Author’s note: If anyone ships the two mains in this novel, it’s our Annie, and she’s going to milk it as long as she can. Meanwhile, as we’ve seen earlier, she’s often very emotional and sometimes lets that get the best of her. And once again, she depends on her close friendship with Cole to rein that in. In this chapter however, she finally realizes that maybe she needs something other than that co-dependence to find inner balance and calm.
Cole felt Anna-Nassi’s burst of joy and excitement from two floors down, and the pulse was strong enough it shifted him off-balance. He tripped and skidded up against the wall, apologizing as he went, hoping he wouldn’t hurt anyone. The human he’d bumped into had grunted and glared at him in response, but instead of confronting him, he picked up his fallen books and walked away. He’d see Cole was just another weird kid and forget about this incident in an hour or so. This was just another annoying side-effect of having Steiner-Hedraac Syndrome: whenever there was a strong and unexpected shift in life energies, occasionally it could take his body a few extra seconds to compensate and take it in, especially if he hadn’t been expecting it. He never blamed anyone when it happened, it was just something he had to deal with. He would never blame Annie for her own emotional reactions, nor would he ever ask her to hold back for his sake.
He rested there for a few moments, gathering his bearings and calming himself down, but he couldn’t keep from smiling and laughing quietly. Anna-Nassi had just heard the news.
He knew what her words were going to be come lunchtime: Why didn’t you tell me they were bonding for real? Why didn’t you tell me Diwa had asked Kaffi to be his ride? Ai, you need to keep me in the loop!
It was true, he knew something was up last night. He’d sensed the significant changes in Graymar and Samuel’s moods and actions when they’d returned from their trip, a renewed and strengthened bond between them, and their sons had definitely sensed it as well, in their own ways. They weren’t as clairsentient as he was, of course, but it was hard to miss all the other clues. They’d been profoundly inspired. Things were changing.
Diwa and Kaffi would reach this same point eventually, it was just a matter of time.
He felt a growing wave of irritation off to his left and scanned the hallway. He knew this sensation all too well – impatience and frustration, aimed at whoever happened to be in their way. He also knew this signature; Allen, a hedraac one year younger than him but already carrying the psychic load of an adult. They’d crossed paths in the past, and it had not ended well. Allen did not completely understand, nor care, that Cole had Steiner-Hedraac Syndrome. Allen felt that reining himself in and not letting his ego bleed out so profusely was unfair to him. Why should he have to hinder who he was for some reject?
Cole hitched his satchel closer to his shoulder and took off in the opposite direction. Better to avoid him than create more chaos.
He made his way past a group of students gathered around a bulletin board, all of them buzzing with excitement and curiosity, checking out the list of students who were graduating at the end of the semester, along with their chosen professions or places of further education, a formal announcement of their Future Calling. This was a list that grew and changed by the day, as students updated their status with college acceptances or internships. His had remained blank for most of the year, but pretty much everyone had already assumed he wouldn’t amount to much anyway, considering his disability.
He’d gotten used to that a long time ago. It no longer frustrated him. Besides, he already knew what he was going to do. He’d fill in that blank space soon enough, when he was ready for it.
He found solace in the library. Thankfully this was his free period, and it was just before lunch, so he’d be in much better spirits by the time he met up with his friends. He found a seat in a secluded corner, away from most everyone else, and took out his tablet for his reading homework. Focusing on words always helped him in this situation; it wouldn’t completely shut out all the psychic noise, but it would at least push it into the background. He knew others who had this syndrome much worse than he did and considered himself lucky that he could still adjust his lifestyle when and where possible without being completely disconnected.
In the meantime, Anna-Nassi’s excitement hadn’t lessened one bit, and he found that both amusing and comforting. He could always rely on her positive energy to keep his own in check, and borrowed ever so slightly until he was once again calm and centered. He’d have to tell her that the range of their connection was getting further and stronger. She’d like to hear that.
He thought again about what he’d sensed between Diwa and Kaffi last night. Even from the back side of Building D, their nervous joy was hard to miss. Kaffi’s was more muted, as tintrite emotions often were, but he also sensed the blissful release of a deep-seated and long-awaited euphoria. This was a tintrite making an important and deeply personal connection. It could be the start of a bonding, or it could just be a higher level of friendship, so he chose not to assume either one. With Diwa, however…
Diwa was an interesting case. Some days Cole could read him like a book just like he could most other humans, but other days he couldn’t quite figure out what his motives might be or what he was truly feeling. Humans were often like that; they were quite haphazard and contradictory with their emotions, endearingly so. They felt everything out, testing each emotion and reaction until they resonated with those that rang truest to them. There was something there, hiding well beneath Diwa’s own happiness, that felt like a blind spot. It may be concern, but it might also be fear. He was purposely avoiding this one thing in his mind that could ruin their entire plan.
Diwa and Kaffi’s relationship was so nuanced that, when they were together, Cole often found himself unexpectedly at peace. They complemented each other on multiple levels. Very much like how he felt when he was near Anna-Nassi. He decided there and then that he too wanted these two best friends to become some something so much more. They deserved it. It was up to Annie and himself to help them bring their grand plans to fruition.
He felt another quick surge of happiness from Anna-Nassi again, and this time he laughed quietly to himself.
As soon as Anna-Nassi saw Cole coming through the roof patio doors she dialed it back, as she didn’t want to overwhelm him. She’d already exerted most of her energy on Diwa and Kaffi earlier this morning, anyway. They were already sitting across from her in their usual spots, all too quiet for their own good but stealing furtive glances and smiles at each other when they thought she wasn’t looking. They were totally bonded for sure.
“Two floors,” Cole said, sitting down next to her. He carried a small bag with him this time, which made her happy…when he was calm, he could eat food rather than taking from someone’s energy. It meant that his Steiner-Hedraac was not flaring up. “I was on my way to the library when you found out what was going on with those two.”
“Really?” she giggled. “I must be losing my touch. People have told me they could sense me from outside on a good day.”
Cole smiled. “Give it time.”
“Still, you’d think they’d have told me sooner.”
“They were waiting for the best moment, is all. You have to be patient with them.”
“Hmm. You could be right.”
Diwa cleared his throat. “We’re sitting right here, you two.”
Anna-Nassi gasped and opened her eyes wide in response, leaning back on the knuckles of her wing and flashing her manic grin at them. “Eiyah, so you are! Come on, boys. We’re all here, all in one place, so spill! What’s the big plan, now that you two are betrothed?”
“Ai!” he blushed. “Hindi ka nakakatawa!”
“Let her have her fun, Dee,” Kaffi said, giving him a nudge. He nodded in Anna-Nassi’s direction and snorted. “Besides, it’s going to be a while before you and I will be flying together. Training and all that.”
“Ooh, that’s right,” she said. “You haven’t flown with anyone, have you?”
Diwa shook his head with a sigh. “I sense a joke setup.”
“No, I’m serious. I’ve never seen Kaffi with a saddle. I mean, I’m not built for riding flight, but I can imagine how irritating it could be.”
“It’s not as bad as it seems,” Kaffi said.
Diwa blinked and turned to him. “Really…?”
Kaffi, realizing he might have accidentally revealed something extremely personal that he hadn’t shared with anyone before, ducked his snout down and scratched the top of it with a talon. “A while back I thought I’d try it. Borrowed paddir’s saddle and blanket.”
Diwa blinked at him again. “And…?”
Despite his embarrassment, he laughed quietly and gave his wings a quick flutter. “It felt right,” he said. “It was a bit large, considering I’m much smaller than Graymar, but the…” He waved his hands in front of him, in search of the right word. “Once it’s on, it feels like it’s part of you.”
Diwa’s gaze softened, surprised by this revelation. “Interesting,” he said.
Anna-Nassi gazed at them with her big shiny eyes. “You’re so cute when you two flirt like that.”
“Oh, stop it,” Diwa laughed.
“Seriously, that’s totally awesome, Kaff! When are you going to get your own?”
He nodded. “Eventually. Paddir and I will work that out when the time comes.”
There was a furtive smile behind that, she could tell. He was still holding something back. She decided not to push this time.
Cole poked her on the arm to get her attention. She turned, expecting him to ask if he could feed again, but instead he just smiled and nodded. She cocked her head at him, wondering what the gesture was about. He wasn’t feeding, didn’t want to feed, she could sense that much. He was ever so slightly irritated, but no more than normal on any other given day. That wasn’t it. This was something different. Something about Kaffi and Diwa. Or her?
Oh, she could be so blessed dense sometimes…! He was suggesting that she make herself useful to those two lovebirds!
“You’re doing fine, Cole?” she asked quietly, barely holding back a smile.
“Just fine,” he said, nodding. “Thanks for asking.”
She pushed herself up and leaned forward, digging into her bento lunch. She pulled out a box filled with onigiri, each one containing a different filling. One of her favorite lunches. “So,” she said, after biting into one of them. “Diwa. I hear that Samuel’s going to need an offsite storage facility soon. Has he looked yet?”
“Not yet,” he said, digging into his own lunch. “Why?”
“My padda knows someone who has an opening at their facility,” she said. “It’s small, probably a five by ten at most, but probably enough to store documents.”
“I’ll let him know,” he said. “Thanks.”
She popped the rest of the onigiri into her mouth and swallowed it quickly. “How is the internship going?”
Unexpectedly, she felt a wave of fond contemplation from him. “It’s going well so far. Slow. Not all that glamorous, I’m afraid, but I’m definitely learning things.”
“Hmm.” She picked out another onigiri and was about to bite into it when a thought occurred to her. “You need to get out more,” she said.
She grinned again. “Let me help with whatever you and Samuel have going. I mean, not now. You two have your sorting to do, and I know that’ll take a while. But once you’re ready to do the heavy-duty cleaning and moving and all that refiling, give me a call. I want to help. I can talk with my amma about using one of the offices in the community center, we can have a big sorting party with drinks and snacks and everything, then bring it back.”
He smiled at her, nodding quickly. “I’m sure he’d appreciate that. I’ll let him know. Thanks.”
“Doing my part,” she said, flashing her too-wide grin at them again, then tucked into her lunch.
Anna-Nassi strolled along the central green walkway, her wings at rest but her hands itching to have something to do. She shoved them into the pockets of her vest just to keep them calm. This was the downside to being a mandossi without having a hedraac like Cole nearby to keep her balanced…she grew impatient and distracted far too easily without him around.
And yet, she always felt guilty about using him like that. She depended on Cole for friendship, not for energy depletion! It wasn’t fair to either of them. She would resolve, then, to find other ways to calm her mind, whether he was around or not. Taking a long walk through the garden areas of the estate grounds was her amma’s idea, and given its relative quiet, it worked to some degree. These moments of solitude made her less impulsive and more introspective. And when there weren’t that many tenants around, she didn’t feel as self-conscious when she spoke with them. That new aanoupii gardener, Tassh, was so laid back and amicable that she found herself looking forward to their mundane talks about horticulture. Sometimes she would see Cole out here, or Diwa. She would also see Kaffi above, flying around as always. It made her smile to know that even when her friends were busy, she’d still see them somewhere around the estate.
She needed to find her own role in their plan.
She twitched at the unexpected voice and looked down. A young mandossi youngling, maybe no older than three or four years, their own wings still growing and sticking out at odd angles, was looking up at her with dark blue eyes and a big toothy smile. Oh goodness, her heart just about melted at the sight! She dropped down to a crouch to face her new friend.
“Hello yourself, little one!” she sang, smiling back at her. “My name is Anna-Nassi, what’s yours?”
“Jemma-Isalli,” the little girl said. “Are you one of amma’s friends?”
Anna-Nassi had no idea who this girl’s mother was, but she’d better get this youngling back to them right away! “Not yet, Jemma-Isalli. I’m sure I’ll get to know her soon enough. It’s very nice to meet you, though! Are you here at the playground with your family?”
“My amma and ahpé are here,” she said, and took Anna-Nassi’s hand. “Come and meet them!”
She laughed, as if she had any choice in the matter! It was probably for the best that she return the girl back to her family before they notice her missing. She let the girl lead her across the green towards the edge of the playground.
“There you are!” she heard ahead. A tall and youthful mandossi elder had caught sight of them and was quickly moving in their direction. Her wings were twitching ever so slightly in exasperation. Unaware of her mother’s worry, Jemma-Isalli let go of Anna-Nassi’s hand and gleefully ran towards her into the elder’s arms.
Anna-Nassi stopped short in surprise, having suddenly recognized the elder, and stifled the urge to turn and run away in the opposite direction. This was no regular tenant she’d just run into…this was Elise-Nooviya, one of the most important tenants currently running on the estate committee! Eiyah, this was not what she expected! Where was Cole when she needed him the most?
Calm yourself, she thought, repeating the words multiple times while she got her wings under control. She’s a tenant, same as you, Annie. Calm yourself!
She exhaled, put on her best smile, and walked towards the elder.
“Mani-yandoora,” she said quietly, stopping a respectable distance, bowing her head, and holding her hands at her belly. Just as her amma had taught her ages ago. She gestured towards Jemma-Isalli. “I found this little one wandering away, so I herded her back.”
The elder relaxed visibly and sent the girl off to play with her older brother, who was currently busy on one of the large play mats, building small towers with his connector blocks. “I thank you,” she said with relief, twitching her wings once before letting them settle. “She can certainly be a handful sometimes.” The elder paused, apparently studying her. She waved her lower arms slowly in her direction, trying to make a mental connection.
Say nothing yet, she thought, and waited for the elder to speak.
“You are Anna-Nassi, yes? The daughter of Dana-Leima in Building D?”
She smiled and nodded. “I am, elder.”
The elder reached out a flat hand in greeting and she did the same. Their fingertips touched briefly, the initial personal connection now made. “I am Elise-Nooviya,” she said, bowing her head slightly. She pronounced her mandossi name slightly different from amma’s attempt at it. Noo-VEE-yah. Three syllables, accent on the second and not on the first. She kept that in mind. “I work with your amma on the estate committee sometimes,” she continued. “She says many good things about you, Anna-Nassi. It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person.”
“The same, elder,” she said, remembering her place and the proper etiquette. “My amma always speaks well of you.”
“You’ve grown much,” she said, and briefly touched Anna-Nassi’s lower arms, as an elder would to a youngling as a sign of welcome acquaintance. “And into a lovely mature mandossi. I hear that you will be interning with us on the committee soon.”
Eiyah, out of the nest and into the wild…! “Y-yes,” she said, blushing with no way to hide it. “I will be coming to the next committee meeting in a few weeks to fill out the forms and make my joining official. For now I am walking the estate and making myself available to anyone who needs assistance or wants company.”
“A fine decision,” Elise-Nooviya said, and leaned in to touch Anna-Nassi’s forehead with her own. “I wish you luck, Anna-Nassi.”
She nearly fainted from being given the highest praise from such a respected elder! She held her composure the best she could. Wait until the others heard about this! “Thank you, elder,” she said, and nodded towards the two younglings on the play mat. “And I will make sure little Jemma-Isalli stays within sight next time!”
Elise-Nooviya laughed. “Indeed!”
She said her goodbyes and strolled away from the playground, warmed by the conversation. She couldn’t believe her luck! To get such praise, so early on! She had to calm herself to keep from laughing out loud, at least until she was on her own again. Perhaps she’d been thinking too hard about this. She had nothing to prove here. She had no reason to show off. People already knew her here, either by presence or by her family. Talking with the tenants was enough.
Perhaps that’s all she really needed to learn.
Cole tapped the screen of his phone one last time and set it to mute. If his family needed to get a hold of him, they could leave a text. They knew where he was. They could easily sense him from here. For now, he chose to disconnect. The less distraction the better.
Bringing up the idea of joining the estate committee with them was hard enough. His mother he could handle…she was on the committee already, and she was more than willing to help him get to know more of its members. She would get overprotective and worry about his disability and literally time how long he lasted with other people, but he was used to that. It was the rest of the extended family that drove him crazy at times like this. They’d been relentless since he’d told them about Diwa and Kaffi’s plans. “We’re so proud of you!” they said. “Another proud hedraac to the team!” they said. “You’ll be following in your parents’ footsteps!” they said. “He’s grown up so much!” they said. They meant well too, but could they at least speak to him as an adult and not a fledgling fresh out of the nest? He was doing something that was important to him, and they were treating him like his fangs had just grown in for the first time. It was embarrassing and irritating.
Which was why he was out here in the orchard. He knew this ground more than most tenants, as he’d been coming out here to distance himself from his family and others on the estate to find peace since he was a youngling, when his Steiner-Hedraac had first manifested itself. The disability was not so much debilitating as it was just extremely annoying at the worst of times. His psychic sensing wasn’t stuck in the ‘on’ position – thank the gods and goddesses – but sometimes he couldn’t turn it off without help. And now that he was getting older, more symptoms would start manifesting themselves: unexpected and ravenous hunger, inability to stop feeding once he started, unstable mood swings. He’d already started seeing doctors about this, taking the medicines, and adjusting his lifestyle and his diet and everything else. He hated how much this illness interfered with his life, and how it might affect his future. It was no wonder the other students hadn’t expected him to have any Future Calling.
How wrong they were! He was committed, refusing to let any of this slow him down. He would prove to everyone that he could still be a strong member of this community. How would he be able to help Diwa, Kaffi and Anna-Nassi with this wonderful plan for the estate?
He was so wrapped up in his worries and irritations that he almost hadn’t sensed Anna-Nassi at the other end of the orchard, just as distracted by her own unorganized thoughts. She studied the overgrown apple trees, neglected for far too long. It was still early enough in the season that the fruit was still small and unripe, not yet ready for picking. She gently touched one of them with her long fingers, looking its surface, wondering how healthy it might be. Wondering why this part of the orchard had been left to grow wild, how much of it might be salvageable. She thought about her own role in the estate plan as well. Wondering if she could ever manage it, if she could ever measure up to—
She stopped and turned in his direction.
Cole swore under his breath and disconnected immediately. He’d been tapping into her energy ever so slightly, listening to her thought waves without thinking or asking. She’d given him permission to do so a long time ago, but he still felt he was intruding. She didn’t seem to mind, as her aura suddenly brightened at his presence. She flashed her wide goofy smile, fluttered her wings, and waved at him, and all of it sent a jolt of positive energy his way, sating his hunger. She trusted him that completely.
“Hey there,” he said, walking over. “Sorry to interrupt.”
She shook her head and waved off his apology. “I know it was you. You’re the only one here, and I know your signature anywhere.” She smiled again and took his hand. “Come on, let’s walk a bit.”
He nodded and fell beside her. “You look a little…”
“Distracted,” she said. “I suppose so. I guess I’m just wondering if I’m cut out for this, neh? This…” She waved her arms, and her wings, at the estate grounds. “This is our home, Cole. But it’s Diwa’s dream. And Kaffi’s.”
“You’re not sure if it’s yours,” he ventured.
She hummed in response. “I mean, I think it’s mine, neh? Those two have such an amazing level of dedication, and I’m afraid I don’t think I can ever come close to matching it. They’re going to be the future landlords. I don’t doubt that at all. I just don’t…” She trailed off again, looking away. “What are our roles in this, Cole? I mean, I just had a lovely interaction with one of the most senior members of the tenancy committee, and I’m sure I left a positive impression, and her little nestlings are such darlings…” She rubbed at her temple and chittered her fangs. “Eiyah, Cole. I don’t know what to think right now! I was so excited about that moment and I wanted to tell you about it, and then I got flustered, then I started worrying and freaking out! What am I doing? Is this what I really want? Or am I just…you know, being a daash-paiya about my life choices again?”
Cole touched the knuckle of one of her wings and tapped it gently. It startled her, but her heart leapt at the same time. “Stop that, Annie,” he said. “You are no daash-paiya. You’re smarter and kinder than you give yourself credit for. And I’ve been thinking the same thing.”
She nodded and followed him back to towards the far end of the orchard. They walked in silence for a time, occasionally checking on the fruit still on the trees. Now that he noticed it, it bothered him as well that his parents were so eager to get the offsite farm arrangement going that they weren’t paying attention to what was literally going on in their back yard.
“We need to hire a specialist,” he said. “I’m not sure what level this orchard is at, but I know it definitely needs more work to get it back up and running at its peak.”
She hummed in agreement. “I could always bring it up at the next tenancy meeting.”
“No,” he said suddenly, looking down the length of the field. “No. I’ll do it. This will be my assignment.”
“Already making yourself busy,” she laughed lightly. “I like that in a hedraac.”
“I’m sure you do,” he grinned, and looked away.
“Seriously, though. Let me have this one. You already have the co-op farm work with your family. I’d like to take this one on myself.”
“Are you sure?”
She prodded him on the arm. “Yes! This will be worth it. I want to prove to myself that I can do this, Cole.”
“Okay,” he hummed. “It’s all yours then. Meanwhile. I’ve been thinking. About what you said. About the plan. How we fit in.” Ai, there he was, stuttering sentences again. One of his least favorite affectations when he felt nervous. He scratched at his chin to hide his blush. She was looking away as well, stuffing her hands into her vest pockets. She let her wings stretch a bit; with each extension the folds of skin between the joints made a quiet ruffling sound. She was not a flier, but she was still quite active with her wings when she was distracted.
“I think we need. To find our own path, Annie,” he said. “Separate from Diwa. And Kaffi.”
Her wings slackened a little bit. “We can’t just…”
He waved his hands quickly, realizing she’d misunderstood. “No, I mean that our fates. They’re separate. From theirs to some degree. Entwined, yes. We were woven into their fates. When we became friends with them. Years ago. Maybe we’re even linked. On a higher level now. But their fate isn’t completely ours. Related, but not the same. We have to find our own.”
Anna-Nassi thought about it for a moment, her wings still sagging. “I suppose you’re right.”
Cole reached out and tapped one of them again. It was a very personal touch for a mandossi, and rarely done, even within species. But she had let him do this early on and had never stopped him as it cheered her up. She responded with a soft hum and a reciprocal touch on his shoulder.
“We’ll figure this out,” she said.
“We will,” he said.
“You’re cute when you get flustered,” she smirked. Cole burst out laughing.
“Hindi ka nakakatawa!” — (Tagalog) “That’s not funny!”
amma — (mandossi) – mother
ahpé — (mandossi) – brother
Mani-yandoora — (mandossi) “Hello, elder.” Often used to show high respect to one’s elders.
daash-paiya — (mandossi) literally, ‘immature egg’. Often used self-deprecatingly as if to say ‘I’m an idiot’.