Nate Saito: Bittersweet 16th

Word count: 650 (1 to 5 minutes) | Rating: G | Original Fiction | Note: absent parent

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The trolley didn’t stop outside his house, which was set back from the main streets on the edge of a not-great neighborhood. They managed just fine in the city anyway. Nate marched up the slight hill, opening the front door and dropping his shoes and bag just inside on the racks for each.

“I’m home, Mom,” he raised his voice while he locked the door behind him and smiled at the smell from dinner tonight. Spices and the warmth from the oven spread through the pagoda—one of the benefits of a small house. “Tom threw a sci-fi comic at me when I got to his place. I think that’s my birthday present…?”

He liked the beginning of it, anyway. Something about a rough-and-tumble rogue type getting caught up in a plot involving the survival of the galaxy. Not original, maybe, but pretty cool. Nate heard his mom pacing around and clacking a spoon against a pan in the kitchen, so why didn’t she answer him? He eased towards the kitchen, leaning to peek around the hallway’s corner. “Mom…?”

He jumped when she tossed confetti in the air, grinning. “Happy 16th, Nathaniel!” 

The light laugh forced its way out of him, and he flicked some confetti from his hair. A couple years back exactly, she helped him bleach the tips and style it in a faux hawk. Nate didn’t ask for anything that involved this year, since he’d learned to manage that on his own. He was happy enough getting tech and tools to make more things. Sometimes presents for her, so it was a little circular, but Nate didn’t mind. When you got down to it, that was the least he could do.

“Putting the botvac to the test, huh?”

She chuckled, pointing behind her to the cake on the table with letter candles sticking out to spell ‘Happy Birthday’. “Oh, sweetie. That already happened once I made that.”

Nate glanced from it to her, smirking and raising his eyebrows to ask the question he had in mind. She nodded with a sly smile, a strand of black hair falling loose from her bun into her face. “Raspberry cream, just like you asked.”

Of course, that meant he had to take a test taste, jogging over to swipe a fingertip of frosting from the top. Reflexively, she smacked his shoulder playfully once she caught up.

“You get one pass, birthday boy!” She passed him to the heart of the kitchen, taking out two plates from the cabinets and forks from the drawer. 

“Yeah, yeah,” he teased.  Closing the drawer with a bump of her hip, she circled back around to meet him by the seat he chose at the table. Nate shifted uncomfortably and traced  the dappled pattern on the tablecloth with his finger. Like that would make the real question  any easier when he had no choice but to ask about it. He could be direct or indirect, it didn’t matter. Nate knew the answer already anyway. “Did you, uhh, get the mail? Today?”

Of course she sighed. Quiet, just a breath like any other, but he heard it all too clear. Almost deafening and definitely crushing. “Honey,” she started and the sympathy hanging in her words confirmed what he knew to begin with.

“Nah, forget I asked.” Nate waved it off, resting back and tapping the table in front of him. If he just managed to look alright, the rest would come after. It had to. “Let’s just have the cake, okay? It’s fine, really.”

She put both plates in front of him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders with the back of the chair wedged awkwardly between them—not that he cared. Nate buried his face in her arms, the ones that carried him, helped him learn to ride a bike, held him, always there—always there. His breath hitched even when he tried to hold it back.

“All we need’s right here, baby,” she whispered, her voice thick too. “I’ll always love you.”

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Into My Shadow: Mari Character Introduction

Word count: 1600 (3 to 13 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Into My Shadow | Note: Fantasy races (common and original), magic, post-apocalyptic setting

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The Blossoming of Year 185: Dawn’s Strike Era

The streets of Garres were like veins, carrying goods and people wherever they needed to go in the city. Sometimes, to places they’d rather not be. Reliable and chaotic, the contradictory way life worked anywhere else. It made the cobblestone streets easy to map in her mind, especially with practice. Anyone could tell the sunbaked almshouse walls from the lofty towers of the governmental district, but only a local could get from one to the other without being late or lost.

Exactly why living in one place for years wasn’t so bad.

Mari knew the routes and schedules of most carriages there. Not to mention basically everyone who kept the city’s blood pumping. Not that any of them really saw her. She was known for her ties to the Union. Only the half-elf who ran their errands and did their chores. Beyond that, she was no more than one of the strangers outside. And it was incredible, the things people let you see and hear when you were invisible.

But if there was one skill she had mastered, it had to be knowing when to wait for the right moment.

The morning mail coach came soaring down the road, and everyone knew they had the run of the road. Stopping one meant paying a fine—even if you did it by mistake. Mari was in a hurry too, poised to hop across the street on the raised steppingstones the moment it went by. She was close enough to feel it rush past, and a small splash from puddles of yesterday’s rain hit her boots. Nothing that wouldn’t dry. Especially if she ran, and she always did.

Her boots barely tapped against each roughly circular stone that kept people above the water, waste, and manure, then she was on the other side. The poor ladies and gentlemen serving the country from its capital couldn’t do that in their fine heeled shoes and fluffy wigs. Their jobs seemed important with all the shouting, but pretty stifling. So long as she did hers to avoid getting yelled at herself, it didn’t matter.

Darting around frantic storeroom maids in the center of the market square, Mari made her way to the weapons and armor marketplace. The heavy smell of molten metal and coal from smithies burned her nostrils before she even saw the magic shops. All the stores there were more like workshops where you could buy goods, not like the tents and stalls of most other places. Maybe the merchants of magical wares didn’t quite belong there, but there they were. No one really wanted to see them while they picked out a new suit before the festival season or resupplied on early summer vegetables and wines.

Pulling the empty satchel up her shoulder, Mari kept her eyes up and stuck close to the wall. The only people around the weapons shops were assistants to the Guard Captain, hunters, and mercenaries. They covered the whole nation’s people: dwarves, elves, people with mixed descent like her, and even the lone chiali now and again. None of them were gifted with patience for anything that didn’t apply to their work, or none that Mari knew. All she had to be was fast and out of their way. She had to move quickly anyway since it would be hot and muggy soon, and Mari wouldn’t be up to as much running.

She ducked into the open rounded doorway of the mages’ goods shop soon enough. Could have done it with her eyes closed, but it was better that she didn’t.

“Hm?” The shopkeep frowned over the counter, glaring down at her from his stool. That sternness was just part of his expression, she learned that shortly after they first met years ago. He was framed by jars of all kinds of magical goods, some open and easy to reach and others sealed and locked on the top shelves behind the front counter. His thick, black moustache with flecks of grey twitched with his ‘tsk’. Fat fingers tied off the thin rope around some gathered stems of faintly glowing thistles that she didn’t recognize. Not yet. The dwarf was no mage, but he knew more than she’d ever forget about magic in the wild—and he liked to remind anyone who came in of that. “Just you, is it?”

“Yeah,” she said with a nod, dropping the rolled parchment on the counter. The Union’s crest was emblazoned on the outside beside the ribbon holding it closed—a precaution for all their parchment in case something important was lost, supposedly. “Got the whole Union order here.”

He kept that surprising delicate touch from the flowers when he swept up the scroll, pulling the ribbon loose to unroll it. From habit, he muttered it out loud as his dull blue eyes moved down the list.

That week’s resupply trip called for more of what Mari recognized. No Union storeroom run was complete without basic healing herbs, but this one included various roots and powders to carve into protective sigils on armor and shields. Plus some fake-sounding items like will-‘o-the-wisp dust. Mari read about them in the Union’s in-house library when most people were asleep, and she doubted they gave off anything like dust. If finding your way back to your original spot after getting tricked by a will-‘o-the-wisp only meant following a dust trail, why did people stay lost?

But if the Union mages asked for it, it had to be real. Maybe it wasn’t literal. Like sprigs of baby’s breath.

“The glass is new,” she interrupted his mumbling and pointed to the windows. Usually, just fancy clothes and jewelry stores had glass windows, but they had gotten more common in other shops with decent sales. Having the Union buying through him most of the time would do that for his profits. She heard him stomping down the ladder from his stool while she leaned to check for outside hinges through the window. “Kept the shutters. Smart.”

“Mmhm. Wait here.”

Wait, he said, like it ever took him long. Mari was barely taller than him when she did her first supply run for the Union, and she was amazed at how quickly he measured and packaged everything. While he worked, she put her satchel up on the counter and flipped it open for him just in time for him to nestle the first bag of herbs in.

“Walk gently,” he ordered as he pat down a box of packed powder.


“Not how you usually dart around here.” He pierced her with another glare, tossing the tired leather flap over her bag to close it.

“Yes, sir.”

“I mean it.” Punctuating that with a calloused fingertip pointed at her, he moved the bag over to her open hands at the counter’s edge.

“I said yes,” she repeated with an uneasy grimace, not sure what else he wanted. Mari raised the shoulder strap over her head for the steadier carrying it obviously needed.

“And this.” Less gently, he brought a package up onto the smooth wooden countertop and pushed it over to her. The wrapping job wasn’t like his usual. No practical plain paper held in place with twine, but deep slate blue paper with thick silver ribbon adorning it. The contents were clearly a book. Mari softened her grimace but didn’t reach for it. In all the years she knew him, he didn’t adorn anything. If someone wanted to get a gift to a member of the Mages’ Union, they wouldn’t go through him and definitely not her. Even a surprise gift would be better off handled by actual delivery people.

“What’s this?”

“For you.” Glancing back down to it and again to him, Mari closed her hand around the strap over her chest. This just got more and more confusing. Who would give her something? Mari didn’t talk to anyone she didn’t have to, so there was no one to send her an unexpected present.

“What for?”

“A gift,” he observed, being his usual blunt self, but without any of clarity that usually came with it. He must have read something in her glance at the present because he muttered something before offering something she could hear. “If you get your mind set on working at that place ‘til you’re grey, you need to be serious about educating yourself. Before you get killed.”

“Alright,” she asked, as bewildered as ever. No one got a nice shop with glass windows and shutters because they gave out gifts to the spry little stray running tasks for the Union. Still, she picked up the package. It was heavier than she guessed it would be… Probably two books, then. Trading the grimace for a level stare, Mari thanked the stars she was talking to someone who didn’t waste words. “But what’s that to you?”

The long hairs of his moustache ruffled in his scoff as he settled back up onto his stool. Leaning over the counter, he almost looked like he was smirking. “You have a birthday, don’t you?”

“Suppose I do.” Giving him a shrug, she continued her answer. “Not sure when it is, though.”

“In that case, doesn’t matter when you get a present.” Nodding to the book, he scooched back into his seat and reached for another bundle of glowing thistle. “There’s your gift.”

“From?” He quirked an eyebrow, clearly at his limit for questions. She should have figured it was straight from him anyway. The people who knew about her and magic and also apparently had a reason to present her with a new book… Well, there weren’t a lot of them. “Right. Thanks.”

“Mmhm. Don’t die.”

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Into My Shadow: Noyo Character Introduction

Word count: 1800 (5 to 15 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Into My Shadow | Note: Fantasy races (common and original), magic, post-apocalyptic setting

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Sun’s Tears of Year 1: Shrouded Era

Next to Garres, this farming town was small. Central buildings were stone or brick, but most homes were logs or timber beaten down by rain. It was a matter of resources, and Noyo knew that before crossing the fence bordering the town with smoke and nightmares not far behind. One pressing in closer than the other. Chaos filled in the size difference, spreading through the group of survivors from the capital like an illness. They’d felt the danger had passed as they made beds and chairs out of anything that would work in this makeshift medical space. It was alright to panic now, at least in their minds. 

That was never true.

Still, some people cried while others called for people they couldn’t find and may never again. Noyo guessed it was some kind of closure to know there was no reason to look for the people they’d lost.

“Hey,” a tanned man interrupted their thoughts. Stout and built under a layer of padding from age rather than a lack of activity, they guessed he was the kind who built places like the hall they were in. He was certainly old enough to be their father despite their starkly different lifespans. His dark, fine hair was cut close, excluding his long stubble, and his deep-set eyes seemed weary despite their sharpness. From Noyo’s place on the bench against the wall, he looked taller than he truly was. “Fekhi’s ready to see you.”

Standing, they were at eye level with him. He led the way to a hall on his left and presumably toward Fekhi, their impromptu mayor. Leaders manifested in a crisis, often without even trying. Who knew what Fekhi was before? Now she was overseeing a town and more people than they likely ever had as guests. So far, she was managing. The lanterns dotting the halls showed the place was well-kept, if worn, and the occasional vase or landscape painting added some life to it. Before people fled to their village, it would be quaint. But they acted fast and on good advice. That was a promising sign that Noyo stood a chance of being listened to.

“I’m Enis,” he started, polite but clearly leading towards something. He turned a corner and held close to the wall while two mages passed in a hurry. Probably more survivors. The town was sizable to some, that was true. But they were running low on space as it was, and crowding would lead to desperation.

“Noyo,” they offered all the same. There was only one thing he could want from them, and it would be painful to mention no matter how they went about it. Given the choice, Noyo preferred the faster route. “You know someone in the capital?”

He looked away, focused on the path ahead with shoulders squared. “My son. Haven’t seen him among the survivors.”

“I’m sorry.” What else was there to say? If he wanted answers, he would ask for them and give a description. Approaching a plain oak door with a carved flower mounted in the center, he did exactly none of that.

“So am I.” With two knuckles, he rapped on the office door and nodded for Noyo to enter. “Head on in.”

Turning the doorknob and stepping inside, Noyo was instantly crowded out by crates, bags, and stacks of supplies piled wherever they would fit. A tower of bins leaned ominously against the wall beyond the open door and they had toe a tied off bag aside on the way to the burdened desk where Fekhi stood staunch. Making a casual, sweeping gesture past piles of parchment and a half-filled tankard, the dwarven woman in charge extended her invitation.

“Take a seat if you can find one.”

A rich auburn braid threaded with grey hairs hung over her shoulder, and she offered a tired smile with her hospitality.

“I’m fine.”

“Suit yourself.” Having a long drink to polish off the tankard, she sighed and stared out a window Noyo couldn’t fully see through past a different stack of crates. Not that there was much to see but watching the horizon get swallowed up in the spreading shroud, hour by hour. Days away from this place, which was not much of a comfort.

“Damn it all. Just about every soul that fled Garres is half out of their wits,” she said, as if that much wasn’t clear already, “So it all comes down to you.” Setting down the tankard with a hearty clank, Fekhi got to the point. “What happened?”

“I’m not certain on the details,” Noyo admitted. Honesty would get them further than fabrication, and they needed her trust. Sometimes, that meant delivering bad news. “I came across a Union member before that smoke reached us, and he gave me the equipment your people took from me.”

“And you’ll get your mask back when our Union is done figuring it out.”

A flat stare and slight tilt of their head said all Noyo had to. Anything that was taken in secret while they were treated by healers wasn’t likely to come back, and they both knew better.

“You’re with the Mages’ Union, I take it?”

Strange, to ask a question so pointless. Even if Noyo hadn’t been, any mage outside the Union would never be so reckless as to confess to it. “I am.”

“Then trust them if you can’t trust me.” In that short sentence, it was clear why her people did trust her. Willingness to meet Noyo in the middle, or what she thought was the middle, was an impressive gesture considering Noyo wasn’t one of her own. “You know that was the only thing protecting you from whatever’s out there. We need to find out how it works to make more.”

“You’ve got barriers,” Noyo observed, not prepared to yield regardless. This conversation would uncover where Fekhi’s limits were for patience. A promising start meant nothing for the future. “It’s only those, but smaller.”

“That’s not the point.” Exasperation bled into her voice with a breathy hiss, and Noyo expected that small shake of her head would be the end of it. “Listen,” Fekhi began, working her way around the desk to plant herself in front of Noyo with only some difficulty. “I promise you’ll get it back. First, here and now, you need to tell me what’s out there.”

Tilting her head back to make eye contact took away some of the effect, but Fekhi deserved credit for crossing her arms and continuing anyway. And Noyo did find themselves believing in her integrity. Taking a seat on a crate after all, they nodded.

Quirking a brighter smile, she nodded back to Noyo. Some of her bangs fell loose from the braid, a fact that went ignored. “Good.”

“The smoke is changing people. Some faster than others.” That was putting it lightly. Some people preferred that to the gruesome reality, although they’d all find out soon enough what Noyo meant. Still, they had to begin somewhere.

“Changing them how?”

“Their skin looks badly bruised at first. They get scared, and it gets worse. Then they get violent.” Another understatement. It would do. “Some get sick too, and their body changes. Claws, horns, fangs…” Tapering off, Noyo took a moment to close their eyes and gather their thoughts. The danger hadn’t passed yet. Now was not the time to get lost in unimportant details. Fekhi waited in silence while they took a slow, steadying breath and opened their eyes again. “It’s not consistent. It’s like magic, but nothing I’ve found in my studies.”

Muttering some harsh dwarven phrase, Fekhi flicked the braid over her shoulder and set her hands on her hips. “Will the fences hold?”

“No.” It was only the truth of the matter, and part of the whole reason Noyo asked to speak to Fekhi to start with. “But the foundation is there for something that will.”

“Oh, no you don’t,” she said through a chuckle and wagging her finger like Noyo was an errant child. As a fraction of Fekhi’s age, Noyo supposed they were little more than that to the mayor. “You’re barely an adult by elven standards; you leave this to us.”

“Building it up will take days. You’ll need help.”

Brushing that off with her whole hand this time, Fekhi got more insistent rather than less. “We’ve got the barrier—”

“To keep smoke out, not those who transformed.” The implication weighed heavy between the two of them, between the violence and the distortions made for tearing, biting, and piercing. Even as a mage, Noyo knew there was a limit to what magic alone could achieve.

“I know that.”

“Then you know there’s no time to argue,” they offered in agreement. Fekhi had centuries of knowledge and an effortless command, and Noyo was one of few survivors with a clear mind thanks to that mask. Together, they could turn Brook Mills into a haven and an example for other settlements to follow.

Fekhi rubbed her chin and weighed the options she had, which were not many with no guarantees among them. Clicking her tongue, she made her decision. “Tell me your plans, and we’ll bring it to the Union, see how it works with the barriers.”

Noyo frowned, casting yellow eyes to the worn floor. The Union shouldn’t be trusted just yet. Why did they have barriers ready to activate before the smog even appeared in Brook Mills? How did they have that so soon, but claimed not to know about the protective masks from the capital? Too many questions, and never enough answers. Anywhere it went, the Mages’ Union never looked kindly upon people asking questions.

“What is it?”

Looking to her again, Noyo studied Fekhi for a moment. And again, she was patient. Noyo’s options outside of the mayor didn’t amount to much either. In a way, that made them the best choice for each other to achieve what they wanted. “We should meet with them now.” 

Fekhi barked a laugh, clapping a hand against her chest. “You’ve got initiative, I’ll give you that.” Snatching up her tankard and a stack of papers, the mayor marched back to the hall ahead of Noyo. “You got a name, miss? Sir?”

“Noyo,” they introduced themselves, quietly glad Fekhi asked at the end once the business side of their discussion was handled. They didn’t have much reason for happiness after the people they lost in Garres, so it was nice to have what little they could. “I don’t go by miss. Or sir. Just Noyo.”

Dark elven culture allowed for a spectrum of genders, but not everyone had the same concepts in their upbringing. Yet Fekhi just shrugged and took a left out of the room, walking deeper into the building. “Noyo it is.”

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© July 2020 | Jam Blute

Into My Shadow: Dira Character Introduction

Word count: 2750 (6 to 22 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Into My Shadow | Note: Fantasy races (common and original), magic, post-apocalyptic setting

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The Darkening of Year 3: Shrouded Era

Some kind of music usually filled the streets of Genoa Falls, half-named for the mossy lake and waterfalls of the hills the city-state was nestled into. Candle and post lanterns lit the streets, which were worn grassless and a bit lumpy by horses, goats, and a slew of kids. Cabins sat wedged in together and even leaned against each other in some cases, but the people did what they could with what they had.

Who didn’t, with the infectious smog smothering everywhere beyond the barriers? Couldn’t be outside the walls without gear for a couple hours, or you’d lose your mind and get badly disfigured. Definitely put a damper on long, moonlit strolls. But it wasn’t the walls keeping people safe as much as protection provided by the grace and courtesy of the Mages’ Union, of course. Never could resist a chance to act the saint in a time of crisis.

Didn’t do much for them in Genoa, but every other city-state had its own story and take on the Union. Just so happened that Genoa’s ideals were closest to Dira’s. And like a favorite dog-eared book, the city-state called Dira back in over and over.

The people were resourceful, and the lands were gorgeous. Their floating gardens in the lake were immune to smog and safe outside the walls, keeping the people fed and giving the farmer types something to do. Rustling up the gear to go outside to farm was the easy part, it was getting their hands magic lamps to post out there that got tough. The smog was a threat in more ways than one, filtering out sunlight like it did.

Still, they made it work. The farmers were preparing for the fall crop these days, if Dira remembered right. As for the adventurous folks, there was always food to be imported from other city-states. All it took was signing on to join the caravanners who were trained and equipped for smog protection by, of course, the Mages’ Union.

More importantly to Dira, everyone in Genoa just plain knew how to have fun.

And the Eldin family knew it the best. Their litter of kids, anywhere from 5 to 9, were the true experts in wonder and awe. Even after hours of being in town, they circled around Dira. The littlest ones tailed him because his four arms made them easy to toss and carry, but the kids closer to 10 years old were probably there to show their migrant honorary uncle that they were big kids now. Dwarf, human, or elf, everyone was always in a hurry to grow up.

Maybe it was different for chiali, and that’s why Dira wasn’t that interested in adulthood. It’s not like there were many left of his people that he could ask. Being grown up felt mostly like he wandered into a fancy party he wasn’t invited to and didn’t want to be at, but he was stuck once he got there.

Following the swarm of four littles up the faded porch to the Eldin’s cabin, he flicked his tail idly and smiled at the two lovely women kind enough to take in orphaned kids to raise like they were blood. To say nothing of the strays like Dira, coming and going whenever he wanted to.

“Careful,” Kalghi shouted after them, answered with a tumble of giggles and apologies from the spiral stairs to the kids’ floor. Most of them would be taller than their adoptive dwarf mother someday, but few would ever be stronger than her. She huffed as the laughter died off, planting a wide, scarred hand on the railing as she leaned over to be heard wherever they’d gone off to. “And don’t you forget to thank Dira for spending all day with you!”

Dira chuckled next, closing the door behind him. They hadn’t started making dinner just yet, so the only aroma in the kitchen was from the fire warming up the stove and the vase of wildflowers on the far end of the counter. Past that was the long dining table with an extra chair right in the middle on one side, where they always set Dira up without even asking. The ladies of the house never had to, luckily for him, because he wouldn’t ask. Maybe it was a maternal ability or a skill gained as a friend of a couple years, but they just sensed his muted, half-formed loneliness.

A couple years wasn’t a lot to most folks, but that made them Dira’s oldest friends. Out of the ones he could talk to and actually have them answer, anyway. 

He cracked a grin, nodding toward the staircase. “Think nothing of it. Your ducklings are a delight, my dear Kalghi.”

“Because they got manners,” she insisted, frowning fondly up to the retreating footsteps of her kids. She’d been a caravanner herself once, and living behind the barriers with Jia, her wife, didn’t take all that gruff warrior business out of her. Even with a floral towel tossed over her broad shoulder, an apron on in place of tunic armor, Kalghi carried herself like the battle-hardened rogue she always would be.

Actually… Dira hid a laugh behind a cough, but not well. It was a fun thought that she wasn’t exactly as combat ready as she used to be. In a good way, of course. Still, he’d be better off keeping that to himself unless he wanted her to punch him in the leg.

“What’re you laughing at?” Kalghi turned on that watchful frown on him, breaking form only to blow her wayward dark red hair out of her face. Well, try to.

Folding two arms behind his back, he shrugged with the upper pair. It was just easier that way, even with more accepting folks like the Eldins. Two sets of arms were too much to keep track of sometimes. “Their manners aren’t what I come back for, is all.”

“Well,” Jia jumped in with a teasing smile and her arms full of ingredients. Having never been outside the walls since the smog first started its spread, Jia was the master of domestic life in their marriage. She was familiar with a knife in a totally different practice than Kalghi. If his guess was right, she’d bring all those ingredients together into a delicious medley of pan-fried veggies and chicken with seasonings he knew next to nothing about.

But first, that impish little cat’s grin on her round, heart-shaped face said there was a lighthearted joke at his expense to come before any of that happened. She put the greens and meat down on the counter where she’d prep it all, a knowing sparkle in her deep brown eyes as she tucked her black bangs behind perfectly curved, hairless ears. Always struck him with something a little like awe that other people could do that without getting caught up on tufted, pointed ears like his. “We both know manners don’t mean a thing to you.”

“Oomph, harsh,” Dira chuckled through his answer, curling his tail. Offering up his finest wounded acting, he pressed a hand against his side over his imaginary injury.

“Oh, don’t be a baby,” she lightly chastised, pulling a knife from the block to dice the vegetables with quick, familiar chops on a worn cutting board. “I’m still glad you watched the kids today. They love you, you know.”

“Yeah, well,” he tapered off, taking a seat on the counter and playing with the tufted end of his ear before just leaving it at that. Probably wasn’t polite to say kids didn’t know any better. Had to be a smoother way to recover from that diversion than silence. “Anything good for Genoa’s good for me.”

That little stall got him just enough time to think of something better that put a playful smirk on his face. Leaning toward Jia with a wink, Dira went ahead with his plan to avoid more tricky sentimental talk. “Though I’m partial to helping you two ladies out.”

“Because we save your hide constantly?” Kalghi was not one to miss out on an opportunity to tease Dira, and her smug grin as she sauntered over to where they stood showed just how much joy she took in it. That’s what he got for having a friend as bratty as he was. The dishes were done and the table was clear, so Kalghi had a few spare moments to let him know she cared by giving him a hard time.

“Ah, my darling Kalghi, your pointedness is all part of your charm.” Turning to Jia, he traded mischief for mischief by drawing her wife into the antics. “It’s painfully clear why you love her so devotedly.”

Not even looking up from her work, Jia pushed aside the peppers into a bowl and began cutting the summer squash into evenly sliced circles. “Who do you think saves her when she puts her foot in her mouth?”

“And you had to tell him that?” Any disapproval that was there was easily erased by a quick kiss through matching smiles. These two were so in love, like the stuff of storybooks, that Dira barely knew how to handle it sometimes. For real, it had a way of making him feel jittery to see love that honest existed for anyone.

He made himself smile when Kalghi drew back from their kiss and gave her attention to him again. If he could make his tail stop flicking, curling and uncurling, she might’ve even been convinced.

“Got a question for you, actually.”

“That right?”

The beat of silence filled with the steady rhythm of Jia’s chopping was worse than nearly any question Kalghi could ask.

“You were gone an awful long time.”

Hidden questions, his least favorite kind. Dira sighed, his hand finding the back of his neck while his tail wrapped around his leg. They cared, that was why she asked, but that knowledge didn’t make the situation any less uncomfortable.

“None of that. Someone’s got to keep you safe.” Kalghi pulled the towel off her shoulder to smack it against his knee, and a chorus of giggles from upstairs confirmed that that particular noise carried up to the kids.

“Yeah, that’s my job.” Double teamed by worried Mom looks from just four words, all Dira could do was laugh. “You’re really good at that! The coordination gave me chills.”

“We can’t stop you, Dira.” Jia always took care to remind him the choice was his, that he was here and part of them but minded his freedom too. Like she knew how hypocritical his heart could be, pushing them away even as it wanted him to belong. At least he never had to say something so pathetic, right? His smile turned to a grimace as he wounded himself on the thought anyway. “But you are like family to us. You’re out longer each time, and your visits are so short.”

She’d stopped working on dinner, and Kalghi stepped up to put her calloused hand on his knee. He swallowed and took a deep, deep breath. Being thought of fondly was, in a lot of ways, the hardest thing he’d ever done. Not guarding all the secrets he had, dodging all the threats from the Union and the smog and people who hated him for what his ancestors did, but the one thing everyone else seemed ready to do like breathing.

Dira had obviously gone wrong somewhere, but there wasn’t any going back. That would’ve made it a ton easier.

“We can’t help worrying.” Kalghi’s smaller, light green eyes sought out his own oval silvery ones — just one more thing to set him apart. Her eyebrows furrowed while he willed his troubled look away to at least a sad smile. They would know something was upsetting him no matter what he did, but at least they didn’t have to worry about it anymore if he put on a good enough front.

“I get it,” he admitted, crossing his upper set of arms over his chest and flipping his tail into his lap. Never did like staying still long. “But I made this promise, you know? And it’s all out there.”

“Whatever you promised, do you think your friend would be thrilled with you putting yourself in danger like this? All the time?” Jia wouldn’t count herself out of the conversation, but he was glad she’d moved on to getting the chicken ready next. He was a fan of a hearty dinner, not a late one because the chef was busy babying him.

“Enh, you’re not wrong about that.”

“Just be more careful, Dira,” Kalghi took over seamlessly, patting his knee before moving away to gather up the silverware from a drawer beside him. “It’s risky enough out there with people taken by the smog.”

She hesitated, clicking her tongue and staring up at him. Kalghi never minced words, and probably thought that kind of behavior was dishonest, but even she thought some things might cross a line. That little habit of hers was her tell that she was thinking just that.

“Not to mention you being chiali.”

It wouldn’t have been hard to tell her that his race was one of his easier obstacles, but would it have made her feel better? Obviously not, and that was reason enough to keep quiet. Sure, Dira didn’t have anything to do with the war his people didn’t quite win generations ago, not that it changed him being mostly unwelcome anywhere. That prejudice didn’t give him half the trouble that his own mistakes brought to his door. Metaphorically.

“Genoa’s safe for you. We barely even have a Union post here, so there’s no one to single you out for unsanctioned magic. And everyone here adores you.” Gesturing to the door symbolically with a fistful of forks, Kalghi finished up her roster of very good points—for someone who didn’t know the whole story. And couldn’t. “What do these trips do that you can’t get done here?”

“This place’s home to me and all,” he agreed, and he wasn’t lying. When he was sleeping in roll hidden in an alcove of the woods or a hill, all rigged up with security measures, Dira would rather be with the Eldins in Genoa over even the showiest manor of other city-states. “But my promise is also a secret. And there’re people out there who need a wandering hero sometimes.”

“Oh, right, like you’ve got to be a rogue rescuer to caravanners.” And Kalghi was back with her snide smirk, rolling her eyes as she marched off to the dining room and talking over her shoulder. “You don’t have to save the world.”

“And if I don’t, who will?” He didn’t even need to use his signature smirk to disarm their suspicions first—Jia and Kalghi both thought he wasn’t serious. Who would think he was really taking on a task that extreme? It was a lost cause at best, and if he somehow pulled it off, he’d probably die before he saw the clear sky again.

Getting down from the counter, Dira finally decided it was time he pitched in here and now. Kalghi had the silverware out and Jia’d been cooking for a while, so that left the plates to him. Times like that, four arms came in handy. Stacking modest ceramic plates into the lower set of his arms using the upper set, Dira started on a task he could actually finish tonight.

By the stove, Jia flashed him a smile that showed the storm had passed. “Will you be staying the night?”

“Hm.” He gave the idea of curling up on a bed some thought, complete with a cheerfully patterned quilt light enough for the end of summer, but it left this itchy feeling in his chest. “Mind if I camp out on your roof?”

“We have a cot in the den if the kids are keeping you up.”

“Nah, I’m a sucker for stars and sunrise,” he answered as he walked by to the dining room, setting down the first two plates down and starting work his way around the table.

“No leaving before breakfast this time,” she shouted to be heard, “and you have a deal.”

Kalghi nodded firmly, so there was no question he’d be in trouble next time if he dared do that again. Laughing, Dira shook his head and accepted his fate of breakfast with the family.

“Yes, ma’am.”

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