Diwa & Kaffi 07 08

Author’s note: Another double chapter entry, as these too are also entwined. One takes place in a small garden allotment with few characters, the other takes place at a community farm with several people around. One focuses on peaceful movement, the other on busy movement. Yet they are both the same: understanding by observance and learning by taking part. This is the whole heart of the novel.

CHAPTER SEVEN

As far as first jobs at the estate were concerned, desk duty at the community center wasn’t bad at all. Diwa and Kaffi had traded notes on their way to the light rail station the morning after talking with their fathers; while he spent most of the day here, Kaffi would be helping Graymar complete the documentation runs for the co-op farm during the afternoons. This was the first weekend where they’d begin pulling full-day shifts, and as fate would have it, their paths would not cross for nearly the entire day. This meant the only time they’d be able to talk outside of school was during their vidchat sessions. It felt strange being out of contact with Kaffi for that long.

On the plus side, Diwa met and talked to a lot more of the tenants than he had in the past just by sitting here, available to everyone. They would all come through to the community center at some point during the day, stopping by to check their mailboxes, put in a maintenance request, use the shared library and internet access, or meet up with friends. He helped those who needed helping and talked with those who just wanted to talk. It might not have been all that exciting, but it was certainly a great way to get to know everyone better.

He didn’t personally know the aanoupii that had just entered the lobby, though he did recognize him as a new tenant Samuel and Graymar had interviewed a few weeks ago via vidchat, which Diwa had sat in on for the experience. He was from a small family; two brothers, a wife, and a youngling. They’d moved into the empty corner apartment in the sub-basement of Building D. The two brothers were cousins of Porro, the construction worker he’d always see coming home late in the afternoon. Porro had given them a positive reference and a spot on the waiting list, and they’d been cleared just last week.

Diwa glanced upwards at the towering aanoupii, with his large tusks and impressive horns and bulky frame. Diwa wasn’t short, but they had at least a foot or so on him. Despite his build, however, the aanoupii fretted and shuffled nervously, utterly unsure of himself and wanting to make the best first impression.

Diwa gave him a reassuring smile and nod. “Good afternoon,” he said. “Can I help you?”

“Uh, yes…hi?” the aanoupii responded with a scratchy voice that had an unexpectedly high pitch and a slight lisp. “You’re Diwa, yeah? I recognize you from our interview.”

He nodded again. Time to turn on the customer service…after all, this was why he was here, right? “Yes, I am Diwa. How can I help you today?”

“We…um. I…” He tapped the backs of his claws together. “My name is Tassh. We moved in a few weeks ago. To Building D. M-my brother and his wife and me. And their child. Samuel, um. He said he had a few forms that needed filling out. I just got off work, and thought I’d stop by to pick them up. If they’re available.”

“Oh! Certainly!” Diwa said with a quick nod, already picking up the phone. “I can definitely help you with that. Let me call my Pop, see if he has them available for you.”

Samuel answered after the fourth ring – he must have been distracted by the back room again – and paused for much too long before offering an embarrassed apology, admitting he didn’t have the forms easily on hand. They were somewhere in the back office and he’d need to look for them and he wasn’t sure how long it would take. Diwa forced back a groan and disconnected. Not a great way to make a first impression at all. What was he doing in there if he couldn’t be bothered to find important documents, let alone file them correctly?

“I’m so sorry, Tassh,” he said, rubbing at his temple. “Samuel was…he was in the middle of something and couldn’t get to them right away.”

Tassh nodded with grace. “That’s quite all right,” he said, and started towards the front doors. “I’ll be in all day if he’s able to speak to me then.”

Diwa huffed, shaking his head. He couldn’t let this situation end this way. He didn’t want Tassh to be waiting all day long, not knowing when or if Samuel would get back to him in a timely manner. What should he do? How could he fix this quickly?

He would get the paperwork himself, even if it meant upending that entire back room.

“Tassh, wait!” he blurted a little too loudly.

Tassh halted midstride, his eyes wide. “I’m…sorry?”

“I mean…” Diwa bit back an apology and stood up. “I’ll be taking a break in a half hour. I don’t want to keep you waiting all day long, so I’ll head up there myself and bring them over to your apartment. It’s D005, yes? Back corner near the orchard path?”

“Y-yes, that’s right.” Tassh stuttered, clearly surprised by Diwa’s memory. “That’s it exactly.”

Diwa put on his best smile again and nodded. “Great! I’ll have the paperwork over to you as soon as I can. Sounds good?”

Tassh beamed, showing not only his tusks but his frighteningly large incisors. “Marra apanna, my friend,” he said in thanks, and left the lobby, humming with pleasure.

*

“Pop?”

“Hmm.” A distracted hum from the area near Samuel’s desk.

Diwa moved towards him, trying to keep his annoyance in check. “Do you have that paperwork I asked for? It’s for the aanoupii family in D005. You told them you need to have them finish it up.”

Samuel’s head popped up from behind a filing cabinet. What was he doing back there…? He was clearly distracted, and heavily so. Was he hiding? He blinked in confusion, slowly scanning the office, until his mind finally made a connection. “Yes! Yes…the aanoupii family, you said? I just had it the other day. Let’s see…” He clambered out from his hiding spot. “The others still need to sign the rest of the rental agreement,” he said, and began to search the multiple piles of folders laid out on one of the long tables. Some files he casually glanced at or touched with his fingertips, others he flipped quickly through. Diwa was surprised that he could recognize specific items by folder alone…perhaps lolo Daniel’s personal filing system, erratic as it was, made sense in its own strange way after all? “The main pages are done, this is the…oh, where is it?”

Diwa raised an impatient eyebrow at him and tentatively leaned closer to the desk. “Can I help you find it?”

“No, no…” his father said a little too quickly. “I just had it the other day, just give me a moment to – Ah! That’s right, it’s over here.” He deftly yanked a folder from near the bottom of a perilous-looking tower of paperwork, which wobbled ever so slightly in response. Both he and Diwa backed away in case it started to go. “Here you go,” he said, pushing the folder into his hands. “We need signatures for all three adults. So far, we only have Moffer’s. The other two were still in transit when it was originally signed.”

“Moffer’s the older brother, right? The plumber?”

“Yes.”

“I thought so. That was Tassh that stopped by. So – just Tassh and Kantah then.”

“Can you get it back to me by tonight? I need to send a scan of it to the Tenancy Association and I’d like to get it done as soon as I can.”

Diwa nodded. “Sure thing. Anything else you need while I’m out?”

Samuel glanced around the office as if it held an answer for him. “No, anak, I’m fine. Thank you.”

Diwa turned to leave, nearly knocking over another tower of nearby folders, and stopped short. He held back a frustrated sigh…why was his father so distracted by this room? Was he actually doing anything in here, or was he just using it as a hideout from his family and the rest of the world?

He wondered if he should ask again if he needed help clearing this mess, but he held back. Now wasn’t the time.

*

Diwa strolled along the outside walkway towards the central stairwell of his building, taking in the expanse of the estate. Their space had a perfect and mostly unimpeded view of the five other towers across the way, the rows of bungalows lining each side, and the community center near the main driveway. He never tired of the view, even when he felt that slight pang in his stomach every time he lingered near the railing for too long.

Their complex resembled an opened hand from this vantage point. His building was a wide curved tower, its concave side facing the main green. The other towers across the way were taller and thinner and facing perpendicular to his, like fingers pointing upwards, and the short bungalows bracketed each side like a hand’s edges. The main drive circled the main green, with an exit curving past the community center and out onto the main thoroughfare to his left like a thumb. The gentle curve of his own building resembled the base of the palm, thus the origin of its name.

Samuel said it had been built that way on purpose, to evoke a ‘giving hand’ to anyone who wished to live there. It was a micro-community, with all kinds of humans, aliens and numerous other beings living alongside one another in relative peace and harmony. Anyone was welcome here. That had been one of the most important stipulations in the original deed written up by his distant elders, some five or six generations ago, and handed down to each successive proprietor.

He understood this kind of living environment was a lot more complex than it seemed. It wasn’t enough to just hold out that giving hand; it was also about using that hand to keep the complex alive and thriving. This meant caring for the property itself, but it also meant caring for – and listening and connecting with – every tenant that lived there. This was to be his future, and he had no doubts about following through with it. He understood that learning Samuel’s job was not going to be easy, yet he still believed he could do it. With Kaffi, with Anna-Nassi and Cole, and everyone else, he could do it.

He walked across the wide central green, humming to himself. It was late morning and many of the retired elders would be heading out for their daily errands. He recognized a few of the tenants here and there as he crossed. The chatty elderly mandossi couple from Building B were sitting at a picnic table with one of their cousins who lived in one of the bungalows, and they were deeply involved with the latest gossip. Satoshi and Sakura, the human newlywed couple that recently moved into a unit on one of the lower floors of Palm, were heading out on foot to do some shopping on the main street, and the seemed a bit more sure of their surroundings now. A daycare group was gathered in the sprawling playground in the shadow of Building C. The youngest of the kids were hooting and screaming and having the time of their young lives. Maricel was over at the far edge of the playground, playing a game of catch with one of her hedraac school friends. The chaperones and parents were off to one side, chatting and occasionally reprimanding a youngling. His mother stood outside the community center with the mandossi Elise-Nooviya, having quite an animated conversation about an upcoming tenant meeting. All their voices echoed between the buildings; the layout had been such that there would never be complete silence.

Graymar was once again up on the roof of Building C, observing it all. He and Kaffi would soon be departing for the co-op farm to deliver the last batch of paperwork that needed completing. Diwa waved at the tintrite, not expecting him to respond, but Graymar nodded and waved back, his wings fluttering slightly. Diwa smiled and went on his way.

He met up with the furtive aanoupii at his apartment moments later. Tassh grinned and let him in. “I apologize, I should have been more formal,” he said, and held out a rough palm. “Tasshigatri, Moffer’s younger brother. Welcome to our home.”

Diwa bowed slightly in response and placed his tiny palm in Tassh’s enormous one. A slight lift and dip; it was the local handshake for those who could not quite manage the human version. “Glad to meet you, Tassh,” he said, and pulled out the paperwork from his satchel. “Thank you for waiting. I should apologize myself; our office is currently…” he paused, trying to find the right words that wouldn’t embarrass him or his father. “It’s getting an overdue sprucing up,” he finished.

Tassh hummed, his lower tusks rising and falling in appreciation. “That’s fine. Your father is a good man, Diwa. I’d like to thank him again for letting us live here on the estate. There was a worry that we might not have been accepted. As tenants, we mean.” Tassh blushed, dark blue splotches appearing on his grayish cheeks, after realizing that his words could have been taken entirely the wrong way. “We heard there are many wishing to live here, that is.”

Diwa completely understood. Getting a unit here was a lesson in patience, but the only reason for it was that the average tenancy was measured not in years but in decades, and the turnover was slow in response. The estate was considered a long-term home for many. “He says he’s glad to have you here,” he said, and handed Tassh the folder. “Here you go. He needs Kantah and yourself to complete the paperwork, just to finalize it. Would you be able to return it to us by the end of the day? Samuel needs to prep it and get it off to the Tenancy Board in Panooria soon. You can leave it at the front desk at the community center, and he’ll pick it up tonight.”

Tassh nodded again, and Diwa was once again taken in by the aanoupii’s large horns budding off his temples, mottled black and white like granite, much larger than the usual aanoupii horns he was used to. Tassh noted his curiosity and gave them a hard, loud knock. “Pride of our clan, these!” he said, flashing his equally large tusks and teeth. “Strongest in the area. Moffer’s are even bigger. Our entire family works in construction and renovation, so these things come in handy.”

Diwa laughed at his obvious pride. “Good to know! I heard that Building C might be slated for updating work next year. If you or your brother want to put in a bid as a construction associate, just let Samuel know; he could look into the legalese and logistics. Oh – and I’ve heard you’re into gardening, yes? We’ve got plot openings on the central garden out front, as well as near the south end of the orchard. Come and let us know if you’re interested and we can have one set up for you.”

Tassh leaned back and barked out a laugh, all signs of his previous timidity gone. “Of course I shall!” He tapped Diwa’s hand once more. “Tell your father we wish him well, and we will get the documents back to him later tonight.”

“I will,” Diwa said, and saw himself out. He found himself grinning despite the mundanity of the entire conversation. He was going to enjoy talking with that aanoupii.

On the way back to his apartment, he caught a glimpse of Kaffi and Graymar heading out for the co-op farm. The idea of Kaffi flying deliveries fascinated him; he’d seen his friend fly for years, but never burdened with delivery satchels, or even a ride for that matter. He realized he missed the tintrite, even though it had only been less than a day. He was so used to being with him that his absence touched him more than he’d expected.

He stopped in the center of the green once more on his way back. It was slightly quieter; the chaperones having taken the daycare children back to the community center for a late morning snack. He could hear the chattering of the elder mandossi this time, talking in their own language. He also saw Anna-Nassi and Cole off in the distance, having a quiet conversation near the path to the gardens. Some tenants had left the green, while others continued to pass through or stopped for a brief time.

He exhaled, looking up at Palm. His apartment was at the center of that curve, halfway up, near the central stairway. And Samuel was there on the balcony, leaning against the railing, looking back down at him. He waved at his father, and his father waved back.

*

CHAPTER EIGHT

The flight to the co-op farm was a bit further than Kaffi had expected, but he had no complaints about the distance. The longer he stayed up in the air, the happier he was. The flight itself was relatively easy and enjoyable, heading southwest for a dozen or so miles over a succession of flat valleys, light forests and farmland. Having an extra twenty pounds worth of paperwork and other documentation secured to his underside, on the other hand, felt incredibly awkward. The satchels were tight against his belly and shifted his center of balance, causing his back end to lift slightly to make up for it. He’d been assured he’d get used to it eventually, but right now it made flight rather uncomfortable.

Graymar flew beside him to his right, his own satchels bound to him and his body stretched out and even with the flow of air. He made it look so easy and effortless! No strain at all. He glided on the wind, pumping his wings only when needed. It made Kaffi realize he still had a long way to go when it came to flying…but he was happy to be learning from the best.

“How much further?” he asked.

“Mile or so,” Graymar said, gesturing into the distance with his snout. “Those orchards on the incline just ahead of us. The office is at the head of the fields just below them.”

Kaffi hummed in response. He’d been paying attention to Graymar’s chosen route, picking up the scents and sounds and visual points of reference, as well as the way the wind felt as they flew. They were flying against the air flow so they would tire easily on the way to the farm, but it would be a quicker and smoother ride on the way back.

Graymar often talked about how flying to Panooria was a two-day event, but the flight back was an almost effortless single day trip because of the wind currents. Panooria was a good seventy miles north of the city and on the other side of a range of high hills. He’d been there a long time ago via transport, but it had changed significantly over the years, becoming an extremely important political and economic hub. He’d heard so many wonderful and fascinating things about it that it was a trip he looked forward to when he got older. Perhaps with Diwa.

But for now, heading out to the co-op farm was good practice.

They began their slow descent, gliding over roads and fields, until Graymar directed him towards the large landing pad just outside the co-op offices. “With the extra weight, it’s going to be a harder landing than you’re used to,” he said. “Use your wings to slow up, then drop down. Try to drop as erect as possible, use your heels and knees to cushion the touchdown. Expect a faster pulldown.”

He knew this instinctively, but he took his father’s guidance to heart when it came to flight. Thing was, he’d never flown with this much weight strapped to him, and he was afraid he’d do it wrong and damage the satchels or hurt himself in the process. There’s always a first time, he reminded himself. I can do this. But as he approached the landing pad, instinct and habit kicked in, already maneuvering into his swoop-and-drop landing. He tried to stop himself, but it was too late, flapping his wings more furiously than he’d meant to, and misjudged the height. He was at least six feet higher than he’d planned. He growled in frustration and let his wings slow up, letting gravity take over. Landing hard, the angle of his body and the weight of the satchel suddenly pulled him forward, and both his arms shot out to keep from crashing down face first.

Graymar dropped down quietly and gracefully beside him a moment later with a two-step landing just as he picked himself up and brushed himself off. Eiyah, what must his paddir think of him right now?

“That could have gone better,” Kaffi grumbled.

Graymar hummed lightly and flashed his fangs at him. “I’ve done much worse in my time, Kaffi,” he said. “As long as you are fine, and the package is undamaged.”

“I’m fine,” he said, and patted the satchels. “No damage. Just my pride.”

Graymar nodded and led the way towards the main offices of the co-op farm, a low boxy building with numerous doors and truck bays, and quite a lot more workers and visitors than Kaffi had expected. The main doors opened to a wide lobby with several low benches, tables, and vending machines. Warehouse employees were everywhere, heading from one department to another or heading out to the fields or taking a break in the cafeteria. It was much noisier than he’d expected; there were so many conversations going on that he could barely parse any of them.

His paddir led him away from the lobby and entered a long hallway. Away from most other people, he could now pick up the scents of all the produce grown here, and it made his stomach growl. He hadn’t had that much to eat before they flew – he’d been too nervous – and now he was starving. His stomach gurgled once more, and he cleared his throat to mask it. His father looked at him over his shoulder, grinning. “This place does the same to me,” he said. “We can eat after we’re done here. The office we need is just down the hall.”

Kaffi nodded but said nothing.

Graymar tipped his head, showing a soft and unexpected grin. “You’re doing well, Kaffi,” he said softly, patting him on the arm. “Don’t be nervous.”

Kaffi felt the bridge of his snout heating up. “Y-yes, paddir,” he said.

He followed him into a large office and motioned for him to take a seat at one of the low benches lining the wall while he talked with the person at the front desk. The satchel was still secured to his underside, making sitting down even more awkward, but he didn’t want to take them off just yet. He wanted to follow protocol, even if he hadn’t been told what it was. His father was still wearing his and hadn’t motioned for him to do anything else with them. Better to follow his lead than make himself look foolish.

But gods, it felt good to rest! He let his wings ruffle just a tiny bit as he stretched his back. Long distance flight was always hard work, but it was enjoyable work, he’d already decided. He’d just need to get used to the additional weight.

Which made him think about Diwa again, and that he’d be flying with him soon enough when they were both ready. He was just as curious about it all as Diwa must be. He had no idea what it felt like to have a ride. What was his weight, anyway? He laughed quietly to himself…how would he even ask such a question without flying away in embarrassment?

“Kaffi…?”

He lifted his snout and turned towards the other tintrite that had just entered the room, a young adult female with a slightly smaller frame and sleeker shape than his. A longish mane dyed a vivid dark crimson, and dark eyes with golden irises. A snout more pointed, with the left nostril pierced.

Kaffi’s eyes widened and his heart raced, finally recognizing her. “Lieysha? Eiyah, is that you?”

“I thought that was you! You’ve grown so much!” She grinned and waved him over. “Come, give me a hug already!”

Lieysha was a dear tintrite friend from school who’d graduated a few years previous and had been a mentor outside of his family and circle of friends. She’d watched over him during his awkward teen years and been the close and often physical connection of his own kind that he’d needed at the time. She’d also taught him several tricky flight patterns that his paddir would never have shown him, including the sideways turn and glide that had recently impressed both him and Diwa. They’d fallen out of touch some time ago, though he still thought of her occasionally. He leaped up and pulled her into a warm embrace, both humming joyously, high and melodic. “It’s so good to see you!” he sang. “I haven’t seen you in so long, I’ve missed you! What brings you here?”

“No longer the youngling, I see,” she said, tapping her snout against his and motioning to his satchel. “My manae works here as a transport coordinator, and I work here part time while I study for college. I’ve seen Graymar here a few times over the last few weeks. I hear your estate is signing up for the co-op?”

Kaffi nodded with a wide smile. “Everything should be official within a few weeks. I’m assisting my paddir this summer for the experience. Part of the internship.”

Lieysha hummed, long and lyrical; impressed. “Still going for the position?” she said, tapping a talon against his forearm. “Good for you. I always knew you’d follow through with that dream. I’m assuming you’re still hanging out with Diwa? It was impossible to separate the two of you.”

He hummed quickly in response, feeling the bridge of his own snout warming up. “We’re still together, of course. He’s working with his paddir at the estate for his half of the internship. It’s going to be a busy summer for both of us.”

“That’s great. I’m happy for you, Kaffi,” she said, and leaned forward to touch her snout with his again. She was always such a tactile tintrite, and he missed that the most. It made him feel happy and connected. “Listen to me, leinah,” she said quietly. “I’ve always believed you were able to do whatever you set out to do. You were always a wonderful flier, and Diwa will be a fine ride for you. Just…don’t make do, okay? If there’s ever a higher calling, I don’t want you ignoring it.”

Kaffi opened his mouth but couldn’t quite find the right words to respond to that. He’d have expected that from his manae or his paddir…but one of his tintrite friends?

“I…I won’t,” he said, and tapped his snout against hers once more before moving away. “I’ve always trusted myself to do the right thing,” he said. Pithy as it sounded, it was true. “I go with what my soul says,” he added, tapping his chest. “Always have.”

“Eiyah,” Lieysha laughed. “Very true.” She waved and turned away to head into one of the inner offices. “I need to rejoin my manae before she wonders where I am. I shall see you here again, yeah? We should get together again! And tell your family I said hello. Tell Diwa I said hello!”

“I will.”

He watched her leave the room, but now his mind was running far too fast. He completely understood the intent behind her parting words; she’d watched over him when he was teaching himself more complex flying methods, bonded with him as a close friend when he needed someone of his own kind. She would never try to talk him out of learning Graymar’s job, but she must be concerned by what that entailed and what he would be giving up, staying at the estate for the rest of his life. She understood his conviction…but she also understood his passion for flying.

“Kaffi?” Graymar grumbled from across the room.

He shook himself out his reverie and turned to his father, who was beckoning him over. He’d finally taken off his satchels and was holding them by the straps. Kaffi nodded and joined him, secretly relieved that he could finally take his own satchels off.

“Who was that?” Graymar said, nodding towards the closed door across the room.

“My school friend Lieysha,” he said, undoing the straps of the bag and gathering them up to carry it by hand. “Remember her from a few years ago?”

Graymar hummed. “Ah yes. I thought that might have been her. I’ve met with her manae Soriah here a few times. I’m glad you met one of your friends here! Come – we must make this delivery, then we can have our lunch and rest. Then we can fly back with the last run of documentation.”

Kaffi nodded, smiling as he fell in step behind his father.

*

Glossary:
aanoupii – (ah-noo-pee) very large bovine-like creatures similar to minotaurs, extremely friendly

Diwa & Kaffi 05 06

Author’s Note: This will be a long entry as both these chapters are tied together, not only in plot but in character, and thus should be read together. Choices are made. Destinies are put into motion. And most of all, Diwa and Kaffi’s world begins to expand.

CHAPTER FIVE

Diwa paused at the door and exhaled, preparing himself. Now or never.

He pushed it open and stepped inside.

“Pop?”

Samuel lifted his head, startled by his voice disrupting the silence of his office in the rear of the apartment. His father was half-sunken in the desk chair, holding an open manila folder in his hands, but his eyes and mind were focused elsewhere. Diwa held back a sigh of frustration, always finding him like this. Over the last couple of years, Samuel had started retreating from the family more frequently to hide back here among the books and mountains of paperwork left by multiple generations of landlords, almost none of it in any semblance of order. He’d always say he had big plans for the room, but he never seemed to get anywhere with them. He would spend a few hours puttering around, making half-hearted attempts to go through some of this detritus and moving things from one pile to another. Most of the time he’d sit here at his cluttered desk, staring at paperwork but never quite focusing on it.

Diwa visited the room as little as possible, mainly because the overwhelming dust and mildew made him sneeze, but also because it was unbearably depressing. If Diwa was going to take over his father’s job, completely clearing this place out would be his first project.

“Diwa,” Samuel said with forced surprise. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

Here we go… Diwa cleared his voice and began. “Pop, are you busy?”

Samuel recovered from his slouch and made a show of looking around his immediate area. “I’m free,” he said. “Something on your mind?”

Diwa ventured deeper into the room, his nose already starting to itch. He navigated around stacks of file boxes and rolled-up documents and made his way to the ancient lumpy couch next to Samuel’s desk. He sat down gingerly, and the cushions gave way far too easily in response. The back of the seat had lost most of its padding over time and the wooden frame underneath dug into his back. Wincing, he felt a wave of embarrassment and leaned forward instead, perching on the edge. He amended his first project; he’d also replace all the furniture in here with something from this century while he was at it.

“Graymar and I were watching that game of yours the other day,” Samuel said in an attempt at small talk. “That was one hell of a catch.”

Diwa forced a smile and reflexively balled his hands into fists, remembering the sting on his skin. “Thanks,” he said. “It was a wild throw, so I’m surprised I even caught it in the first place. I’m glad it missed the tenants. Kaffi felt bad about that.”

Samuel nodded and once more there was an awkward silence. Diwa hated when they ended up like this, too embarrassed and self-conscious to say or do anything, to make the first move. This had been happening since Diwa started high school, and it would always fall to Diwa to break that silence and get him talking again. Maricel was right, he’d been closing himself off far too often. He knew it wasn’t the stress of the job, or his friendship with Graymar…both were strong and stable as ever. It had to be something else, something more personal.

He cleared his throat and started again. “Pop…Kaffi and I have been talking the last few days. We’ll both be graduating in a couple of months. We’re both of age to start the apprenticeship.”

Samuel’s eyes brightened. “Mangyari pa, Diwa! You’ve been speaking of it for years! And you’ve shown an increasing interest in the last few months,” he said. Finally, an honest smile crossed his face. “Don’t think I haven’t noticed, and I’m glad you want to take that path. What would you like to know?”

Diwa nervously scratched behind his ear, hiding a frown. “I want to make it official, Pop. I’d like to officially accept the inheritance when you retire. Teach me all that you know. Let’s start this.”

Samuel nearly fell off his chair with delight. It was the most animated he’d ever seen his father in years! “Diwa! Ah, ang sayá-sayá ko! I’m so glad you asked!”

Diwa nodded, trying to keep the conversation going…and down to earth. “Kaffi and I felt it was time to make it official,” he said. “He’s talking with Graymar tonight.”

Samuel calmed himself down and leaned back in his chair. He was obviously excited, but Diwa couldn’t help but feel there was something else. Relief…?

“I’d like to start as soon as possible, Pop,” he continued. “We can get the paperwork started tonight. You can have us run errands and odd jobs, that’s fine. And I’d like to be more active in the tenancy committee meetings as well.”

Samuel’s smile faded just a little bit. “You’re sure about this?”

Diwa saw that question coming – he always did – and answered it quickly. “I’ve been watching you do your job since I was a kid. So has Kaffi, with Graymar. We understand what to expect.”

Samuel sat in silence for a few moments longer, taking it all in. It made Diwa nervous because it always made him second-guess himself. “Why do you want this, Diwa?” he asked.

“I’ve always wanted this,” he started. “I thought you’d be—”

Samuel quickly held up a hand to stop him. “Don’t think about me, son,” he said, maybe a little more forcefully than necessary. “This isn’t my life we’re talking about. It’s yours.”

Diwa stared at him, unsure how to respond.

*

Gods…am I ever going to turn this place around?

Samuel was simultaneously drawn to and repelled by this room every time he walked into it. He had no idea how many years’ worth of documents was stored here, and no idea how he was going to sort through it all. It felt like such an impossible task. His father Daniel had let it get this way, frequently disorganized as he often was, and had never let Samuel touch any of it. “I know where everything is! There’s a method to it!” he’d say. Samuel knew that was a lie, but he never called him on it.

And now, decades later, the room smelled of mold, mildew, and years of dust. No wonder Diwa spent as little time in here as possible. It was a losing battle, and he didn’t know how to turn it around. He’d meant to straighten it out years ago when he took over as co-landlord, but that never happened. He just kept putting it off. He’d always said that one of these days he’d clear it all out, give it a good cleaning and renovation, and his first guest in the new, clean room would be Graymar.  The temptation to just shred it all and start over was immensely strong.

For now, though, he’d settle for having his family come visit him now and again. In fact, he’d truly been surprised when Diwa walked in. The poor boy had been all kinds of distracted lately. Perhaps he was here to talk it out.

To be brutally honest, his proclamation that he was taking the inheritance seriously, starting tonight, had surprised him. In fact, he’d been just as surprised at his own reaction: he was immensely proud of his son at that moment…but he also felt a profound sense of relief. A strange, giddy relief in the revelation that he wasn’t going to be stuck in this position forever.

And that both fascinated and terrified him.

“You’re sure about this?” he’d asked. He had to make sure Diwa wasn’t just rolling with his emotions. That had sometimes been his downfall, and this was a serious undertaking.

But Diwa knew how to answer. “I’ve been watching you do your job since I was a kid,” he said with determination. And he certainly had! “So has Kaffi, with Graymar,” he added, just to underscore his point. “We understand what to expect.”

A serious undertaking indeed. One he would never force upon his son if he didn’t truly want it. He knew that feeling all too well. He didn’t want Diwa to get to his age, still wondering if he’d made the right decision.

“Why do you want this, Diwa?” he asked.

The boy faltered. “I’ve always wanted this. I thought you’d be—”

There it was. A vague feeling of self-doubt, and he saw it clearly. This was the same conversation he’d had with his father years ago, and he had to diverge from it before it was too late. He held up a hand between them. “Don’t think about me, son,” he said. “This isn’t my life we’re talking about. It’s yours.”

Okay, that didn’t quite come out the way he’d wanted, but he’d certainly gotten the boy’s attention, so that was a start. “Being a landlord here at our estate is not about having power, Diwa,” he continued. “It never has been, and never will be. Nor has it ever been solely about making a profit. Look around our apartment. Or this room, for starters! We’re comfortable, but we’re not exactly drowning in opulence here. I have never held any power over our tenants, because they don’t need it, nor do they deserve it.”

He paused again, judging Diwa’s response. He was surprised, maybe a little afraid he’d gotten him on a tear, but that was a good thing. He had to understand what this position truly entailed as early as he could. “That’s why the estate has their monthly tenancy committee meetings,” he said. “We’re here as anchor and caretaker, Graymar and I. We help the tenants feel welcome, safe, and cared for, like they are truly at home. This is precisely why he and I are as visible as we are. That’s why you see us on the balcony or on the roof or walking the grounds or up in the air most days. We watch, but we also participate. It makes us all feel safe, but more importantly, it makes us feel connected. Do you understand?”

He exhaled, as surprised at himself for saying such things as Diwa was for hearing them.

Diwa lowered his head and looked away, looking a little defeated. “I understand.”

He didn’t believe that for one minute. He understood alright, but now it sounded like an impossible goal. He knew Diwa believed in it despite the odds, but he didn’t yet believe he could reach it himself. The last thing Diwa needed right now was to fall into a terrible habit of always second-guessing himself. He’d fallen prey to that himself far too many times, and he did not want Diwa to suffer the same insecurity. Time to change tack here a little bit. He rolled his chair over and took Diwa’s face in his hands.

“Diwa…” he said softly. “Look at me. I know you understand what I’m saying. But it’s one thing to say and another to do. My father and my grandfather both drilled that into me at an early age when I put myself in line for this inheritance, and I need to drill that into you, right this moment. I believe in your conviction, Diwa. I always have. I know you can do this. I believe in you and Kaffi. But what you need to understand is that conviction and belief isn’t enough. You need to do. You need to prove to me and Graymar, and the rest of the estate, that you’re willing to dedicate your life to it.”

He saw it just then – a spark of hope in the boy’s eyes. He let go and leaned back in his chair once more, already convinced. “If you and Kaffi are as committed to this as the two of you say you are, then this will be easy for everyone. We’ll take it day by day. Errand by errand. Project by project. We don’t need to fill out the paperwork until you’re out of school anyway, so we don’t have to worry about it unless you feel it’s necessary. Does that sound fair?”

That spark of hope began to grow, showing in Diwa’s lopsided smile. “Yes,” he said, and straightened his shoulders. “Tell me what I need to do, and I’ll do it. And I’ll do my best to learn from it. We’ll make it official when we both agree it’s time to do so.”

“There will be a hell of a lot of work to do, a lot to learn.”

“I’ve seen you work, Pop. Like I said.”

“It takes dedication.”

“I’ll try my best.”

He tried not to laugh, as that would send the wrong message, but he couldn’t help remembering this same conversation he’d had with his father, so many years ago. “Good,” he said. “See me after school tomorrow and we’ll start lining up things for you to do.”

Diwa bowed deeply. “I will,” he said, and gave him a hug. “Marami pong salamat, ama. This means so much.”

“You’re welcome. Now go do your homework. And tell Kaffi I said hello.”

Diwa laughed and nodded. “I will.” He got up and left the room a lot less gingerly than he’d entered it, radiating with excitement.

As soon as his son had closed the door, he exhaled, feeling that unexpected relief once more. He’ll be a fine landlord, he thought, turning back to the folder of documents that he hadn’t been reading. A better one than I could ever be.

*

CHAPTER SIX

Kaffi circled above the estate, studying its size and location in relation to the other nearby estates. It was of medium size with six towers, two rows of bungalows, a large community center complex, and the long thin strip of orchard and garden in the rear. Many of his classmates lived in much bigger and busier estates nearer the city, and some lived in smaller ones closer to the countryside. This one was right in the middle and that was just fine by him. It was the only one he’d known his entire life, and he had no plans on moving elsewhere.

And now he’d agreed to partner up with Diwa and plan out their inheritances as co-landlords, to live here for the rest of their lives. Why had he agreed to that? A very good question indeed because it was not a decision he would ever take lightly. He’d talked about being this estate’s landlord for ages, just as frequently and as obsessively as Diwa had. The tenants were already expecting them to be next in line.

But Diwa had been so persuasive in his new plans today that it made him rethink everything. Did he really want the inheritance? Did he genuinely want Graymar’s position? Did he want to dedicate his future to this kind of career, staying here in this suburb and seeing the same people day in and day out? He wanted to fly! He loved being up here, cheating gravity, witnessing a much wider expanse of the world than most ever saw. It was the way of all tintrite, to fly distances and experience life from above. That was why he’d been so tentative on the train ride home. What if this all came to nothing, could he handle having wasted all that time and energy?

And yet…it all came down to Diwa. He was his best friend, and he’d offered him a solid, stable future. He could just as easily get a job in transportation or delivery. He could go to the city and be a part of the constant movement there. That was Iliah’s intent once she finished her own food service internship. That was the intent of Aldrine, Diwa’s elder ahpadé, as well; he’d gone to the city to work in corporate banking. And so many of his classmates were itching to leave their own estates and enjoy the great expanse of world and sky.

But it had come down to one thing: Diwa had asked him to be at his side. And that had moved and excited him deeply, more than he’d ever expected.

He wasn’t entirely sure how to process that.

Well – no reason to keep wasting time obsessing over it. It was nearly dinner time back home and he’d need to flag down his own paddir and have the talk. It could end up being a frustrating butting of snouts, but it would be worth it. He dropped down in a lazy dive towards the roof of Building C, ready to face whatever was coming to him.

*

Graymar growled as he puttered through the apartment, listlessly shuffling from one room to another, though Kaffi wasn’t entirely sure why he was irritable tonight. Oddly it reminded him of one of their pettiest arguments from just a few years ago. His paddir preferred walking on his hinds and straight vertical whenever possible, though it tended to slow him down to compensate for the balance, and while that was common among most tintrite, he would sometimes criticize Kaffi if he didn’t do the same. Kaffi found it so much easier to lean slightly forward when he walked on his hinds, keeping his center of balance low. Graymar felt he was too old to be walking so deferentially. In a fit of annoyance and lack of patience, he’d once responded that he would walk on his wings if he so chose, and that particularly sarcastic comment had resulted in an explosion of tintrite cursing followed by three days of silence. They’d eventually made peace, though, and it was agreed that they would simply put up with each other’s irritating habits.

Tonight, though, Kaffi was on his best behavior. Standing tall, wings resting against his back, snout pointed down. Even Iliah and their amma were surprised by his deference.

Graymar, of course, understood it to mean that Kaffi was about to ask for a favor.

He was, after all. No question about that. He waited until after dinner, when Graymar made his customary walk up to the roof for a final scan of the main green. When Kaffi asked if he could tag along, Graymar paused briefly, locking eyes with him. His paddir certainly knew what he was up to, and he steeled himself for a gruff response with an added hint of withering patience, but surprisingly it never came. Instead, Graymar gave him a quick and amiable smile and hummed in agreement.

One hurdle cleared, Kaffi allowed himself one quick ruffle of wings and a quiet hum of excitement and followed him out of the apartment.

They said nothing as they rode the elevators up to the top floor and remained silent until they reached the roof access door. He shivered and yipped once as the door opened, the sudden cold breeze unexpected, and Graymar hummed in agreement, muttering that he hadn’t expected the temperature to drop so soon. Together they walked to the edge of the roof, resting up against the railing, looking out over the estate grounds. He’d seen his paddir up here countless times, had even been up here with him now and again, but this was the first time he stood next to him as an equal, as a tintrite with a similar goal.

This was going to be tough.

Graymar closed his eyes and took a deep breath, two of them, before opening them again, and turned to his pahyoh. “That game you play with Diwa,” he said in a surprisingly soft tone. “Your invention?”

Kaffi kept his nerves in check and hummed in response. “Both of ours. It evolved from a regular game of catch, to keep it entertaining.” He paused, grinning slightly. “And Diwa’s aim is absolutely horrendous.”

“Hmm,” Graymar said quietly, though Kaffi noticed a slight flutter of wing tips, a sign of amusement.

“Paddir…” he said, pausing again to gather his courage. He let his own wings flutter briefly before he continued. “Can I ask you something?”

Graymar dipped his snout at him. “Of course,” he said kindly.

Here we go… Kaffi thought, surprised by his paddir’s uncharacteristic calm, and started in. “Diwa and I have been talking more seriously about the estate. About the inheritances. We’d like to shadow you and Samuel, learn the job. Maybe start the internship—”

“Stop a moment,” Graymar said, holding up a paw, a single talon lifted into the air. “Kaffi, I’d like you to listen to something first before we continue. Indulge me for a few moments.”

Kaffi blinked at him. “O-okay?”

Graymar slowly lowered his hand until it came to rest on his belly and shifted his attention toward the center green below. His eyes moved slowly from the grass to the people to the buildings, seemingly at random. His long, pointed ears had pricked up and began turning slightly in different directions. He’d slowed his own breathing enough that Kaffi couldn’t hear it. He’d seen his father do this countless times and from many angles. It was part of his nightly ritual. His father would often stand up here, remaining still and majestic and…

No, he wasn’t posturing. That wasn’t like him at all.

Graymar was listening to the estate.

As quietly as he could, Kaffi turned to the center green and listened as well.

*

 Graymar gave Kaffi a few minutes to acclimate. He must be patient for his son right now. Kaffi wished to hear what was to be heard, and it was up to him to teach his pahyoh. This would be the moment he matured in his eyes. No longer a youngling.

Kaffi listened, just as he would.

He listened to the chatter of the older mandossi couple on the balcony across the way at Building B. The fiery and always cheerful Diana-Sessteen and the quiet and reserved Becca-Nossiami, two of the longest-staying tenants here. They were talking about the upcoming gardening season and the hopes that their small allotment behind the bungalows would be fruitful. One had heard the news about the co-op farm and was eagerly awaiting the next meeting to sign up for it. The other showed interest but not investment, choosing instead to remain with their small lot on the estate.

He listened to the soft trudge and the rumbly yawn of an aanoupii coming home from a long day on the job. Porro, who lived in one of the bungalows to his left, another long-term tenant. He worked for a construction company a few miles away and always took the light rail to and from the office. He had a slightly later shift than most tenants, and he was almost always alone when he returned to the estate, but he was never lonely. He was humming to himself as he scuffled across the pavement towards his home.

He listened to a few human younglings laughing and talking loudly and ignoring most of the others around them. Leo and Gavin’s boys, Terry and Bradley. They were fine and respectful kids, he knew. They were at that age when they were too self-conscious about some things and utterly oblivious about other things, still learning about life. They were leaving the community center to his right, heading back to their apartment.

He listened to the gentle hiss of the wind through the branches of the trees that lined the green. A cool spring breeze that gave some tenants a shiver, but others – like Kaffi – a twitch of excitement. Wind meant convection, and convection meant flying.

“Do you hear the estate, Kaffi?” Graymar said, his voice quiet.

Kaffi hummed nervously in response, his wings twitching slightly.

He understood. Graymar gave him a smile. His pahyoh was indeed attentive and eager to learn. “That is the sound of an estate at rest, Kaffi,” he said. “And yet if you come up here during the day, when you are usually at school, you will hear completely different sounds. You might hear the day care children, the chaperones, the retirees. You will hear those who work from home, coming out for a stretch or for fresh air or maybe even for an errand across the main street at the market. You may even hear Samuel on his balcony, blathering on about whatever might be on his mind. Do you understand?”

Kaffi turned to him, eyes dark and wide. “I could use some context,” he admitted.

Yes, he was indeed eager to learn. He nodded and turned back to the green. “The sounds of the estate are what lets me know that all is well, that the community is alive. I hear its pulse. There will always be a sound, somewhere. We tintrite have better hearing than most beings here at the estate, I’m sure you know. You will always hear the sounds. If you hear it, it means the estate is a living, breathing entity. And with that, you will also know when something is wrong.”

“When a sound is missing,” Kaffi ventured. “Or out of place.”

“Indeed, Kaffi,” he said. “This is why you see me up here on this roof at various points in the day. The green is shaped like an amphitheater, in a way. Sounds bounce off Palm Building and I am able to hear all the different levels. The bungalows and the other buildings on each side of us act as baffles. The same as with Samuel’s perch on his fifth-floor balcony across the way.”

Kaffi’s eyes narrowed, trying to find exactly where Diwa’s apartment was. “His is near the middle, to the right of the central stairwell,” Graymar said. “Look for the light over the door that has more of a whiter hue than the others.”

“I see it,” Kaffi said, grinning.

Graymar snuffed out a breath and ruffled his wings. It was time. “In answer to your yet-asked question, Kaffi: Yes, I shall let you shadow me. I am aware that Diwa also shows interest in Samuel’s position. The two of you have been talking about inheritance for quite some time now. The two of you may indeed become future landlords. Is that what you wish to do?”

Kaffi nodded and hummed, barely containing his excitement. “Very much so, paddir,” he said.

Graymar hummed once more in response, looking back out on the green. “We shall start tomorrow,” he said.

“Thank you, paddir,” he responded. And for the first time, he joined him there at the roof, listening.

*

Glossary:
(Note: Samuel’s Tagalog is supposed to sound a bit awkward. He can speak it, just not very well.)
Mangyari pa, Diwa! – (Tagalog) Of course, Diwa!
ang sayá-sayá ko! – (Tagalog) I’m extremely happy!
ahpadé – (tintrite) brother

Diwa & Kaffi 04

Author’s Note: New character! Anna-Nassi is one of my favorite characters I’ve ever created, and the fourth member of our main gang. Her style of talking can be a little repetitive and all over the place (like me sometimes), but that’s part of her charm. She’s a big sweetie.

*

CHAPTER FOUR

Anna-Nassi had alternately been called the most annoying, the friendliest, the most (and equally least) attentive, the loudest, the cuddliest, and the weirdest mandossi in the school over the past few years, and she wore every one of those badges with pride. She was super tall, taller than most of the mandossi girls here, and her gliding wings were freakishly strong and enormous. She could be super careful and still manage to flail and break something nearby. Her narrow beakish face was extremely expressive and she could never pass up flashing a wide and pleasing smile at all her friends. Her eyes were wide and bright and her vision completely perfect and she never let anyone forget that. Her attention span may be a bit lacking now and again, but she could hear a whisper from across the room. She was always noisy, sometimes ingratiating, and completely unable to sit still for any length of time, but all that was part of her charm! She felt she lived up to her parents’ legacies of being the most active and vocal participants on their tenancy committee. She simply loved connecting and bonding with everyone she met.

Still, there were moments when she wished she could be the quiet one.

That was why she hung out with Cole.

Cole was a hedraac of the finest order in her eyes. A psychic vampire that fed on the inherent energies of all living beings. And he was such a sweetheart about it too! He always asked before feeding, and he stung with such precision and gentleness that she rarely sensed it. And that was saying a lot as a mandossi! Her kind were the most sensitive to the energies of life here on this planet, so much so that they often mirrored whatever levels surrounded them. If she were part of a rambunctious crowd of overexcitable teenagers, she would be the loudest one in the room. If she watched a melodramatic romance film with her friends, she’d be the one crying her eyes out until there was nothing left.

Cole balanced all that. He always provided her with a calm center she couldn’t always find on her own. And she always loved him for it.

Still stressed out from the recent math test she’d taken earlier that morning, Annie was thrilled to be able to get outside for lunch and get some food in her. She carried a large bento box in her arms and used her wings to burst through the roof access doors and into the sunlight, ready to dig in. Like most mandossi, she also had a voracious appetite, sometimes to an embarrassing degree. She could pack it away, but her body would burn those calories off just hours later.

But ah, glorious day! She felt the cool spring breeze in her mane and the warmth of the sun on her skin and she smiled, baring those fangs of hers. She was tempted to stretch out her wings as well, yet she held back, at least until after she had eaten. They were annoying on the best of days, and the biggest pain to groom afterwards if anything got caught in the folds. Still…it was a lovely day, and she didn’t want to fret about the small things. Forget about that math test, Annie girl…you know you aced it. Just focus on eating and being with your friends right now.

She found Kaffi and Diwa sitting over in the shade near the landing platform at the center of the roof. It had been their favorite hangout since their first days at this school, where she could relax and just be herself without a care. It was also where she felt the calmest, being so near her best friends. She called out to them and they both waved back, sending tiny ripples of happiness her way. But where was Cole…? Late, maybe?

She dropped down on her hinds across from them, setting her concern and worry in the back of her mind for now. “Hey guys!” she sang. “Ai, it’s good to be outside today, neh?”

“Hey Annie,” Diwa said, offering a quick but muted smile, which she didn’t expect. He seemed uncharacteristically quiet today, guarding his emotions and energies much closer than usual. “Where’s our fourth?”

Anna-Nassi opened her bento box and pulled out a comically large wrap overstuffed with far too many meats, cheeses, and condiments. “That is a good question,” she said, and chomped down. It felt good to get something in her stomach again! She swallowed quickly and glanced towards the entrance. “He’s been avoiding everyone today. I hope he’s okay.”

Kaffi hummed. He too sat on his hinds; it seemed he only sat that way when he was with friends. Otherwise he was always at a strange but incredibly balanced almost-sitting position. “I think his Steiner-Hedraac has been kicking in again,” he said. “He’s been going through a lot of stress recently. I saw him just before last period, he was probably heading towards the solitary room for a little bit to calm down.” He took a bite out of the bread stick he’d been holding and gnawed on it for a few moments, lost in thought. “I think lia Powers might have cornered him this morning.”

All three of them shivered. Lydia Powers, the school’s resident guidance counselor, had been chasing everyone in their graduating class for the last few weeks to complete their Future Calling report. Everyone needed to have a plan – not necessarily a detailed one, but at least a solid one to use as a starting point. Anna-Nassi had gone to great lengths to avoid ria Powers as much as she could.

“I worry about him.” She glanced at the doorway again, fretting with her wrap. She could probably sense Cole at this point, but she dared not make that move right now. Not with all the other students around that could sense exactly what she was up to.

“I’m sure he’s okay…” Diwa offered.

She turned back to him, then to Kaffi, concerned by their uncharacteristic silence. What was going on with those two, anyway? The normally talkative and funny Diwa was far from chatty today, and even Kaffi was quiet and skittish. They’d been acting all kinds of weird all morning. They’d hardly shared any words during study hall. They’d catch each other’s glances now and again, but never said anything. They were keeping a secret and doing a ridiculously poor job of it.

“Are you two bonding or something?” she asked without preamble.

“What?” Diwa yelped, his face turning a splotchy red. “No! I mean…”

Kaffi giggled at him, shaking his snout, which had just gone a tiny shade darker. “Nothing like that yet, Annie,” he said. He tapped Diwa softly on the shoulder with the back of his paw, giving him a warm smile. “Calm down, Dee. Eiyah, you’re so easily flustered.”

That certainly got their attention! Now she was curious. She narrowed her eyes and grinned her too-wide grin at them, prodding them once more. “Come on, spill!” she said. “What are you up to? You’ve been conspiring all morning and it’s weirding everyone out!”

“I’ll…tell you later,” Diwa mumbled. He glanced around at the other students on the roof patio, partially hiding his face with his elbow as he scratched the back of his head. His human traits of embarrassment were so adorable! She’d clearly touched a nerve. Something was indeed brewing between them.

She let it go for now and joined in checking out the other students while she ate her lunch and waited for Cole. A few younger mandossi were nearer the landing pad, chittering away. They held themselves primly, sitting up straight, eating delicately, nibbling away at their prepared rolls, their wings never touching the ground. Completely unlike her. The big tintrite boys made a racket with their rough-housing and talk of someone’s awesome flying during the last game. Kaffi found them irritating and refused to give them the time of day. Human students rarely came up to the roof, preferring to hang out on the grounds out front or in the cafeteria. A few of them were at the far end of the roof, leaning up against the railing and completely ignoring everyone else, including Diwa.

She knew what they all thought of her and her friends, really; it was in the furtive glances and the irritable energies they gave off. Most of the kids at this school came from the more congested suburbs closer to the city, while she and these two boys lived further out on the periphery, along with Cole. They thought she and her friends were embarrassingly provincial.

But she and her friends were proud of being who they were and didn’t give a niilie’s backside about what any might think of them. She loved her friends because of that.

Still, it irritated occasionally.

As if on cue, Cole came walking out of the double doors and into the sunlight, scanning the roof patio for his friends, and Anna-Nassi felt a surge of happiness course through her veins when he spotted her. Eiyah, finally! There he is!

Cole felt her burst of joy from all the way across the patio and smiled broadly. He waved and made his way over, a goofy lopsided smile on his face. Tall, scrawny, pale, and the only hedraac who ever bothered coming up here at all, Cole looked so much healthier than he had earlier this morning, which made her even happier.

“Eiyah, Cole!” she chirped. “Where have you been?”

Cole took a seat next to her, motioning to her arm. “Can I…?”

She nodded and patted his knee. “You know you don’t need to ask.”

“Thanks.” he exhaled and turned to the others to join in the conversation. Seconds later she felt a small shift of energy in her bicep, a tiny pinprick of a psychic connection established between Cole and herself. It felt a little bit like a flutter in her heart, followed by what could only be described as the sensation of water, gently flowing down her arm. Cole was feeding ever so gently, just like he always did. His nerves were still jittery, but she could already feel him calming down now that they’d made that bond.

“It’s been a crazy morning,” he continued, his excitement causing a hitch in his words. “Not only did Miss Powers corner me. I also received word. From my mother. They’ve finalized the legal paperwork. For the co-op satellite farm today. We can start using our acres. In a few months.”

Diwa’s eyes widened. “That’s fantastic! My dad will be thrilled to hear that. Tell your parents I said congratulations!”

Kaffi bounced on his hinds and let his wings flutter, also excited by Cole’s news. “Eiyah, this great to hear! My manae has been backing your family’s bid for that project since last year, and my paddir has been shuttling the paperwork to and from the farm all this time. I’m sure he’ll be glad that’s over with.” He calmed himself down a bit, scratching nervously his snout. “Any idea of who will be running the hiring committee?”

Anna-Nassi giggled, nearly spitting out her sandwich. She leaned back on the knuckles of her wings and narrowed her eyes at him again. “Ai! I do not see you working on a farm, Kaffi. Not with those delicate talons and sensitive nose of yours.”

Cole raised his eyebrows, showing off his lovely dark eyes. He suddenly seemed much calmer now, having borrowed some of her energy to balance himself out. “You’re interested in running a hire, then?”

Kaffi gave Diwa a quick glance before he responded. “Perhaps,” he said.

Anna-Nassi could wait no longer, glaring between the two boys. “Come on, you two,” she said, crossing her arms. “There’s something going on that you’re not telling us.”

“Oh, they’re bonding, alright,” Cole said, and took a sip from his water bottle. “No doubt about it at all.”

“I think you’re right,” she snorted in amusement, glancing at him.

“Hoy!” Diwa said a little too loudly, his face a dark red once more. He cleared his throat and hid his face again. “Anó bang problema mo? Neh…”

She held a hand to her mouth, biting back a laugh. He was so cute when he got flustered! “So what is it then, Dee?”

Diwa groaned and looked to Kaffi, but the tintrite kept his mouth shut tight, tilting his head ever so slightly at him. Seeing he wasn’t going to get any help, he dropped his shoulders and turned back to her. His face was still red, but his emotions had suddenly changed from embarrassment to…determination? That was unexpected. “Fine. Are you busy after school?”

Anna-Nassi was intrigued enough that she pushed off her wing knuckles and fluttered them. “Ooh, secretive! Do tell!”

‘Yes, Annie, it’s a secret,” Kaffi said flatly. “You might be involved.”

That stopped her almost immediately, her shoulders hiking up and her wings ruffling again in response. Even Diwa stopped short by the unexpected words. “Why, what did I do?” she asked.

“It’s what you can do,” he said, and briefly glanced at Diwa once more, this time his mouth tightening into a smile. “You too, Cole. The four of us. If you’re interested. Dee?”

Diwa had regained his composure and leaned in as well. “Are you still interested in having a significant role at the estate?” he asked.

It took a moment for the question to sink in, and when it did, she gasped in gleeful surprise. He was talking about inheritance – the long-simmering, much-delayed conversation between the four of them! “You’re serious?” she said, doing her best to remain calm. “Please tell me you’re serious!”

“I am,” he said. “It’s about time, too. Kaffi and I talked about it last night, and we both want to start putting our plans in motion. We’re still working out what we want to do, but we’d love the two of you to be a part of it.”

“I’d be honored,” Cole said, nodding. He shuffled away slightly, tapping Anna-Nassi on the shoulder. “I’m fine now,” he whispered to her. “Thanks.”

She was so excited and surprised by Diwa’s words that she didn’t even feel Cole’s psychic disconnect this time. Eiyah, this was amazing news! “You two have no idea what you’re doing but count me in!” she chirped.

Diwa and Kaffi glanced at each other once more, their big smiles mirroring each other. Even Diwa was back to his bouncy, fidgety self again. “After school, let’s meet on the green, okay?” he said. “Let’s make this happen.”

And for the first time in what felt like forever, Anna-Nassi felt an intense wave of emotion from all three of them at the same time. Especially Diwa and Kaffi. This was more important to them that it was to her and Cole, but she couldn’t help but share in the celebration. She whooped and laughed and didn’t care at all that everyone was staring at her right now. Nothing could bring her down!

*

“You don’t have a plan at all, do you?”

Diwa and Kaffi sat close together on one of the low benches in the rear of the crowded light rail train, while Anna-Nassi and Cole squeezed into seats a few rows up. Annie was keeping a constant eye on Cole’s health today, even though he’d claimed he’d felt much better after lunch, which kept her senses busy for the most part. Which was fine with Diwa, because right now Kaffi was being a little too blunt and it he was finding it hard not to snap back in irritation. He’d been quiet during the last few hours of school, but by the time they got on the light rail, he’d started fretting and grumbling, worried that they were maybe getting a bit too excited over their grand plan. Or more precisely, the lack thereof. Diwa had to hold himself in check, as he didn’t want the other two to soak in Kaffi’s unexpected pessimism or his annoyance.

“It’s early days, Kaff,” he said as evenly as he could. “Remember, I can’t do this by myself, you know. I mean, I appreciate everyone being all in, especially you, but this isn’t going to be all on me. That’s not how we want it to run. I need all the help I can get.”

Kaffi looked down at his talons, tapping them together, drawing his mouth into a tight line. Eventually he let out a low, tiny hum; apologetic. “You’re right, Diwa,” he said quietly. “I’m sorry, I’m just nervous.”

Diwa hummed right back and stroked his shoulder, leaning in slightly. It was clear Kaffi did understand, and he’d just forgotten that unlike most humans, tintrite didn’t always hold back when something truly bothered them. “Don’t be sorry,” he said quietly. “I’ll admit I’m just as nervous as you are. I have no idea if this will even work. But we won’t know if we don’t try.”

Kaffi gently tapped a claw on his arm. He hummed again, this time soft and short; repentant. “I’m still sorry, Dee. I shouldn’t jump to conclusions like that.”

“Eiyah!” Anna-Nassi suddenly chirped from halfway up the car, flailing one of her arms to get their attention. “You two lovebirds done whispering, or are you going to let us join you?”

Kaffi scratched the ridge of his snout and let out a short laugh, relieved by the sudden shift in mood. “Issthnamii…” he sighed, glancing his way and flashing an amused fang. “She’s completely sold on us bonding, isn’t she? Kind of hard to argue when she gets on a tear.”

“She’s certainly a handful sometimes,” Diwa nodded, returning the smile. “But we love her anyway.”

“Yes, we do,” he said, and flagged them over. Anna-Nassi and Cole cheered in response and noisily moved to the back of the train, all four of them squeezing onto the low bench.

“It’s about time!” she chirped, playfully indignant and leaning heavily on Diwa’s shoulder. “I don’t trust you two when you get all quiet. Play it out for us, Dee. What are you planning?”

Diwa glanced once more at Kaffi, questioning. Was he ready to do this, or did he want to wait just a little longer? But Kaffi tapped him on the arm once more, lingering just a little longer than usual, followed by a hum and a slow nod. That was all he had to do. Kaffi did indeed understand that he might not have a full plan or know exactly what he was doing, but he trusted him to lead the way. This was the moment he’d briefly shared with Kaffi last night, and now it was about to be out in the open.

This time he was about to take the first steps to make it a reality.

He laid it out in detail during the rest of the ride home. The inheritance process would still take place, and both he and Kaffi would go through all the internships and training and committee meetings and paperwork it would take for them to get the position. Diwa’s minor wrinkle in the expected plan was that he would keep the position open for anyone else at the estate. Admittedly, he thought it was minor, but Kaffi had already voiced his reservations, and Anna-Nassi and Cole were now doing the same. They felt it was too risky, concerned that someone could come in, an outsider or someone with no experience or understanding of the position, and take over what was already a perfectly fine system and make too many unwarranted changes. Diwa argued that he trusted their fellow tenants to make the right decision and the tenancy committee to open the possible race only to those living on the estate, especially if the four of them made it their mission to establish that trust in the first place.

Once they’d all gotten over that – and jumped off the light rail for the walk back to the estate, with a brief stop at the local convenience store for snacks – Diwa expanded on his idea. If he and Kaffi were going to be co-landlords when the time came, the last thing he wanted was to have the entirety of the estate resting on their shoulders. He genuinely wanted this to be a community project. He understood reality often worked otherwise, but they’d face that when the time came. Running an apartment complex was more than just processing rent payments, renovating and fixing homes when and where necessary, and making tenants feel comfortable and secure. It was about seeing this estate as a micro-community and not just a home. And it took more than just two co-landlords to do that; that much he’d already learned from Graymar and Samuel, from lolo Daniel and Akkree, and from their mothers Shahney and Dari, and from so many others here.  He would need a team to make this work.

That’s where Anna-Nassi and Cole would come in.

They continued their conversation at one of the picnic tables on the center green. Diwa had already pulled out his tablet and had started sketching out ideas. “Annie,” he said. “You’re already following your mother as part of the tenant’s committee. Would you be willing to establish further connections with other members to streamline the communication between the different groups and their projects? Maybe stagger the deadlines? I know that’s consistently a problem since Pop likes to grouse about it all the time. Panooria does love its paperwork, but it’s a pain. Getting everything at the end of the month just creates a bottleneck. We need a quicker turnaround when we receive requests and concerns from the tenants.”

Anna-Nassi stared at him, utterly surprised at his words, but also intrigued and inspired by them. “I can do that,” she said, nodding quickly. Her wings were twitching now, the phalanges tapping away at the bench. “You mentioned the co-op earlier. I’ll ask my amma about the schedule for the hiring committee as well.”

“Good. Cole, would you be willing to immerse yourself with the co-op as well? Getting involved with it would be a great starter project for all of us.”

“That was my plan,” he smiled, giving him two thumbs up. “I will talk with my parents. And gather more information. There’s still a lot of coordination to do. But I believe they’re at the point. Where they’re no longer waiting. For paperwork and permits to go through. I’ll be working there with them. A few days a week this summer.”

“Excellent,” Diwa said, beaming. “Kaff? Anything to add?”

Diwa had been talking for so long that Kaffi was surprised by the sudden shift in attention, and for a moment he couldn’t think of anything to say. He tilted his head at Diwa, laughing nervously. “You, eh, put me on the spot there, Diwa…”

“Yup,” Anna-Nassi said, elbowing Cole. “Totally bonded.”

“Hush,” Cole whispered with a smirk. “Go ahead, Kaffi.”

Kaffi nodded. “Hmm. Well, I think you already have some great ideas. For a start at any rate.”

Diwa raised his eyebrows at him, but with a smile. “For a start?”

The bridge of his snout turned a dark bluish green. “Eiyah! Let me begin again,” he stuttered. “What I meant to say, I think these are really great kick-off ideas. The first of many. First moves to establish our presence.” He let out a nervous hum, tapping his talons on the table. “I’d like to think some more on what my – on what our roles would be, Dee.”

“Less thinking, more doing!” Anna-Nassi barked, madly waving her hands at them. “You two need to stop avoiding the obvious and start working with your padda!”

Diwa bristled, but she had a point. He’d been talking about it long enough. “Tomorrow,” he said.

She furrowed her brow and crossed her arms at them. “Why not tonight?”

“Annie, I—”

“Eiyah! No excuses!” she said, flashing one of her manic too-wide grins at him. “I’ve given you two your assignments! I’m expecting the both of you to report to me tomorrow morning confirming that you’ve started! Neh? No laziness from either of you!”

Kaffi dipped his snout downward in surprise and leaned in Diwa’s direction. “She’s worse than Miss Powers today, isn’t she?” he muttered.

“No choice then,” he said, mirroring his reaction. “Tonight it is.”

“Hmm.”

*

Glossary:
mandossi – (man-doss-ee) semi-avian biped with large gliding wings, beakish face and large fangs
lia – (lee-ah) mandossi word for feminine title, as in Mrs, Miss or Ms
eiyah – (ay-yah) mandossi all-purpose word of any kind of exclamation, from ‘yay!’ to ‘yikes!’
anó bang problema mo? – (Tagalog) What is wrong with you?
issthnamii – (eesth-nah-mee) (tintrite) general phrase of frustration or tired amusement, literally ‘give me patience’


Diwa & Kaffi 03

CHAPTER THREE

Another day, another set of rounds. Samuel leaned up against the railing on the roof of Palm, enjoying the cool spring breeze while he kept watch over the estate grounds. It was midmorning already and he hadn’t yet seen Graymar, but he wasn’t too worried…sometimes he had morning flight errands he had to fulfill. He decided he’d wait up here for him until he returned.

Meanwhile, it was time to have a good long think about their sons. He’d been out on the balcony having his morning coffee when Diwa and Kaffi headed off to school. In fact, Kaffi had been waiting for Diwa on the center green for a good fifteen minutes or so, fretting and pacing, his wings fluttering nonstop. He’d looked up at Samuel at one point, waving and looking a little embarrassed. When Diwa passed him on his way out soon after, he asked him if anything had happened between them last night, which seemed to have been a dumb question to ask; Diwa screwed up his reddened face and quickly responded that everything was fine. He met Kaffi out in the parking lot, both in great moods, and took off towards the light rail station.

Samuel often wondered why Kaffi never flew to school. He would rather walk with Diwa, and he never took to the air whenever they went somewhere together. Graymar would never think twice about it if they were traveling separately; he’d be up there, soaring in lazy circles while waiting for him to reach their destination. Maybe Kaffi was waiting for his son to initiate the paired flying…? Samuel laughed quietly, remembering his own early years, asking tintrite friends to be his first flight. Gods, that had been so mortifying! He’d started so late that most tintrite had already paired up with other rides, and the others had dismissed him. Graymar had been the only one of his willing tintrite friends, and the only one who hadn’t laughed when he asked. Gray took his flight seriously; he was one of the best fliers in their age group, and fiercely proud of his abilities. It truly was like the start of a long-term relationship, figuring out each other and making so many embarrassing mistakes and getting into petty arguments, constantly worried that it wouldn’t work out. For the first year or so, he was absolutely convinced Graymar was merely waiting for the right time to tell him it wasn’t working out. But he never did, and eventually they figured out a comfortable balance and stuck with it.

Gods, how long ago was that? He laughed again, this time at how old he felt. Years of getting used to Gray’s flair for taking the occasional gut-dropping turn, and Gray accepting that Samuel was getting heavier and creakier with age. They were still a tight unit. They trusted each other, knew each other’s movements. They were best friends and always would be.

Kaffi must be longing for that.

Samuel heard the flapping of leathery wings approaching behind him. He glanced at his watch: it was nearly ten thirty. This was quite late for Graymar to return! He heard the last few wing beats then the gentle two-step drop to the roof. For such a large tintrite, his landings were always light and delicate.

“Morning, Gray,” he said, turning around. “Been busy?”

Graymar grunted and ruffled his wings with exhausted annoyance and a barely hidden wince before folding them back. He readjusted the bulging satchel he wore around his torso as he joined Samuel at the railing. “Hmm. I was up at the co-op farm,” he said, twisting and rubbing his neck to work out a sore muscle. “There’s so much paperwork we still have to sort through. And you know how I feel about paperwork.”

Samuel laughed, giving him a friendly pat on the arm. “The price we pay for being part-time couriers, Gray. Digital’s okay, but Panooria still wants physical copies. Which reminds me…are we still up for another run at the end of the month?”

Graymar patted the overstuffed bag and stretched his back, working on further soreness. “As long as it’s our lighter tenancy committee work. This lease work is only the first half of it, and it’s killing me. I’ll need to return tomorrow and get the rest. There’s more after that, but I’m choosing not to think about it right now.”

Samuel smiled and turned back to the green below, watching the tenants make their way to and from midmorning errands and jobs. “The committee’s finally taking the co-op planning process seriously then,” he said. “I’m glad. That was Cass and Carol’s idea.” Cass and Carol Caine, two hedraac high-level committee members at the estate, had floated the idea of working with a local co-op farm during the last apple harvest season to create additional income as well as providing jobs for its tenants. The committee response had been extremely positive, and they’d been given the go-ahead to make it happen. It was already the talk of the estate, and many tenants were looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, all that excitement had caused a minor but important issue, one that he too had sadly not followed up on yet. He glanced over at the rear garden and orchard just behind the eastern bungalows. The allotments at the southern end of the strip were in constant use and looked healthy as ever, but the small orchard at the northern end had been ignored for far too long. “Our own orchard needs a little revitalization, though…it’s been neglected for months now.”

“Speaking of whom,” Graymar said, nodding in the same direction. He rocked back onto his hinds and rested his arms on the bulging satchel the aching muscles seeming to have calmed down for now. “I hear their youngest son has taken an interest in the farm.”

Samuel nodded. “Cole. He’s the one with Steiner-Hedraac syndrome. He’s one of Diwa and Kaffi’s friends.”

Graymar nodded. “I happened to talk with him on the green a few days ago. He might be a quiet one, but he’s more connected to the estate than he often lets on. He brought up the issue of the orchard with me as well. He already knows and understands what the committee wants to do with the co-op. I think he’ll make a fine representative when that project goes live.”

“Good to hear,” Samuel said, and turned back to Graymar again. He was looking a bit more exhausted than usual, even for so early in the day, but didn’t say anything…he was probably just worn out from carrying all that heavy paperwork. Maybe a bit of distraction was in order. “How’s your pahyoh been?” he asked.

Graymar paused before responding, the change in subject unexpected. “Why do you ask?”

“Merely curious. Diwa and Kaffi were definitely aware that we were analyzing their game yesterday. You know how it is. Self-conscious teens hate being watched over by their parents.”

“Hmm.”

“I think Kaffi’s itching to get up in the air, Gray.”

“He does that all the time,” he shrugged, deadpan. “I wouldn’t stop him.”

“I mean with Diwa.” He waved his hand back and forth, as if the two boys were there in front of them. “You’ve seen, it, Gray, don’t tell me otherwise. Something’s going on between those two. I’ve seen it before, and I never said anything. Last night was different though, and I’m waiting for Diwa to bring it up. They’re thinking about the inheritance and the internship. They’re ready to take that next step.”

“They’ve been thinking about it for ages, Sam. Diwa only needs to ask,” he said plainly. “Nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Samuel smirked at him, knowing a classic Graymar deflection when he heard one. “Come on, Gray, this is serious. Do you remember how embarrassed I was when I approached you? I was afraid you’d laugh and fly away, like all the other tintrite did.”

Graymar grinned warmly at that, and leaned forward to touch his snout against Samuel’s forehead. “And yet here I am,” he said, humming in amusement.

“And yet here you are,” he laughed, waving him away. “Even more reason Kaffi should be the one to ask Diwa! Your son is itching to get up in the air as a ride, and he’ll want to get some paired training as soon as possible. I say, plant the seed. He’s got it mapped out already, he just needs to hear you give him the go-ahead. He’ll come to you soon, I know it. You train him however you feel necessary, and I’ll do what I can on my end to get Diwa ready for flight.”

Graymar’s snout dipped low and let out a quick snort. “You’re serious about this.”

“Of course I am!” he said, giving his friend’s mane a quick ruffle. “They’ve planned for a long time, and they’re finally ready to put it all into action. And I certainly don’t want either of them to waste their time thinking and never doing, if you know what I mean.”

Graymar stared at him for a few seconds before he lifted his snout again and looked away. “Thinking was never your main strength anyway,” he said, flashing a fang.

“And doing was never yours,” he countered, elbowing him.

“I shall talk to him soon.”

“Good. It’s a plan, then.”

*

Glossary
hedraac – (hed-rack) humanlike alien psychic vampire
Steiner-Hedraac Syndrome – a disability in hedraac that affects their vampiric abilities

Diwa & Kaffi 02

Author’s Note: As you may have noticed, Diwa is not an English name; in fact, it’s Filipino. He comes from a mixed family, where his mother is Filipina and his father is white. Thus there will be the occasional Tagalog phrase that pops up here and there throughout the rest of the novel, along with a few non-human languages. I’ll do my best to provide a glossary at the end of the chapter. Special thanks to Armie Tabios and Mike Batista for double-checking my use of Tagalog!

*

CHAPTER TWO

“You think they were talking about us?”

Diwa stretched out at the end of Kaffi’s pallet bed, staring at the high ceiling. He flexed his still-stinging hands; he still couldn’t believe he caught that ball. But that was the least of his worries right now…he’d seen his father and Graymar up on the balcony during their game. They perched up there almost every day on the regular, but today they’d kept their eyes on them the entire time. Like they were being judged, and not just because of his running through the garden or that reckless throw so close to the tenants.

Kaffi huffed and twitched his snout. He sat on his hinds at the other end of the bed, his head tilted, distracted by the sky outside his window. “Of course they were talking about us!” he said and tapped his talons together. He turned to him, flashing a quick fang or two. Clearly he was not as worried or self-conscious about their fathers keeping such a close eye on them. “When they’re not talking about the old days, they’re usually complaining about something we did.”

Diwa wasn’t convinced. “They’ve been watching us a lot lately. I mean, a lot more than they usually do. Have you noticed?”

Kaffi sniffed, dipping his snout at him. “I have. We are of age, Dee. They’re going to start prodding us about inheritance and internship soon.”

“Soon?” he grinned, raising a brow at him. “You mean Gray hasn’t said anything yet? Pop’s been all passive-aggressive on me for months now. He’s trying to talk me into being more active at the tenancy meetings and estate projects, but he won’t come right out and ask.”

“Hmm. You know paddir…”

Diwa turned and propped himself up on an elbow. Kaffi had to have noticed what this was all about by now! “You want it, don’t you? Taking Graymar’s position after he retires?”

“Eiyah, if he retires, more like,” he said, dismissing him with a wave of his claws. “My paddir never lets anything go, especially his position.” He looked down at Diwa, cocking his head slightly, dark eyes studying him as the idea started to take root. “You’re still serious about this, aren’t you? You still want Samuel to give you the job? I mean, yeah, we’ve talked about it for years. I know I still want it. Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts…?”

Diwa blushed, quickly waving off that suggestion. “No! No, it’s more like…” He stuttered to a halt, looking away in embarrassment. “Never mind. It’s dumb.”

Kaffi waved a taloned hand back at him. “What if it is?”

Ai, he wasn’t going to let this go, was he? He was just like Graymar when he did that. Diwa dropped back down on the bed with a frustrated grunt. “Pop’s position has been handed down through five generations of my family, Kaff. It’s always been an inheritance. Sure, they were all legitimate, voted through by the tenancy committee and made official by the Tenancy Board in Panooria. No major complaints, no repeals, nothing. Meanwhile, I’m at the point where I’ve started making rounds through the estate to get to know the tenants, so they can get to know me. Same thing Pop did, same thing lolo Daniel did.”

Kaffi hummed, slow and questioning; concerned. He dropped down to all fours and hunched near him. “I hear a ‘but’ somewhere in there.”

Diwa glanced at him, comforted by his closeness. “It doesn’t seem right to me somehow, Kaff. It would be handing the position to me, whether I was ready or not. I want—I need to work for it.”

“Who says you’re not? You just said so yourself. You’re doing the rounds—”

He waved his hand in the air again. “I don’t mean that.”

“What do you mean, then?”

Ai, this was such a dumb thing to get so upset and obsessed over! “I know the tenants like me. But they like me because they like Pop. And they like you because they like Graymar. I’m just…”

Kaffi hummed, soft and high; sympathetic. “You think they’ll expect us to run the estate the exact same way,” he said. “As if we were Samuel and Graymar ourselves.”

“Told you it was stupid.”

“Hmm. I don’t think so,” he said, softly tapping a talon on Diwa’s arm. “I think you have a strong case. You want to prove yourself as a capable future landlord and not just an inheritor. And I agree! I love my paddir, but I am most definitely not the same as him. I’d rather let them know the real Kaffi before I take the position.”

Diwa glanced at him in surprise. “You agree with me?”

“Of course I do.”

“You don’t think I’m overreacting?”

Kaffi snorted. “You? Overreact?”

He hit Kaffi’s arm with a soft backhand. “Very funny.”

“So how are we going to go about it, then?”

A good question, and one he’d been asking himself for over a month now. “I’m not sure yet,” he said eventually. “I’ll continue with the rounds, do whatever needs doing. I’ll have to get with Pop soon to register the internship to make it official…”

“Hmm.”

After a moment he smirked and caught his eye once more. “You said ‘we’.”

“Took you long enough,” Kaffi said, snorting and prodding him once more. “Look, Diwa. Whatever you choose to do about this, it’ll affect me as well. We’ve both wanted this since for years, and we’ve always planned to do it as a team. We both need to prove ourselves, yes? You tell me how we should approach it, and we’ll do it together.”

Diwa face burned. That had been the plan all along, but… “Kaff…?”

But Kaffi would have none of it. He pushed himself back up onto his hinds, his wings twitching slightly. “It makes sense that we do so in tandem. We still have some issues to sort through, but we can get through them, side by side as always.”

Diwa gave him a nervous laugh. “We’re best friends, Kaff. We’re not bonded.”

Kaffi laughed as well, though Diwa caught the twitch of wings again. Kaffi usually hid his own embarrassment quite well, but his wings were always the giveaway. “No, we’re not,” he conceded, catching his eye again, as if to provide an unspoken not yet, anyway in there somewhere. He ruffled his wings once more before settling them and dropped back down to all fours. “But I’ll stand by your decision regardless,” he added lightly.

Diwa looked away, focusing on the ceiling again. He felt an unexpected wave of relief, and he wasn’t sure if it was because he’d shared his concerns with his best friend and possible future co-landlord, or that Kaffi had so willingly decided to stick by his side all this time. They both had a hard path ahead of them as potential inheritors and having a close ally would make things so much easier. He smiled and felt stupid for it, but he didn’t care. Somehow, his future looked a lot clearer.

Right beside him, Kaffi hummed and smiled in response.

*

Diwa left Building C and began the walk back across the central green to Palm. The sun had already started to set behind the community center building off to his right, and the streetlights were starting to flicker on with a quiet electric hum. This was a slow time of day for the estate; most of the younger kids had already gone home to start their schoolwork and have dinner with their families, and Diwa was just about to do so himself. A few other tenants were walking across the green, some on their way home from work and others returning from errands. He recognized most of them and waved hello as he passed by, but he didn’t stay or linger to talk. An older, exhausted aanoupii trudged up the driveway in dirty overalls and carrying a toolbox, absently brushing dust from his bovine-like horns, heading to one of the eastern bungalows. A young tintrite from Building E flying in lazy practice circles above the trees. The chatty elderly mandossi ladies from Building B sat at one of the picnic tables, twittering and giggling as they shared the latest gossip. The new young human tenant couple, heading over to Building A, nervous in their still unfamiliar surroundings.

Behind him on the roof of Building C, Kaffi’s paddir had roosted at the edge. Graymar would always be up there in his favorite spot around this time, as part of his rounds. Diwa imagined he could feel the tintrite’s eyes on him, watching him cross the central green. Some evenings he’d look up and wave, and sometimes Graymar would wave back. Tonight however, he kept his eyes on his own building, the shorter and squatter Palm. His family’s apartment was dead center, on the fifth floor and right next to the middle open stairwell. Sometimes he’d see his father there, but tonight he must be inside, fiddling around in his office.

Off in the distance, he heard the chime of the local church bells, signaling that it was six o’clock. It was almost time for dinner.

*

Diwa’s bedroom was tiny and compact compared to Kaffi’s cavernous nestroom, but for him it was just the right size. His bed, his desk, a few other amenities, maybe a couple of posters and a radio, that’s all he needed. He spent far more time over at Kaffi’s place anyway, but when he was here at home and needed time alone, spartan was definitely the way to go. Unlike his father, he tried not to distract himself too often, as it always felt like wasting time. He liked to be connected, either with his family, with his friends or the other tenants. This bedroom was the one place in this estate that was truly his own, and he treasured that, though he would happily share it with his friends whenever they came over.

He still had a little bit of time before dinner was ready, so he turned on his computer and called up his homework for the evening. It was spring semester, which meant that many of his teachers had begun assigning term papers and final projects. Diwa always made sure that he got these done ahead of time, even despite his occasional frustration in maintaining interest in them. There was the added stress of Future Calling – he hated the corny name, but it was part of the curriculum – in which he had to complete a final conversation with the school’s guidance counselor, giving a final report of impending internship, employment, or calling once he graduated.

The idea of having a Future Calling chat hadn’t bothered him originally. He’d known it was coming because of his older brother Aldrine having gone through it some years ago, and he already knew he was in line for Samuel’s job. But over the past few months, the idea of having to go through this song and dance for other people’s benefit had started to grate on him. Was he making this report for his own peace of mind, or for everyone else’s? His conversation with Kaffi hadn’t been mere teenage irritation. He didn’t want to go through with the report if it was just a waste of time. And he certainly didn’t want to work from a script everyone else expected him to read.

He brought up a vidchat window and signed in. Kaffi was already online, his head taking up most of the window. His eyes were focused on his own homework and he was typing up a storm. For a tintrite with long and taloned fingers, he was an amazingly fast at it. “Hey you,” he chirped.

“Hey,” Diwa said, opening one of his own documents, a report for his literature class. “What are you working on?”

Kaffi’s eyes popped up to his camera, and they briefly locked eyes. “Lia Weiss’s history paper. You?”

“Mr. Marcus’s book report,” he groaned. “If I can manage to write a few hundred more words to pad it out, I think I might have something worth handing in. Journey of the Bloodstone is such a boring book, I don’t even know why it gets assigned.”

“It’s a parable about unjust living conditions,” Kaffi said with a grin, raising a brow at him. “Or did the Sledgehammer of Obvious Symbolism miss your head again?”

“Very droll, Kaff. Seriously, it’s just so outdated. I mean, I get the message. It’s one of those ‘demands for social justice’ sort of things, and I’m all for that. But the prose is just so outdated, not to mention very problematic in certain places, that it’s lost its bite. We’d be better off reading something more recent from Candleman or Laura-Dhenashhi instead. Same exact message, just more relevant to this century. And just a tad less xenophobic.”

“Did you put that in your paper?”

“Well, no, but—”

“Why not? That’s a very valid point, and I feel the same way about that book. I’m sure the others in the class would agree. I don’t know what Alio Marcus would say, but I doubt he would dock you a grade for being sincere about its issues that have crept up over time.”

“Hmm. You have a point.”

“Don’t I always?”

“Smartass.”

“Hoy, Diwa!” he heard from the hallway. “Dumating kana pala!”

“That’s ina,” he smiled.  “I’m heading to dinner. I’ll be back in a few.”

“I’ll be here. Tell her I said hello.”

Diwa stood up, stretched, and started to head towards the dining room, feeling a bit distracted. He glanced at the screen, out of camera shot, and watched his friend typing away, humming a light tune. Kaffi certainly had been full of positive ideas today. They’d had this kind of conversation plenty of times in the past, but lately it felt as if his friend was…?

Nah, couldn’t be.

He shook that idea out of his head and joined his family at the table.

*

Kaffi headed to dinner at the same time as Diwa. It had been Iliah’s turn to make dinner this time, and his ahmané had created a feast of meats, cheeses and greens displayed on a wide tray on the kotatsu, along with tall, fluted glasses of water and fruit juice. It was a simple dinner, but Iliah had made it look quite fancy. Long strips of finely cut grilled beef were spread out on a serving board next to cubes of cheddar, swiss and goat’s milk cheeses, slices of cucumber, with individual bowls of spinach and rocket leaves nearby. Kaffi had always been impressed by her culinary creativity, learned from her years at the city university and various food service internships. Kaffi had even come to the table earlier than usual, hoping to get a good look at the layout before it vanished. Graymar was the last to enter the dining room, muttering an apology for his delay. He hummed low and slow as he approached the table, highly impressed by Iliah’s presentation. She flashed him a wide grin and chirped at the family to dig in. Shahney, Kaffi’s manae, continued to praise even after they’d finished and settled in for the evening.

Kaffi watched his paddir exit the apartment again soon after everyone had finished eating. Graymar had uttered few words during dinner, ruffled his wings, and mumbled a few more before returning to the roof. Sometimes Kaffi wished he’d say something, anything, for a change…but he was set in his ways, just like other elder tintrite males. He wasn’t angry at him for barely speaking to his own family in the evenings, because Graymar took his position very seriously. He was up there again, doing his final scan before turning in. He did this every single night without fail, regardless of weather. He’d come down in an hour or so, join Shahney in their nestroom for some reading, and they’d all turn in around ten.

“Hey, little ahpadhé,” Iliah sang, shaking him out of his thoughts. She’d sidled up to him under the now cleaned kotatsu, nudging at his shoulder with the pad of her palm. “Something on your mind?”

Kaffi ruffled his wings and let out a tiny hum. “Thinking about the future, ahmané,” he said.

She laughed quietly. “So formal! It must be important.”

“It is,” he said, and felt the bridge of his snout beginning to heat up. He could never hide his emotions from Iliah. They’d always been close siblings, even with the five-year difference in age. He knew he could trust her with his most personal thoughts and emotions, and would treat him as an adult. “When you wanted to go to culinary school,” he said too quickly, then stopped. Ai, why was he so nervous? He shook his wings and let them settle again. He started again, slower this time. “What drove you to your decision?”

Iliah flashed a pleased fang at him and cocked her head. She had their manae’s inquisitive dark blue eyes that made her easy to approach, and her silky black mane, though she’d let hers grow long so it would flop over to one side. Just like Shahney, she looked so confident! “So many things!” she sang. “So many people! Manae taught us both how to cook when we were younglings, but I found I really enjoyed it. I loved the creation of the dish, everything that goes into it. The balance of the flavors, the scents, even the presentation. And the pleasure! The happiness I see in others’ eyes when they genuinely enjoy my creation is the best part! I started working with Diwa’s mother whenever there was a banquet at the community center.  I also picked up a few techniques from our neighbors. By the time Lydia hunted me down, I knew exactly what my report was going to say.”

Kaffi sniffed in amusement at the mention of their school’s guidance counselor. Lydia Powers made sure all her kids graduated with a completed Future Calling goal and would not leave any student alone until she got an answer out of each one of them. “Yes…lia Powers has been prodding us lately, now that you mention it.”

She tipped her snout at him. “Is that what’s on your mind?” she asked. “She means well, you know. She’ll hound you, but she really does care.”

“It’s part of it…” Kaffi said, fidgeting with his hands in an attempt to keep his wings calm. “Diwa and I had an interesting talk earlier today. About future plans. You know, about inheritance.”

Iliah hummed and nodded sagely. “The two of you have been talking about that since middle school.”

Kaffi let his wings twitch slightly and gave her a tiny smile. “Diwa’s taking it more seriously. We’ve been talking about it more, you know, following through with it. And I’m…well, I want to be there with him to make it happen.”

“The two of you are of internship age. Is that it?”

It was a lot more than that, but he didn’t feel ready to admit that aloud just yet. “I think so. At least most of it, anyway. I’m excited about it, but not anxious,” he said. “Maybe a little nervous. Is this truly what we want?”

Iliah bobbed her snout, her whiskers twitching slightly. She let out a slow ascending hum of empathy. “I understand now. And I know you, Kaffi. You’re impulsive, just like paddir is, but you’ll always go with what’s truly in your heart.” She leaned up against him, humming and prodding her snout lightly against his. “Trust yourself, ahpadhé. Go with what you feel is truest to you. That’s exactly what I did.”

Kaffi felt a weight lifted from his wings and ruffled them slightly before settling them again. Ai, that was exactly what he needed to hear. He leaned his snout against hers and hummed in response. “Thank you.”

*

Kaffi tapped his monitor back to life and noticed the vidchat window was still blank. Diwa hadn’t yet returned, which was unlike him. He wondered if they’d just missed each other, or if he was still with his family. He felt a bit silly and self-conscious worrying about this, but it wouldn’t go away. They’d had evening sessions before where they barely shared two words and then went their separate ways, but tonight it felt different. It felt unfinished. He kept the vidchat window open while he continued with his homework.

When Diwa did finally reappear a half hour later he felt relieved, but to his surprise he also felt an unexpected wave of excitement. He’d felt this before, plenty of times, whenever they returned to their vidchats, or even when they crossed paths at school. It was a simple joyful connection between them, just it always had been.

So why did he feel different about it now? Was it because of their conversation earlier today? He and Diwa had always been extremely close, but that one moment when he’d completely bared his emotions to him, it felt like something had changed. It was a deeper connection. He’d joked about it then, about being bonded, but now that he thought about it, perhaps he hadn’t been joking much about it at all.

Their conversation the rest of the evening was light and jovial and nothing of importance, just like most nights. He enjoyed every moment of it, just like he always did.

Only tonight, it felt a little more important to him.

He chose not to say anything about it just yet however. All he wanted to do is keep this the way it was for now. That would make him happy.

*

“Diwa. Hoy! Diwa! Nandiyan ka ba sa loob?”

Diwa stood at the kitchen sink with his younger sister Maricel, cleaning the last of the dishes and pots, but his mind was already elsewhere. Mari was prodding him in the temple with a finger. She might have inherited their mother’s diminutive stature and her strikingly dark hair, which she’d pulled back into a tight ponytail, but she’d also taken on her no-nonsense level of patience. She was the most active of the entire family, even more so than Diwa, and couldn’t stand it when her older brothers dawdled and lost themselves in thought. And she rarely ever held anything back. It was as frustrating as it was endearing.

“Sorry, Mari,” he said, finally taking the plate she’d been holding in front of his face for the last few seconds. He dried it and stacked it with the others on the counter to be put away when they were done.

“Ano ba…?” she huffed and rolled her eyes, scrubbing away at the next plate. “If this is what being an adult is like, I’ll stay a kid.”

“No, it’s just me,” he said, waving away her concern. “Just got a lot of things on my mind lately.”

“You sound like Papa,” she sniffed.

“I do not!” he shot back, his face heating up. “I’m graduating at the end of this school year and I have to make a decision about what I’ll do next.”

“You’re going to inherit, duh,” she teased. “You’ve been talking my ears off about it for years. Or have you decided to do something else?”

He faltered, looking away. “I’m…yeah, I’m going to inherit,” he said weakly, taking the next plate from her. “Kaffi and I just had a talk about it earlier today, is all. I’ve been thinking about how I want it to unfold. You know, instead of just having it handed to us.”

“I could do it too, you know,” she snorted. “I might be a few years younger than you, but I’m just as smart.”

“And as irritable as Graymar,” he said with a grin, elbowing her.

“Am not!”

“Hoy!” they heard from the next room. “Quiet down, you two! Finish the dishes and get started on your homework!”

“Okay, ina,” they said in cherubic unison, glancing at each other and laughing quietly.

They finished the cleaning and Diwa put all the dishes away while Mari leaned up against the sink, waiting for him. “You take this so seriously, Diwa,” she said. “I mean, I’m impressed and all, but I worry about you. You shut yourself up like Pop sometimes.”

He hummed, delaying his response. It was true, he did hold himself back like his father, more often than he’d like to admit. It irritated him that he’d picked up that trait. Samuel wasn’t distant or cold at all, he would just have moments where he’d get quiet and retreat to his musty and crowded back office for an hour or so to distract himself. Diwa would go and visit him now and again, just to make sure he didn’t completely shut everyone away, and his father seemed to truly appreciate that, but there was indeed something there that weighed heavy on his mind, and no one in this family knew what it was.

Diwa did not want to fall into that same trap.

“Kaffi and I were talking about our inheritance earlier. I…may have brought up the idea of approaching it in a different way,” he ventured.

She gave him an uneasy glare. “How different?”

“I don’t know yet,” he said, and delayed again as he put the last of the dishes away. “We’d start the internship, but we’d also open the position up to anyone else who might be interested.”

Mari crossed her arms and huffed at him. “Ai, nababaliw kana ba, Diwa? You’re willing to lose the family inheritance?”

“Of course not. I believe we can still win it. But on our terms. Me and Kaffi’s.”

That response didn’t seem to calm her any. “Right…” she said slowly. “You two are weird, you know that?”

Diwa smiled at her. “Love you too, ate.”

“Seriously, Dee. That’s taking a big chance. You really want to go that route?”

“I do.”

“And how are you going to do it?”

He hummed and looked away. “I don’t know…a full election? We’re still working it out.”

Mari groaned in response and squeezed his shoulder. “Just…don’t do anything stupid, okay? Talk to Pop or Mama first if you need to.”

“I will. Thanks again.”

She smiled and gave him a hard punch on the arm. “Or talk to me first if you’re too afraid. Don’t be an idiot!”

“Ow. I won’t. Promise.”

“Good.”

Diwa returned to his room a little later than usual and was surprised to see Kaffi on the other end of the vidchat window. It wasn’t often that they had late night conversations, especially if they’d already been hanging out all day long. It was all about mundane things anyway – school, family, their friends, the evolution of their catch game. Kaffi was uncharacteristically laid back and serious now. Any other time he was ready with a joke or a laugh, hiding behind his humor and his obsession with flying. In a way, it was nice seeing his mature, quieter side; it made Diwa feel even more confident that they could make this inheritance thing work. Now all they needed to do was make a plan that made sense.

*

Glossary:
tintrite is pronounced tin-treet
Lia – mister (tintrite)
dumating kana pala – come to dinner (Tagalog)
ahpadhé (ah-pah-day) – brother (tintrite)
nandiyan ka ba sa loob? – Are you in there? (Tagalog)
ano ba…? – this is ridiculous (Tagalog)

Diwa & Kaffi 01

Author’s Note: I’m extremely proud of this novel, yet I’ve been so reticent and lazy about getting this one out into the world, for varying reasons I won’t go into here. I’ve decided I am going to share it with you all here, with an e-book version to be released via Smashwords sometime in the near future. My aim with this book was to write hopepunk: a Ghibli-inspired story about two best friends who want to become the next generation’s landlords at their apartment complex. The story is about determination, community, and love.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

*

CHAPTER ONE

“Here it comes, Kaffi!”

“Ha-ha! Come on, Diwa! Kick it already!”

Samuel and Graymar heard the thump of a punted ball coming from the central green below, immediately followed by an excited whoop! and the leathery flapping of tintrite wings heading towards them. A moment later the ball sailed past their balcony on the fifth floor, followed quickly by Graymar’s teenage son, flying full tilt towards it.

“Hi, paddir!” he chirped as he zipped by. “Hi, Samuel!”

Samuel laughed and waved, watching the young tintrite chase the ball through the air. Kaffi was only a teenager with awkwardly flailing arms and legs and a body that was still trying to figure itself out, and his greyish brown scales were in desperate need of a shine, but his wings had become wide and strong, just like his father’s. It would be a few more years before he filled in and grew in height and bulk to mirror Graymar.

He enjoyed Kaffi’s jovial personality, especially as he was a positive influence on his own son Diwa. Those two boys had been the best of friends since they were little, and they’d been joined at the wing ever since. They were always running or flying around the estate during the day, and most of the residents here knew them well. Recently they’d started playing an increasingly complex game of catch across the main green of the estate after they returned from school, making up new rules and changing old ones whenever they felt like it. The current version had them sending the ball into tight areas, through the tree canopies and everywhere else. It was the two at their best; Kaffi loved to fly, and Diwa loved a good mental game to keep his mind active.

He watched Kaffi swoop and dive and curve in the air as if it were second nature, as they kicked and tossed the ball back and forth a few times, laughing and cheering each other on. He was so unlike Graymar in many ways, and yet so much the same. They were both strong fliers, naturals at speed and agility, with a serious and deep-seated love for being up in the air. They were both impulsive yet tempered it with a quick intelligence. And they shared a long-lasting and deep connection with their closest friends, that special bond between human and tintrite.

Graymar, on the other hand, kept a very muted sense of humor, choosing to look at life much more seriously than his pahyoh. They watched Kaffi zero in on the ball after Diwa had punted it skyward once more, a bit of strain showing in the young tintrite’s reach, one taloned hand stretched far forward, so close to his goal. Diwa sometimes punted the ball into orbit in an unspecified direction, and it was up to Kaffi to catch it before it succumbed to gravity. He didn’t always reach it in time, but he never let it hit the ground. He’d watched Kaffi make a gut-dropping dive and make a last-minute catch with mere feet to spare, and he’d also nailed the catch before it completed its arc.

Samuel thought it quite creative of the boys, but Graymar only saw it as unorganized play. The tintrite stood tall behind him, his long hands resting at his belly, dark talons tapping against each other in annoyance, grumbling quietly. He was much taller and broader than Kaffi, an enormous tintrite with years of maturity and air time. His scales were a darker green and kept in much better condition than Kaffi’s. His own wings were held slightly aloft, twitching silently.

“Come on, Gray,” Samuel said with a grin, giving him a prod on the forearm. “They’re having fun. Besides, you wanted them to play more trust games, didn’t you?”

Graymar grumbled again, his usual response whenever he was irritable. “I did,” he conceded, his voice low and gravelly. His snout twitched again, his long whiskers wavering in response. “This is about your son,” he said. “He’s trusting Kaffi will catch the ball. But how can Kaffi trust Diwa with this game?”

Samuel nodded, conceding his point. “Fine, you got me. But it’s just a game. Let them have fun.”

“Eiyah! Got it!”

Both Samuel and Graymar looked up to see Kaffi swooping upwards into a holding pattern, his mottled brown and gray wings fluttering madly, the ball clutched between his talons. Unlike his scales, Kaffi’s wings were in perfect health and shimmered with iridescence as he pumped them in midair. He was grinning madly, his fangs sparkling in the sunlight.

“Building C! Go!” Kaffi barked. He leaned slightly to his left and twisted into a graceful arc that would take him across the green and closer to the apartment towers across the way. It was an impressive maneuver for a teenage tintrite; it showed that he was already well in command of his basic flying abilities and had already begun to learn new tricks. But what impressed Samuel the most was that Kaffi still had the ball between his talons. Not his fingers, but between the tips of his talons, cradling it gently as he focused on his next destination. He might be boisterous and reckless, but he could also be surprisingly delicate.

“He’s too soft on your son,” Graymar muttered, though his voice had lightened somewhat. “…but I will admit to being impressed by his ability to adjust his position so smoothly. He’s mastered that already.”

Down below, Diwa emerged from under a canopy of leaves, a tall and gangly human teenager running full tilt towards the tall apartment tower directly across the green. Other neighbors, human and otherwise, watched him with amusement as he darted past, cheering him on. He’d already planned on taking the shortest route possible to get there, which posed an altogether new problem aside from catching the ball in time. Two thirds of the way there, he would need to cut through the far corner of the neighborhood garden, past the picnic tables and across the edge of the playground. Staying on the winding and busy footpath that doglegged between it all would only waste time and energy.

“You’re not going to make it, Dee!” Kaffi taunted from up in the air, watching him plot out his course.

“Shut up, Kaffi!” he taunted in return, laughing all the way. ‘Time?”

“I’ll give you thirty seconds before I launch this ball, though I doubt you’re going to be there for it!”

In a fit of bravado, Diwa barked out a laugh in response and headed straight for the garden.

Graymar huffed and ruffled his wings in annoyance. “He’s going to ruin the seedlings.”

That was a possibility, but he trusted his son not to be that reckless and destructive. “Come on, have faith in him,” Samuel countered.

“Hmmph.”

With a renewed burst of speed, Diwa vaulted over the fence and landed perfectly on the wood plank walkway that had been laid down just yesterday by the gardening tenants. Without slowing down, he leapt from one row to the other with surprising agility, never missing one. Both Samuel and Graymar caught their breath; Diwa must be mapping it out in his mind just a few steps ahead! However, Diwa had realized too late that the last plank had been dropped loosely without any stabilization, and as soon as he hit it he lost his balance, nearly landing face first in fresh compost. Unshaken, he quickly adjusted by shifting into a completely ungraceful twirl, regaining his footing and landing next to the boundary fence, away from any plantings. Laughing nervously and proudly to himself, he vaulted over it and resumed his chase towards Building C.

Wow! Go, Diwa! Samuel thought, barely containing his excitement.

Graymar hummed this time, high and clipped, clearly amused by Diwa’s misstep. “Awkward, but impressive,” he said.

Kaffi reappeared beside one of the taller trees lining the green, launching the ball well ahead of Diwa’s spot. “Here it comes!” he chirped. But he’d been high enough that he did not see the two tenants emerging from under Building C’s front awning until it was far too late. Both Samuel and Graymar caught their breath, leaning forward and gripping the railing in a stunned silence.

“Ai!” he cried out. “Diwa!”

Diwa hadn’t yet responded. He’d been watching the tenants, greeting them as they walked by. They responded in kind and took off towards the rear bungalows and out of harm’s way. As soon as he heard Kaffi’s yelp of concern, however, he turned and saw the ball sailing straight towards him. Making a few extreme last-minute calculations, he hurriedly skipped a few steps to his right, nearly tripped over himself, and managed to catch the ball with a loud, skin-stinging slap.

Kaffi landed clumsily soon after, bent over on all fours, barking with nervous laughter. “Ai, Diwa!” he said. “That was way too close! You call that a catch?”

“Not my fault you can’t throw!” he said, juggling the ball from one hand to the other. His palms were a bright red, but he was smiling. “You need to work on your aim.”

You sound like my paddir,” Kaffi giggled.

Diwa waved at his friend’s wings. “Excellent form, though. I’m still not sure how you’re able to turn and glide like that.” Kaffi dipped his snout in appreciation, and the two boys continued their conversation down the walkway towards the Building C entrance, out of earshot.

Samuel let out a slow and even breath and untensed his shoulders.

“That…was a bit close,” Graymar said, his voice a low rumble.

Samuel hummed in agreement as he turned his way. Graymar had backed away from the railing and was sitting on his hinds on the balcony floor, arms resting on his belly once more. Even sitting as he was, his head just about cleared the balcony’s roof. His snout was pointed downwards and swung slightly, and his wide mouth was a tight jagged line, the equivalent of human pursed lips. He grumbled in irritation once more. His wings fluttered, tapping against the scales on his back. Graymar was a tintrite that wanted to move right now, but held himself quietly still instead.

“You’re right,” Samuel said, leaning back against the railing, watching Graymar fret. “That game of theirs is a bit haphazard. It’s a simple game of catch, but it only tests their timing.”

“There was no coordination between them whatsoever!” the tintrite huffed.

“Agreed,” he said. “but it doesn’t have to be all about coordination, Gray. You watched Diwa navigate the garden almost flawlessly—”

“Almost,” Graymar snorted, flashing a quick fang.

“It’s about knowing the area,” he continued. “I know for a fact I’d have gone the longer way around the garden and playground and missed the catch entirely.”

“You were never good at catch games, Samuel,” he teased.

Samuel didn’t miss a beat. “You never wanted to play them! Seriously, though…I see potential. They were confident in their surroundings. They’re comfortable and aware of the other residents nearby. They’ve been all over this estate for years, they know it backwards and forwards. I’ve seen them both taking a lot of initiative, helping the tenants, and chipping in during our quarterly festivals. They’re old enough to be our interns now. Diwa has been showing interest in the tenancy committee. He’s been active in the last few meetings. I’d be happy to show him the ropes. And he says Kaffi has an interest.”

Graymar lifted his snout quickly in response, tilting it slightly at him. “Kaffi hasn’t said anything about this to me.” Samuel had expected as much. Graymar’s relationship with his pahyoh – with anyone, come to think of it – sometimes required a lot of patience and understanding.

“He’s waiting for the right moment. Ask him, or at least let him know you’re aware of his wishes,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll be interested.”

“Hmmm.”

Ai, Graymar could be such a tough nut to crack sometimes! He stood aside him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Seriously, Gray. We need to make this decision sooner or later. We’re the landlords of this estate. We can’t just up and retire without handing over the positions. It wouldn’t be fair to our tenants, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to our replacements. The position has been handed down multiple generations of my family, Gray, and I believe—I know Diwa and Kaffi want it. I’d gladly hand it to them. They only need to ask.”

Graymar lifted his snout and his brow at him. “And you believe our sons are up to the task?”

“That’s for them to prove,” he said.

A low, slow grumble; reluctant agreement.

Samuel patted him on the arm once more, glancing up at him. Graymar stood much taller than him when he sat on his hinds, his tail wrapped around him and his wings folded tightly behind. “I believe in them, Gray,” he said calmly, and he meant it. “I believe they could be great landlords if we start showing them the ropes now.”

“Hmmm.” That was more of a hum than a grumble. Annoyed but not angry.

“Kaffi’s going to be of paired flight age as well.”

“This is true.”

“And Kaffi loves to fly.”

“That he does.”

“What do you think? Shall we set things in motion?”

Graymar thought for a long moment before answering. He made no noise, but his jaw had unclenched, and he let out a slow snort of breath. Eventually he flashed him a quick fang of appreciation. “We shall.” And with a loud grunt, he leapt up onto the concrete balcony railing and unfurled his mighty wings. They were a rich grayish brown, and they had a breathtakingly wide span, much wider than Kaffi’s. The speed of the movement sent a rush of air past Samuel, blowing at his hair.

He grinned at him. “Show off.”

Graymar turned and looked at him over his shoulder, his smile growing wider. “We’ll speak more of this later,” he said, and launched himself into the air. He dropped with his wings at full span and let the air lift him back up, soaring over the central park green towards the roof of Building C.

“Yes, we shall,” Samuel said, humming in satisfaction, and turned to head towards the central stairway, back to his own apartment there in Palm Building.

Short Story: A Bridgetown Christmas

[NOTE: I wrote this over a few days in mid-December 2019 as a way to test out whether I could use the 750 Words site while at the office at the Former Day Job. (Come to find out, I could, which saved my sanity for a while.) I thought it would be fun to feature the Bridgetown gang in a Special Christmas Episode. I also wanted to prove to myself once and for all that yes, I CAN actually write a short story if I put my mind to it. And yes, it is considered canon in the Mendaihu Universe.]

*

It felt so comforting, so freeing to finally go to a Winter Festival without having to worry about her job. Caren couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone to one of these without that hint of tension lurking somewhere in the back of her sensing. She could even walk around Tower Park now without that feeling of sorrow and dread and being reminded of that riot in Kendall Fields. That was all behind her, a good couple of years now. It had taken such a long time, but she’d come to terms with that fateful day and moved on. The pain was still there, hiding so deep in her spirit, but it was no longer an obstacle. Just a reminder.

She walked slowly down the wide promenade with her arm in Anando’s, taking in the lights and the people and the scents of baked goods. The level of positive energy here was intoxicating in a pleasant way, just enough to bring her own spirit some holiday joy. Even though it was early December and a cold snap was going to be coming in late in the evening, there was nothing that could break this mood for anyone.

Anando was bundled up in a heavy coat, knit hat and fingerless gloves, but he emanated such a warmth both physical and spiritual that she didn’t want to let go of him just yet. He seemed to be oblivious of the dropping temperature, focusing more on the people and the sights and everything else. He wanted to stop at each booth they walked by, either to say hello or to try the foods they were selling, but she kept him moving. They were due to meet Poe and Akaina at one of the large seating areas up ahead, and she didn’t want to keep them waiting.

“You’re in a hurry,” he said in amusement, after she’d nudged him on for the fourth time.

“And you aren’t,” she retorted, giving him a playful nudge. “We can visit everyone again after we have dinner with Poe and Kai.”

“I know…” he said, waving at yet another booth attendant. “I just don’t want all my friends to think I’m ignoring them.”

She cocked an eyebrow at him. “So you know pretty much every single person on the Western Path of the Winter Festival grounds, is that what you’re saying?” she teased. “Because I’m telling you now I’m not nearly as much of a social person as you are. And I meet a lot of people on the job.”

“Yes, I do,” he said, and gave her a peck on the head. “You’ll just have to deal with it, Karzi.”

She giggled and hugged his arm tighter. She loved it when he used that name with her. “I guess I will,” she said, and pointed at one of the larger stalls further on. “Hey, isn’t that…?”

Anando hummed and made a beeline for it. “Yes, that’s Mancka alright. I’ve rarely seen her since she retired, come to think of it. We should at least stop and say hello, yeah?”

They stepped up to the booth together, the both of them sending a small wave of love and cheer her way. Mancka Udéma had been an extremely important part of keeping the Ninth Season running as smoothly as it did, helping keep the Governor’s council from intruding and possibly making things worse. After Denni’s final ascension and freedom, Mancka had considered her role complete and slid back into the shadows. They’d stayed in touch for a little while but then Mancka had gone off the grid for nearly a year. Caren had never learned why, and chose not to ask.

“Karinna! Anando!” she said, beaming and reaching over the booth boards to give them hugs. “Somfei, somfei, my sehnadha! It’s wonderful to see you again! How are you?” She pulled back, but didn’t let go of either of them right away. She held their arms tightly, full of excitement. “I’m so glad the two of you are still together. How is everyone from the circle?”

Goddess, she really had taken herself out of the loop! “Everyone’s fine,” she said. “They all miss you, emha. We’ve all wondered where you’d gone off to.”

Mancka waved a hand and smiled. “Oh, here and there. Outposts, stuck in the Tower, recuperating at home, up on Trisanda, that sort of thing.”

Anando blinked at her. “When were you on Trisanda? I never sensed you there and I was up there almost constantly for five months after everything was over!”

“Oh, much later than that,” she said. “Almost a year later. I had some business to attend to with Ampryss and Dolan.”

Both Anando and Caren raised their brows at her. “Business…?” she said warily. “Dare I ask?”

Mancka waved her concern away. “Nothing terrible. The Season may have come to a close, but there’s still so much to do to keep this Awakening alive. We just want everything to work, yeah? We’d rather not leave anything to chance.”

Caren nodded solemnly. This had been one hell of a Season of Embodiment, what with her younger sister being the One of All Sacred and Caren herself being a Warrior and Protector of the One. “Denni’s doing fine,” she said quietly. “She’s up in New Boston, her first year in college.”

Mancka’s eyes widened. “Oh, that’s right! I’d forgotten how old she is now! She’s studying under Alec’s brother, isn’t she? Majoring in literature?”

“With a minor in art, believe it or not. Given the last few years, she felt the need to study something close to her heart instead of what everyone expects. I’m proud of her, taking that chance.”

“I’m glad,” she said. “Tell her I said hello when you have the chance. I miss her terribly. We had some really interesting conversations back then.”

“I will,” Caren said with a wide smile, and started nudging Anando down the wide path again. “Alec and Akaina are here, by the way, I’ll send them your way after we have dinner with them?”

“Certainly! Pashyo, it’s good to see you again, Caren. Look me up when you have the time.”

They waved their goodbyes and continued their walk towards the dining area. She checked her watch; it was nearing seven, which meant that Poe and Kai were most likely already at a table, waiting for them to arrive. She pulled at Anando’s arm again and double-timed it.

*

She felt Poe’s spirit well before she saw him or Kai, and that helped her find them easily. He held himself as quiet and closed as possible most of the time, but he’d left that one connection between them wide open. She did the same for him; they trusted each other that complicitly. She gave him a wave as soon as his eyes lifted towards hers. Kai, who had been facing the other way, had perked up quickly and turned around, beaming at her.

“Hey!” she said, getting up and rushing towards them, giving them both a big squeeze. Caren could feel the baby bump in Kai’s belly pressing up against her. She shivered with joy every time she thought of these two friends of hers starting a family; this was a blessing for both of them. Kai gave both of them kisses on the cheeks and brought them back to the table.

“So good to see you two!” she said, dropping back down in her seat. Her spirit was in such an excited state that she could hardly sit still, and shifted between them. “Ashan and I have been so busy at the northern outposts lately, I miss everyone!” She reached over and touched Poe’s hand, squeezing it tightly. “Especially this one here,” she said, smiling at him.

“Oh, you’re not missing much with him,” Caren laughed. “He’s been his usual dour self.”

Poe snorted at her. “Okay, I’ll give you that,” he said. “The Season might be over, but the level of casework we have to do hasn’t changed at all.”

“True words,” Caren said, and turned back to Kai. “So, girl… tell me about your brother. He’s doing okay? I haven’t seen him in nearly eight months. No one has. He’s been… scarce.”

Kai pursed her lips slightly, then let it go. “He’s… he’s doing okay, if that’s what you mean,” she said quietly. “He’s got a lot on his mind lately, eichi. He won’t say much, but I have some ideas why he’s been acting the way he has. Not here, though. After dinner. If you aren’t busy, you can come to our place and we can talk about it.”

Caren knew better than to press further. Besides, this was Winter Festival, and they were all here to see each other and be happy and sense the joyous spirits around them. She let it go for now.

*

Poe’s apartment had not changed much at all over the years, other than that it no longer had that stink of cigarette smoke. He’d quit for good at the end of the Season, and had not touched one since. It was also tidier, thanks to the major cleaning party they’d had soon after everything was over. He’d made good on his promise and kept the place clean and tidy. Kai had moved in after a few months, and they’d gotten married soon after that. Caren and Anando were in no rush to go down the same road just yet. Seeing a domesticated Alec Poe still threw her for a loop, though. She’d known him for so long that such changes still surprised her.

Poe leaned through the kitchen door and smiled at them. “Coffee all around?”

“Please,” Caren said, pulling the small blanket around her shoulders. Though the heat in his apartment was going full blast, she was still shivering from being outside for so long. “If you’re spiking them, I won’t say no.”

“Spiked it is,” he smirked, and ducked back into the kitchen.

Kai sidled up next to her, providing additional warmth. “So, eichi… tell me what’s been going on in the city. Ashan and I have been unplugged for the last half year. Anything we should know about?”

Caren knew a pointed question when she heard one and smiled. “Nothing out of the ordinary, if that’s what you mean,” she said. “It’s been business as usual. The occasional request for security during mass rituals, a few small arguments to settle, things like that. It keeps us busy enough. The Elders have been poking at Alec and I about joining one of their collectives in Swope Heights or across the river, but we keep saying no.”

Kai studied her for a moment before answering. “Personal?”

Caren shrugged in response. “You could say that. It’s not that we don’t trust them, it’s just that…” She glanced at the kitchen doorway, knowing full well that Alec was listening in. She exhaled again and continued. “It doesn’t sing to either of us.”

Kai touched her shoulder and nodded. “I understand. Sometimes we follow our own path instead of a collective one. Alec has told me before about the Elders, especially the collective down near Webster Park. They’re Reverend Miriam’s old group, if I recall.”

Miriam! Caren hadn’t heard that name in quite a long time. He’d fallen off the face of the planet soon after the Season had ended, and everyone had assumed that he’d travelled to Trisanda and stayed up there. No one blamed him, after everything he’d gone through over the last two Embodiments. He deserved the rest.

“They’re…” she started, then stumbled to a stop. How could she put this delicately…? “Well. Remember Amna at the warehouse near the end of the Season? When everything started going wrong?”

Kai took a slow breath and put a hand on her belly. “When the chaos set in, you mean,” she said quietly.

Caren nodded. “It feels like that. I don’t necessarily sense anything wrong about to happen, but…”

Poe came out with a tray of steaming mugs and placed it on the table, and glanced at her. “…but they’re being uncharacteristically pushy about it,” he said, and sat down next to Kai. “You and I talked about this about a month or so ago. Remember when I told you about Elder Thomas?”

“Oh, that’s right,” she said, waving a finger at him. “I’d told Ashan about it afterwards and he said not to worry too much about it.”

“I’m not worried,” Caren said, and turned to Anando. “I’m just concerned. I doubt they’re in full crusade mode. A bit zealous, perhaps.”

“That’s what concerns me,” Anando said. “As a non-Elder, they’re really trying to pull us lower level adepts in.”

“And I do not want Denni involved,” she said, turning to the others. “If only because I know she’ll want to do something about it.”

Kai sat back and thought about it for a bit, slowly sipping her tea. “I’ll tell you what Ashan is worried about,” she said. “It’s the extremes. Not the extremists, mind you… just the fact that we have Elders trying to raise their numbers, the occasional recently-awakened that takes it all just a little too seriously… and those who are using it all for their own ends.”

Caren hummed. “Everyone with eyes opened but no one looking anywhere,” she said.

Poe smirked at her. “I’m usually the one who quotes Kelley James. But yeah, that’s it exactly.”

She turned to Anando again. “Is that what you’ve been sensing?”

“Yes, I think so,” he said. “It’s hard to tell, especially when there’s still so much noise out there. It’s like on the surface level they’re fesh crahné, but deeper within they’re fesh piann.”

“And still not enough sehn-dayenné out there to steer them in the right direction,” Kai said. “That’s part of why Ashan and I have been spending so much time in the outposts. It’s the best place to start teaching.”

Poe hummed and leaned back. “You know…”

Kai huffed at him and put down her mug. “Alix, we talked about this.”

“I know we did,” he said, his voice calm and quiet. So unlike him. “But seriously… if it comes to it, I’m willing to take that step. If it’s necessary.”

Caren raised an eyebrow; clearly this was something Poe had chosen not to share with her, even as her ARU partner. She didn’t fault him, though. “What step is this?”

“Become a sehn-dayenné myself, of course,” he said with a smile. “Maybe not as psychotic as Elder Crittiqila of course. More like, I don’t know… our girl Denni.”

“That’s blasphemy, you know,” Caren said with a quick grin. “But I see where you’re coming from. After all, you are the Dahné Mendaihu, last I checked.”

Kai sighed in resignation. “That’s what worries me,” she said. “It’s a full time job and it’ll put a strain on all of us.”

Caren continued sipping at her coffee. Why could she not get warm? Even with Anando by her side, she couldn’t shake this chill from her body. It wasn’t just because of the weather, either. She’d been feeling it all day long, and the more she thought about it, the more it felt like an inner chill than an outer one. She was in proximity of multiple kiralla in this room, but that wasn’t it either.

Perhaps her own spirit was trying to tell her, warn her, about something within.

“That’s not all Ashan’s been up to,” Kai said, leaning back into the soft cushions of the couch. “Between the teaching and everything else, he’s been running himself ragged. I’m worried about him, but he won’t listen to reason.” She let out a frustrated sigh and sipped at her tea again. “He’s my eicho and I love him dearly, but he’s been so distant to everyone this year, especially me. Either he’s going through a personal change of spirit…”

“…or he’s holding something from us out of safety,” Poe finished. “Last time I talked to him about a month ago, he’d closed himself off damn tight. Amiable in his own way, sure, but you can sense a damn thick barrier between himself and everyone else.”

“I’m worried about him,” Kai said quietly. “He’s never been like this before.”

Caren hummed in response, wanting to say more, but held her tongue. Ashan had always maintained a level of cold distance from most everyone other than his sister. And he had been dealt a painfully heavy blow near the end of their Season, when he’d nearly lost her forever.

Perhaps that was why she felt cold today. Without thinking, she’d laid her left hand over her right, rubbing her thumb against the skin. She’d gone through her own heavy battle at the end there as well, nearly getting torn to ribbons by one of the final battles between Denni and Saisshalé. She rarely used her touch-sensing abilities since then, finding it just that bit…alien.

Perhaps Ashan was feeling the same thing. The sensation of something so integral, so heavily entwined within his soul, suddenly vanishing. Even if that something was returned whole, it wasn’t the same ever again.

“Karzi…?” Anando whispered in her ear. “You’re okay?”

Caren shifted out of her thoughts and gave him a quick smile. “Fine,” she said. “Just thinking.”

“Well,” Poe said, breaking the silence. “I won’t push him. He’ll come to us if he needs to. I trust him.”

Kai took hold of his hand and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she said quietly.

“Right,” he continued, and pushed himself up. Everyone in the room felt a small but significant wave of love and affection emanating from him. “It’s Winter Festival, it’s the first significant amount of time we’ve all had off, so I think we should celebrate! What do you think, Kai?”

She laughed at him, sending a wave of love his way in return. “Who am I to stop you, Alix? You’ve been so twitchy about this for the last two weeks!”

Caren eyed the both of them. “Okay, what are you two up to?”

Poe gave her a ridiculously wide grin and held up his fingers. “Wait right there,” he said, and dashed off into the other room.

“Kai…?” she said. “What’s going on?”

But she just shrugged. “He’s from a big family, you know how he is.”

“He didn’t… Poe!” Caren called out. “You better not have presents in there! You told me you wouldn’t!”

“I lied,” he called back.

“We didn’t get either of you anything!” she said, feeling embarrassed. “I thought we agreed. He’s done enough for me, I don’t expect anything else.”

“That’s what makes it so fun,” Poe said, coming back out with two small black boxes. She handed one to her, and the other to Anando. He was equally surprised and took it from him, wondering what was inside.”

“Alec…” she said.

“You two deserve this,” he said, sitting back down next to Kai, taking her hand. “We don’t want anything in return.”

She eyed him, first with contempt, then with a grudging acceptance, then with frustrated affection. He was always doing this, going so far out of his way to make everyone happy. She could only hope he’d finally learned to include himself in that equation. She and Anando glanced at each other, then at the boxes.

Inside, there were two beautiful gold rings, one in each box. Both with inlaid stone set in the shape of the Shalei sigil, two intersecting circles. With a trembling hand, she pulled it out of its box and looked closely at it. On the inside, she saw it: allei aiya, cho-shadhisi inscribed on the inside of the band.

She turned and looked at Anando.

He had the biggest grin on his face. “Allei aiya, Karinna Shalei. Please be with me throughout all the universes,” he said, tears forming in the corners of his eyes.

“Oh…” she said.

“Took you long enough,” she heard behind her.

“Oh…!” she trembled, up and on her feet.

Denni stood there in the doorway, having just Lightwalked into Poe’s front room without a sound.

Caren darted around the couch and ran into her sister’s arms and held her tightly. “Ai…!” she cried. “What are you doing here? You weren’t supposed to come back for another week! I’ve missed you!”

Denni giggled and held her close. “I wouldn’t miss my sister getting engaged for the worlds, you know,” she said.

She gasped a third time, realizing the ring was still in her hands.

This had been planned far, far in advance, and she’d had no idea…!

“Ai…” she sobbed. “You’re going to kill me here!” She burst out into laughter she felt throughout her entire spirit, and made her way back to Anando. He was still sitting on the couch, the other ring in his hand. Waiting for her to respond. She walked over to him, lifted him to his feet, and pulled him into a warm embrace.

“Allei aiya, cho-shadhisi,” she whispered in his ear. “I will be with you throughout the universes.”

She heard cheers and whoops all around them, felt a ridiculous wave of joy and love emanating from everyone in the room, but at this moment she only paid attention to one person, the one currently in her arms.

“I love you, Anando,” she said.

MU4: Chapter One (part iii)

(NOTE: CW, there’s some not-quite-death-related stuff that goes on in the last part of this chapter. I wanted to show that in order for Eika to truly break herself away from the life that is no longer hers, she must disconnect completely from it. Not everyone can face such a finality, and this was the only way she knew how to face it successfully. She knew there was something beyond, she only had to take that life-altering first step.)

*

Day seventeen was when she’d decided to purge it all out of her system. She’d woken up that morning after a very sound night’s sleep, coming back to reality just before the sun was about to rise. Outside her bedroom window the sky was a mottled blue-gray and her world was silent, with not even a trace of wind. The town was completely still, frighteningly so, and the lack of sound only served to remind her that she was completely alone, miles away from anyone else.

It was time for her old life to die.

She didn’t bother to change out of her bedclothes, only putting on a pair of light flat shoes. She left the house, not bothering to lock or even close the door, and started walking. She wasn’t sure where, but she didn’t care. She had to go somewhere. She had to keep moving. The only sound was the quiet tapping of her soles against the asphalt, and it sounded…intrusive. After a few more steps she stopped and took them off, throwing them to the side of the road. Her footsteps now silent, she heard nothing else. Nothing but her own breathing.

She quickly lost herself in this town, aimlessly walking further away from that house that hadn’t even been hers. She let herself be led this way and that, until she ended up in the center of town, stopping to rest on one of the benches on the common. Her joints ached some, but not nearly as much as she’d expected. She was hungry but had no compulsion to stop at the grocer’s she’d been utilizing these last few weeks. There was a produce store across the street from the park, however, so after a few more minutes of rest she got up and headed over. She settled on a small packet of crisp bread snacks as she walked through the small store, washed them down with a bottle of water, and grabbed an apple on the way out.

The brunch did her good, as she felt more awake and focused, but she still felt aimless…she was a blank slate now.

The only thing to do was to keep moving.

Become the person she knew she was. Become the spirit she knew she held within.

She walked further and further away from the house and the town, still in complete silence. Her feet ached and she felt the urge to return to the house more than a few times, but she refused to go back, at least not until she purged this last obstacle that plagued her spirit.

It was nearing sunset when she found herself on a back road leading up a wooded hill. She’d seen this small mountain from the house, well off in the distance behind the rest of the neighborhood, and she realized she’d in fact reached her goal – to be as far away from that village as she could get. The village that wasn’t hers. The village she’d been forced to conform to.

It was here that she truly started feeling the clarity…a hint of brightness within her spirit, starting deep within her heart, hiding well away in the background. This hill was where she needed to be right now, somewhere above the village, looking out over it. Not to become one with it, but to become its Watcher. To watch and observe what went on within, but utterly separated from it.

She understood her true goal now.

With a renewed energy and resolve, she kept walking up the hill, following the crooked lane all the way up to the top.

The sun had just hit the horizon when she reached the summit, a promontory of low grass and a few stray boulders. She perched atop one of them and decided to watch the sun set.

It felt so much colder up here, colder than she’d expected. She held herself tight as a breeze finally blew its way across the valley and up towards her. The town was more like a small city, all short buildings of three or four floors and houses littered on the outskirts. She must have walked at least eight or nine miles, nearly all of it barefoot and in complete silence. But up here she could hear everything…the rustling of the grass as it bent in the wind, the chirping of birds, the hum of electricity, faraway and unseen but perfectly heard.

She shuddered and felt something shift within –

Oh Goddess here we go –

Something shifted within and she could not make it stop. It felt like the breach of a dam, finally giving way and crumbling to pieces, and her very soul, which had been held back for so long, had started spilling over like a deluge. She felt the stab of pain just below the nape of her neck, both searing hot and deathly cold. It came at her, drove through her as if someone had driven a blade into her neck, just so that it kept her alive and on the edge of death at the same time –

Goddess please what is happening –

And all through this she focused on the sinking of the sun, falling below the horizon at the opposite end of the valley, in utter silence. This world, her world, was ending, here and now, and she was powerless to save it. She would never see it again. The sun would dip below the horizon and she’d be enveloped in darkness, here in this nowhere, with no one to connect to or sense. She was alone and she was dying.

I…oh Goddess, I can feel it.

She felt the knife sink ever deeper between her shoulder blades, entering her spine, a shard of pain shooting up to her brain and all the way down to her feet. She let out such a screeching howl that it terrified her. She screamed and screamed, pitching forward and landing face first into the grass, a fresh gash of pain shooting up to her brain. Oh Goddess, what was happening to her?

All at once, her voice gave out. She could only breathe heavily, taking in the musty soil and the frigid air. It tasted like…?

The sun had dropped, and the sky was fading from read to gray to deep blue and now to black. She could not see more than a few yards ahead and there was little to no sound other than the wind and her own breath.

Just her, and the wind. Nothing else.

She was truly alone. Completely abandoned.

Her throat ragged from her cries, she choked on her tears, her voice a raspy moan, as she pulled herself into a low crouch.  The pain in her spine was so excruciating she wanted to die, and yet her spirit was refusing to surrender. She could only bear this for so much longer. The silence enveloping her felt so much more ominous and frightening than any other sounds she’d ever heard, and she could sense nothing and no one.

Abandoned.

And finally, mercifully, her spirit broke apart.

Oh Goddess –

Her moans gave way to a deep growl, a sound so low and primal, a voice she had never heard. This was her own soul calling out in sorrow, the Trisandi spirit within calling out to the heavens, pleading for relief.  She slid forward again, her hands reaching far, far out, grasping at the grass stalks and the ground underneath in an attempt to keep anchored to the earth. Her legs pushed out from underneath her, digging into the ground, she dipped her head low, releasing the pain…bleeding it out, the icy power of it all bleeding out through her mouth, her nostrils, her eyes, her ears. Oh Goddess she was dying –

And then she felt. She felt. The earth gathered in her fists, pushed between her toes, and then she understood…she felt Gharra now. Felt the world beneath her.

And she let out such a horrifying primal howl from the depths of her soul that she felt the world tremble in response.

And in the next moment, all pain melted away. She felt miraculously free of the anguish. She was free. Her spirit was finally, completely free of the ties that had bound it.

And she heard it, just then.

An almost silent swish of a giant tail, low and cutting through the grass. But never touching the ground.

I am kiralla, she said, her voice thundering into the ether.

MU4: Chapter One (part ii)

Dubai once again, sitting in for Bridgetown.

NOTE: This chapter was indeed a thrill to write — creating an extended solo scene where the conflict is not between people or even the self, but between Eika and everyone’s expectations of her. But she won’t be alone for too much longer…stay tuned!

*

Eika found the letter from her parents on the third day of her enforced solace, and she swore it hadn’t been there two days earlier. She’d found the envelope and the letter within sitting on the dining table, with just her first name and nothing else. It hadn’t been there that morning, but it had been there when she’d come back from her walk. She’d been so bored waiting something to happen or someone to contact her that she’d gone to investigate the neighborhood. An hour later it was sitting there, dead center. And she had not sensed anyone’s presence. They must have stepped through Light to drop it off, but she would have at least sensed the change, as she hadn’t gone all that far, maybe a few blocks at most. It must have been a Devoted Eichi…they seemed to love torturing her like this.

The letter explained exactly what she’d feared – she’d failed in the eyes of the Council of the Blessed Ones. She’d failed so many of the spirit circles. She’d failed her parents. They’d exhausted every avenue trying to awaken her as a Blessed One, to no avail. They’d been forced to make the decision for her, to take the route no spirit should ever have to go through. She was to awaken completely on her own, with no assistance, away from outside distraction and influence, and away from possible injuries to herself or someone else. If she were to succeed here, she would be accepted as a Blessed One.

If she were to fail…?

Her parents were too cowardly to mention that possibility in their letter.

Extreme measures to say the least, but it did not surprise her at all.

They’d left her in this empty town, this outpost nowhere, to figure herself out. She was apparently sufficient in whatever she needed – electricity was working, the few storefronts in the center of town were consistently restocked when she was not around, and water was always plentiful. This was a highly spiritual testing ground, and she’d just been dropped into it without preamble.

She wanted to be angry at her family, and for a little while she was. They’d taken extreme measures to push her towards some indefinite, undefined goal. To be Awakened. No explanation or context as to how, or why. It was a goal expected of her, not to be questioned. That was how her family, how her family’s belief system worked, and she’d failed all other attempts to follow in step.

She wanted to be angry, but instead, she only felt relief, of all things. A heavy burden that had been weighing her down her entire life had been lifted, one she hadn’t even realized was there until it had disappeared completely. No Devoted Eichi drilling their spite and disgust at her failings. No spirit circles avoiding her as an abomination. No family viewing her with disappointment and shame. She was a complete failure, and yet she had never felt freer! Perhaps her family had understood this, and in their own messed up way, dropping her here was the only way they could release her onto her own road.

She remembered a few things from her training that she could most likely utilize here, but strangely the first thought that came to mind was the parable of Nehalé Usarai, the man that Awakened the One of All Sacred. That was one of the first stories her teachers taught the young initiates, and it was the first one that stuck with her all this time.

Nehalé Usarai was considered a brilliant tactician, who had not only brought the Ninth Embodiment of the One into this Gharné world but had known how to ensure her safety and keep the extremist Shenaihu and the overzealous Mendaihu from poisoning the Word of the One. He too had been left alone in an outpost town like this when he was a young boy, to train himself of the Ways of the One in his own style. Never mind the fact that the real story, the one that the Blessed Ones always omitted, was that he wasn’t alone in this trial but had been brought here with several other young acolytes and awakened souls, and they’d all worked together to create a peaceful commune.

She laughed out loud when the thought struck her: Dare I question the Blessed Ones? Dare I compare myself to the revered edha Usarai? But he was Gharné, just like her, just like anyone else here on this planet. If he could find his own spirituality in these parts, why couldn’t she?

*

Easier said than done, of course.

On Day Four, she chose to practice her Lightwalking. That had been her weakest ability, as she found that she could not always keep a steady focus on her destination. The first time she’d tried it here, she’d gotten the destination completely wrong and ended up somewhere on the outskirts of town, and it had taken her three hours not only to get her bearings but find the house she’d been staying in. Later that day she tried again and made it to her planned landing point near the library green down the road…but had misjudged the altitude and fell ten feet to the ground, twisting her ankle in the process. She cried out, more in frustration than pain, but she was too damned stubborn to give up just yet. She hobbled back to the house and thought about what she was doing wrong.

The walk did her good because it forced her to clear her head. She was obviously still holding a grudge against her family, regardless of their intentions, and despite her stubborn will to prove them wrong. Perhaps that was it…did she really need to prove anything to begin with? Who was she trying to impress, anyway?

“No one but yourself,” she said aloud. She’d decided to speak aloud whenever it was warranted – to give voice to her thoughts meant vindication, even if just to herself, even if her thoughts proved to be wrong. If she spoke aloud, it made her thoughts and actions real.

And yet…she had to concede, she was lonely.

Had her parents even thought of that? Had anyone?

She needed no one for the moment, and she was fine with that; she didn’t need the constant distraction of others during her Trial. She was not desperate for human interaction, just the occasional reminder that she was not completely alone in this world. Only three days in and she was fine, but she needed more stimulation than the local birds and the occasional flight or shuttle passing over. And she wasn’t about to waste her time poking around on a vidmat. Not that they’d left any here.

Just…someone to talk to. To learn from. To work with. To connect with.

Annoyed with herself, she pushed those thoughts away and set about making tomorrow’s plans. Twisted ankle or no, she was going to get this self-training done one way or another. She had a lot of ground she wanted to cover during the time she had here.

By day six, she’d managed not to kill herself when practicing her Lightwalking, though she still hadn’t quite gotten the knack of adjusting for changes in geography. Thankfully it was impossible to step out of the Light and into something solid – the soul’s connection to the planet ensured that would not happen – but she still reappeared too high and hadn’t quite figured out how to adjust for it.

The stores of food and other wares miraculously replenished themselves not only at the small store down the block, but in her own refrigerator as well. She figured someone was restocking while she was away and chose not to question it or scan for their whereabouts. The temptation to reel out a thread of sensing energy was high – Goddess, it was high! – but she held back. Reaching out right now was a sign of weakness, that she’d given up already, and she didn’t want that.

She’d also expanded her regimen to include the more mundane but equally necessary things in training…she took care of what she ate and drank, what exercises she did, how long she practiced. She’d long known one of her worst habits was her lack of organization, so she chose to face that head on. She worked out a schedule and focused on everything she needed to do to adjust her focus.

By day ten she already saw the changes. She’d been meditating twice a day. She’d been going out for runs around the neighborhood, going slightly further with every circuit. She became exhausted less often, she had lost the excess weight from unhealthy eating, and to her own surprise, she found herself focusing on more details of her day-to-day life.

She changed her appearance as well, choosing to wear more form-fitting clothes to help her move more fluidly (this was, in her mind, a brilliant bit of clarity…she now understood why the Elders’ uniforms were also form-fitting, and it did in fact help her during ritual practices). She’d chosen to cut her long hair after finding that binding it back during practice only served as another distraction. It was now quite short, well above the nape of her neck, just shy of a buzz cut.

She felt more centered than she’d ever been in her life, and she was immensely proud of that fact. She continued to speak aloud, letting herself burst into song or work out a problem by talking through it. She felt oddly comforted by all of this. She could do this.

She would awaken as a Blessed One on her own.

Day fourteen was tough.

She promised herself she’d get through it, even if it ended up setting her back. She’d been in this funk ever since she found the second letter from her parents. She had no idea how it had gotten there, or if they’d left it days ago and she’d only just found it. She had a feeling it had been delivered, just like the phantom food and parcel deliveries, with someone stepping in and out of Light without her noticing and leaving no memory puddles in their wake.

The letter, at first glance, had been expected. A concerned but distanced connection, wishing her good health, hoping her training was improving. A brief mention of other extended family members forwarding positive thoughts and prayers…but otherwise it was mostly her mother’s hand and words. Words that felt shallow and forced. Words she’d said to her many times before, meaning well but ultimately meaning little at all, holding no true empathy.

But upon reading again, the reality of her isolation truly started to sink in. She’d put on a brave front all this time, refusing to feel the pain. Refusing to give up. Refusing to give in and let the Devoted Eichi win. Her mother’s letter, though well meant, had only served to bring that pain back to the forefront.

They’d already given up on her, days ago.

“Goddess…!” she blurted, crumpling the letter into a ball and throwing it across the room. Even talking aloud felt shallow and stupid now, just an immature action to trick herself into thinking all wasn’t as bad as she thought. She let the tears come this time, even knowing how stupid and pathetic she felt. She finally let herself accept the fact that she’d put on a brave front to please everyone else, to the detriment of her own spirit’s pleasure. She’d set out to prove…what? Nothing. She’d proven nothing to them, because they’d refused to listen at all. They were only biding their time until she gave up and they came to pick her up, spiritually broken.

Somehow, this clarity felt so much worse.

MU4: Chapter One (part i)

Dubai, which stands in nicely for long shots of Bridgetown.

NOTE: The original rough draft of the as-yet-untitled fourth book in the Mendaihu Universe was started in the spring of 2015, written longhand right about the same time I was readying A Division of Souls for self-publishing. The original version of this chapter (then as chapter four) was started 10 April of that year and went through multiple versions over the next seven years. Since then it’s moved to the beginning of the novel where it serves to set up the MU seventy years after the events that take place in The Balance of Light.

What it sets up is this: when Denni/Denysia gave the world the gift of spiritual awareness and a connection to Trisanda, and her intentions were to set humanity on a course of higher maturity and a connection to a larger universe. But in the world of spirituality and religion…things don’t always go to plan.

*

Eikianassia Oktanis stirred from slumber and stared at the ceiling in a dazed attempt to remember where the hells she was. It was too quiet, the air too clean and cool, and the shadows didn’t look like those from her own bedroom. She let it come to her slowly…the faded blue shapes of light against the ceiling on the far end of the room…the lack of any traffic noise…the lack of any art or shelves adorning the left wall…one nondescript alarm pod, no vidmats tacked to the wall, no communications devices on the desk. A humbling, deafening silence.

“Wilderlands,” she said in a defeated whisper, all too aware that her words had just come from the only human voice for miles.

The Trial of the Blessed One.

Eika had been brought out here by her mother and father, after she had been thrown out of her twelfth and last spirit circle. This was her last chance at becoming a devout member of the Blessed Ones, and if she failed this trial as well, she would be excommunicated and ostracized by everyone she’d ever known and forced to fend for herself in the Bridgetown Sprawl. Taking this trial had not been a mutual decision, and she felt that all too keenly. Her family’s chapter had forced it upon her parents, who had then forced it upon her without bothering to think about how it might affect her already weakening self-confidence. She grumbled and stirred again, fighting the growing irritation now that she remembered where she was and why she was there. If she let this negative energy get the best of her, she would be up for the rest of the night and she’d be cranky the next morning. And that would be misconstrued as an imbalance or an act of reckless rebellion. And her parents, and the Blessed Ones, wouldn’t have that.

She rolled over in frustration, most of it aimed at herself. Why had she chosen to act up that day, anyway? It was all ritual, to be sure. There was nothing wrong, not a thing that could have harmed her in any way, and the Goddess of All That Is would be watching over her throughout.

But somehow, it felt wrong. Not distressingly, harmfully wrong. More like…? She huffed again, stopping this train of thought once more. She couldn’t think about this, not now. She needed to sleep, damn it all!

This was just like before…

“Eika?” she’d heard from behind her bedroom door, two days ago, followed by the rattle of the handle. “Eika, are you all right?” Another rattle. “Eika, why is the door locked?”

Her mother had sensed her frustration and, as usual, had completely misread the reason behind it.

“Hmm…” she’d mumbled in a pathetic attempt at sounding half awake. “M’okay,” she’d said. “Just an odd dream is all.”

She’d sensed her mother’s presence behind that door for what felt like at list five minutes before she’d turned and headed back to her own bedroom. She’d waited a few minutes more, at least until she’d heard the distant sound of a door closing.

Eika had let out a slow breath and glanced at the clock on her side table. It was nearing three in the morning, much too late for her to be awake, and much too early for her to decide to stay up.

They don’t understand, she’d thought. How hard was it for them to realize she needed privacy every now and again? Was it really that hard for them to understand? She certainly understood more of the Blessed Ones than they did of her, that was for sure.

…this was exactly like two days ago. Except now, there was no one else here in this house. There was no one in this neighborhood, this town. She was alone.

Completely, desperately alone.

She turned onto her left side, hear arm resting next to her head on the pillow. She flexed her fingers for a few moments, watching their blurry shapes in the semi-darkness. There, on the soft flesh just between her thumb and forefinger and stretching just short of her ring finger, she could feel the stretching of skin where she’d received the scar of the first spirit circle ejection.

Devoted Eichi Maysa had done that, the Goddess curse her.

Eika hadn’t warranted such an injury, at least not in her eyes. She’d merely been a little too reckless with her lightwork ability, still learning and practicing but not quite yet a master at it. A stray spark of energy had slipped out after a nearly perfect healing, which had caused the willing practice participant to twitch and yelp as if Eika had stabbed her with a dagger to her chest. The absolutely livid Devoted Maysa had responded to the innocent mistake by forcibly pulling her away from the healed, pulling her arm backwards and dragging her to the front of the class – she had just enough time to see that otherwise she’d done a perfect job, and her partner had started to respond that they were not in fact harmed at all, only startled – and held Eika’s hand up to the other devout.

Devoted Maysa’s eyes burned into her as if she’d forcibly and gleefully ripped the girl’s soul from her body.

This is the imbalance you must purge!” she screeched, spittle hitting her face, and before she could respond or react, Devoted Maysa had taken a glowing index finger and jabbed it into Eika’s palm, shooting a small but intensely strong tear of Light through her hand. Such was her expertise that only skin and a few strands of muscle had been injured, but it was enough to make her shriek in agony, in front of everyone.

She’d immediately been branded a failure.

Eika had quit that spirit circle within the hour and, after stopping at a medical center in Branden Hill to have the tear properly healed, she returned home.

She was not in the least bit surprised that, between her leaving the shrine and getting home, Devoted Maysa had already contacted her parents and had painted the absolute worst picture anyone could have made. She didn’t even bother to argue because she knew her parents wouldn’t have believed her. They wouldn’t have accepted failure, even accidental.

“Whatever she said, she lies,” she’d said, more out of exhaustion than defiance.

“Despite the Light within?” her mother had ventured.

“Especially despite that,” she said, and walked dejectedly into her bedroom, locking the door, and not leaving it for a day and a half.

*

Eika must have dozed off at some point. When she next opened her eyes, the sun was shining through the windows on the far wall. Her eyes were dry and stinging and she rubbed at them, forcing herself awake. A small digital clock next to the bed read a little after nine. She yawned and stretched, rolling onto her back, surprised by her laziness. Blessed Ones were usually early risers who worked on little sleep, and she had slept an extra five hours at least. It was needed, though…she hadn’t felt this relaxed, this rejuvenated in quite some time.

She reeled out three small threads of spirit energy, looking for her parents and her younger brother, or anyone at all that might be nearby. This was normal for a Blessed One; they liked to keep constant tabs on each other.

But she sensed no one, just as she’d feared. She avoided the fear by thinking about her family and what they might be doing right now: were they visiting one of the outpost chapels today? Would they be chanting and protesting outside one of the countless cathedrals and Elder compounds in the Sprawl? Would they be making their way across Swope Heights in their monthly neighborhood sweep of gathering new followers? The Blessed Ones made it a point to be a highly visible presence wherever they were. Would her parents have woken her up to join? Did they still want her to be a part of the flock? Or had they given up on her? She winced, finding herself sliding back in that gloom again. Surely, they wouldn’t have abandoned her…? Not when they’d been keeping such close tabs on her over the past year and a half?

How many spirit circles had she quit or been forced out of? She’d not bothered to count, but she knew it had been at least a dozen. She’d tried…Goddess knew she’d tried to fit into one of the circles and make her family proud, but every single time she had broken away. None had been as painful and traumatic as Devoted Eichi Maysa and that first circle…but many of them had been just as psychologically and spiritually taxing, each and every one. They asked so much of her. So much that she could not always provide. She could bring herself to heightened levels of Light energy just like every other acolyte, but it was never enough, or its signature too obscure, or its leaders too demanding.

She was awakened, but she was lost.

Eika washed, dressed, and entered the main living area of the house. The den was wide and spacious, yet inviting and comfortable. She kneeled across the back of the couch that sat in front of a wide bank of windows, and watched the day unfold outside. Not a cloud in the sky, and the trees at the far end of the rear yard remained still. It felt too still, which always made her nervous. The less energy there was around her, the more she felt the need to expend her own to make up for it. The Wilderlands had to be the worst place for her to be if they were to expect her to learn how to control her random bursts of Light.

But it was the perfect place for a Trial of a Blessed One. If the acolyte was successful and ascended to a true Blessed One, then there was nothing to worry about. But if they were not successful…

Well – Eika decided not to think about that for now.

She reeled out a few more threads, thicker and stronger this time, and tried to find her family again. They had to be nearby, somewhere in the area. They couldn’t have gone far. Families of those on Trial would be put up at a compound nearby. But when she still could not sense them, she started to worry. And her reach was pretty damn far, much farther than most acolytes her age. She could sense clear across town without breaking a sweat, not that she ever dared to do so in the jumble of the Bridgetown Sprawl. But when she did exactly that here in this deserted town, she reeled it all back and shut it tight within herself. She stood up and started pacing the house, looking for any sign of them. Any notes, letters, memory puddles…surely they’d have told her where they’d gone and when they’d return?

She found nothing. A few scant memory patches, sights of them having walked through the house at some point, but that was it. They’d just…left.

She was tempted to reel her spirit sensing out further, more than she’d ever done before, but knew that would have caused more trouble than anything else. Instead she threw on her jacket and began walking into the outpost town center. Perhaps she would find them there.

*

The town center, the entire village, was deserted. She was completely alone.

She’d gone to the center green and thrown out a cursory sensing thread of the area, just a passive sweep just to find anyone at all, whether they were Mendaihu, Shenaihu or cho-nyhndah, but had come up with nothing. Even an unenlightened would have come to her attention, but she sensed no one. And she was unusually strong when it came to spiritsensing; that had been another irritation of some of the Devoted Eichi and she’d always held back to avoid their anger and punishment.

Could her sensing ability be that off kilter? She didn’t want to ramp it up, not just yet.

But after two hours of walking through the outpost town center, she saw and sensed no one.

They’d arrived late last night, and she’d been half asleep, so she hadn’t bothered or expected to look for anyone, figuring they were all in their homes, or at least in some cabin on the outskirts of town, at a safe monitoring distance and away from her prodding senses. Now that she was fully and completely awake, however, the emptiness and abandonment felt more complete and heartrending.

Her parents had left her here. Alone.

“Pashyo,” she said, her voice without any echo.

Her Trial of the Blessed One had started.

Curiously, past the throbbing pain of abandonment, past the simmering resentment and the directionless anger rippling somewhere in the background, she felt determination. She felt the searing pain of her family giving up on her and abandoning her in this weirdly vacant town in the middle of nowhere…she felt a keen, almost kiralla-level wave of naked anger, her spirit so forcibly pulled out of a society of similar souls against her will…

…and yet, Goddess bless it, she felt a clear and immensely strong will, a refusal to give up despite it all.

Goddess bless it, she would persevere.

She would prove them wrong.