or Neris there to... do anything other than babysitting."

"Neris is married," Narax said tiredly. "They're considering having a baby."

"Well, her husband could have died or left her, I didn't know, I haven't actually spoken to anyone who knows her in months," muttered Samia.

"I suppose. As long as we're talking, why did you give Alyah the south flu this young? She's a thudia, it's still safe enough for five-year-olds, and then she could be in whichever shape wasn't sick."

"I didn't think of that. I had it when I was her age and don't remember it, I prefer not remembering it. But," she went on. "You wouldn't entertain Neris while she's still married," Samia pressed. "You wouldn't cheat on me if we were still married. I remember that conversation we had with Vara and Pilar, when she thought you were assigning too much importance to what some nation thought of your relationships, but you care about that, it means something to you, if we were still married I'd have you now even if I couldn't keep you forever."

"If you hadn't divorced me, yes, that would be true," Narax said. He'd honestly gone into his first marriage expecting his father's unbroken record. He hadn't expected to inherit (if such things were heritable) his mother's less stellar history, albeit so far only a quarter of her husbands had left her while still alive.

"I wasn't thinking," pleaded Samia. "I was still mentally fragile. Keo didn't do a perfect job, there were too many little details she didn't want to spend time out of her link to attend to. And I wasn't used to having a working brain, but I'm clearer-headed now."

"So you're saying you want to get back together - remarried outright?" Narax asked slowly.

"I could move here. Father will understand." She swallowed and looked at him until he allowed eye contact. "You wouldn't have to be without Alyah for weeks at a time."

And that was the kicker, wasn't it.

Narax had spent so much time early in their relationship - before the disaster, before everything had fallen apart - reassuring Samia that time didn't feel any faster for dragons, that eighty years weren't going to pass in the blink of an eye for him, that she would still be special to him even if she was a small fraction of his life.

The difference was, when Samia died, he would still have centuries and centuries of life and youth left, to spend more carefully.

He didn't choose forever in choosing Samia.

(That had really always been the sticking point.)

"Why don't you come inside," he said, "and we'll talk."

Samia got to her feet, still holding Alyah, and followed Narax through the door.

"Do I want to come to your wedding?" Korulen asked.

"That's what I asked," Narax said. "It's going to be a little thing at City Hall. Me and Samia and her stepfather and one of her brothers. And Ilen - and you and Runa, if you'll come and bring your sister. Keo's not talking to me, Vara would laugh in my face, my parents would have a serious talking-to with me about knowing what I'm getting into."

"...What are you getting into, Uncle Narax?" Korulen asked.

"Oh, grand," he chuckled weakly.

"No, seriously. I remember the first wedding - not that clearly, but I do remember it. And I remember what's happened since. Do you think this is a good idea?"

"Samia's improved some. We've talked. She's been spending some time over at my place," Narax said. "I didn't decide this overnight - it's been nearly a month. She's still not - what she would have been if she'd never been attacked. But she's livable."

"You're going to settle for livable?"

"I can settle for livable or I can settle for half a daughter," Narax said, shutting his eyes. "And she's gotten this much better in this amount of time. Maybe she'll go on stabilizing. Maybe by the time she's sixty she'll be the person she would've been at sixty."

"Or maybe not," Korulen said.

"Maybe not. I don't think Esmaar would be as expeditious about legally splitting us up at word one, compared to Ertydo, but it's still doable if need be. The circumstances of the original split were - were awful. Were a one-time thing. Nothing comparable is at all likely to happen again. I can live with Samia for a few decades for Alyah."

Korulen chewed on her lips. "I think I have an... an unsual home life. In terms of my parents getting along with each other. But I visit Dad's family house sometimes."


"And I've got a cousin who doesn't get along with his husband, and I feel really bad for their little boy," Korulen said. "But I bet they'd say they're staying together for the kid."

"Would you feel less bad for the little boy if his other dad lived across town - or across the country or across the ocean - and never got to have both of them around at once?" Narax asked.

"No, but if you can tolerate Samia and she can tolerate you, it doesn't have to be either-or, does it? Alyah could have you both at her birthday parties and move around between houses whenever it worked for your schedules instead of the rigid once a month thing."

"Samia would... not go for that," Narax said. He'd proposed something similar and she'd burst into tears. Eventually she'd managed a stammering explanation that she was too full of feelings for him even still to interact with him if he couldn't be hers "properly". This, she'd said, was why Alyah's exchanges had passed without a word.

Korulen pursed her lips. "Well," she said. "I'll get hold of Runa and we'll come to your wedding and I won't bother my parents about it."

"Thank you," Narax said. "It's in a week, seventh-and-naught."

"At City Hall. We'll meet you there," Korulen said.

Runa squirmed in her sister's arms. "Where're we going?"

"We're going to City Hall," Korulen said. "Uncle Narax is getting married."

"Mommy said she wouldn't do that anymore," Runa said.

"Not mindlinked, married."

"But I asked a person about what married is and he said like your parents," Runa said.

"Our parents are a few different things. Mindlink's just one of them, and more people get married," Korulen said. "Hold still. If I have to chase you around then I'm telling Mom you didn't behave, and she'll take your lemons."

"But the lemons are my lemons," Runa said. "They are mine."

"Mom gave them to you and she can take them away if you're bad." Korulen didn't expect to back up the threat. Telling her parents about where she'd gone with Runa on their outing would be more trouble than it would be worth to keep a wriggly parunia in line. But the threat alone might be effective. "Don't squirm."

"Can I sit up on your shoulder, please," said Runa.

"Are you going to fly away?" Korulen asked.

"No, no," said Runa, squirming one wing out of Korulen's arms to stretch it out. "I want to play with your hair. I want to sit on your shoulder and play with your hair."

"You want to leave snarls in my hair," muttered Korulen, but she loosed her hold and Runa climbed up to perch on her sister and run her claws through yellow strands.

"I'm combing it," Runa said. "I'm combing, not snarling, see." She tried to pull a lock of blond in front of Korulen's eyes but it snagged on her paw scales.

"Of course you are," laughed Korulen. "You're a little comb."

"I'm a gigantic comb. Combs're small," Runa objected. "I'm big!"

Korulen scratched Runa under the chin. Runa purred.

"How do people get married if Mommy doesn't do it?" Runa asked.

"In Esmaar, they get someone who works for the government to initial next to their names in a great big book," Korulen said. "Sometimes they have a party -"

"Are we going to a party?" exclaimed Runa in rapturous delight.

"No, no, this isn't the kind with a party," Korulen said apologetically. "It's just a few of us. But you'll get to meet a new uncle."

"Uncles are married to aunts or uncles, or they are brothers of moms or dads," mused Runa. "Uncle Narax is marrying an uncle?"

Korulen snorted with laughter. "No, he's marrying an aunt. You might remember Aunt Samia."

"No," said Runa breezily. "So how is there a new uncle? Ooh! Ooh! Did Grandma and Grandpa have a new baby?" She froze suddenly and dropped her forefeet to Korulen's shoulder, yanking a bit on tangled hair and provoking a hiss and sharp headtilt from her sister. "Someone might think he's cuter than me! But he's not."

"No - he's not a baby, he's not exactly new. He was just missing for a while," Korulen said.

"Oh. And then got found?" Runa asked.

"Right. But, um, don't mention him to Mom and Dad, okay?"

"He's a secret uncle?"

"Sure. He's a secret uncle. I know, and Uncle Narax and Grandpa Kilaer know, but he's otherwise a secret. Understand?"

"Uh-huh. And he's not a baby so I'm cuter."

Korulen smirked. "Yes. You're cuter."

It wasn't very weddinglike.

They wrote their names. The officiator initialed them. They weren't even dressed up.

Uncle Ilen got to hold Runa and encourage her chatter until Narax looked too uncomfortable for anyone to miss, however low Ilen's empathy was turned down. And then Ilen gave Runa back to Korulen and let Narax teleport him home.

Samia's family members all looked stiff and unhappy, and looked at the ceiling for the duration of the process until Samia teleported them back to Ertydo.

Korulen let Runa perch on her shoulder - "Oh, your hair is snarly. I'll fix it. I'm a comb," Runa said.

"Okay," Korulen said, smiling to herself. "Do your job, little comb."

"Big comb."

"Big comb," agreed Korulen, and she winced as Runa pulled at her hair. There was probably a spell somewhere in the library to fix knots.

"Secret Uncle is nice," Runa said.

"Yes," agreed Korulen. "He is nice."

"He pets right, and I didn't have to tell him how," Runa said. "It's good. Why is he a secret uncle?"

"Let's wait to explain that till you're older, okay?" Korulen said, trying not to sound desperate.

"Okay." Runa diligently worked on Korulen's hair while Korulen wove through pedestrian traffic. "Now I'm older."

"Lots older," said Korulen.

"Old as you?" Runa asked.

"Nope. When you're older than me, then we can tell you the mysteries of the secret uncle." Korulen's age would translate to Runa still being a very little girl.

"But I'm never gonna be older than you because you're older than me and no matter how much I try to get older faster I don't," Runa said.

"When you're a hundred," Korulen said. "Then I'll tell you everything if I haven't already."

"You're gonna be a grown-up when I'm a hundred," snuffled Runa. "I want a not-a-grown-up sister."

"Sorry, Runa," Korulen mumured. "I'd try to get older slower, but I can't."

"Try harder," said Runa as they approached the school.