Author’s Note: Another view of love, this one about empathy. When someone close to you is ailing, you want to reach out and comfort them any way you can.
Cole’s mental and physical health had been so balanced for so long that he hadn’t noticed the change in the behavior of his Steiner-Hedraac Syndrome until Anna-Nassi pointed it out to him, and the news had come as a shock. The two spent alternate days together between the co-op farm and the estate nowadays, rarely out of each other’s sight. It was nearing the end of the summer, and the next harvest would be ready soon. They’d spent most of the afternoon working in the cool of the main processing plant, shifting between the packaging department and the shipping docks, and had put in a hard day. They were hot and sweaty from all the exertion and were sitting in the cool shade of one of the trees out front, drinking sodas. Annie cuddled up next to him, as she often did at the end of a long day, softly tapping his arm and calming him.
“You’ve been doing awesome,” she said softly. “You know that?”
“Hmm?” he said. “No different than any other day, Annie.”
“I mean your balance, silly!” she giggled, giving him a nudge. “You haven’t had any strong urges to feed for three weeks.”
Three weeks…? He stared at her, mentally calculating the last time his syndrome kicked in. Had it really been that long? “You’re sure about that?”
“Twenty-four days,” she nodded. “I’ve been counting. The last time we had to take care of it was on the third.”
He shivered, more surprised than concerned. She was right, the last flare-up he’d had was indeed at the beginning of the month, when he’d been overtired and overstressed from an extremely long work day, having to train two new recruits, and a stupid argument with one of the co-op office assistants about a scheduling mix-up. Everything had just piled on one after another, and by that afternoon he’d had to retreat before it got worse. Annie had been there, and she’d followed him home to ensure he didn’t have any attacks on the way.
Still…three weeks? That couldn’t be right! “Wow…it’s never been that long.”
She nuzzled her face against the side of his and hummed happily. “It’s a good thing, kae. I like taking care of you.”
“You don’t need to do that,” he said, leaning into the nuzzle and taking her hand. “But I’m glad you do.”
“Neh!” she chirped, bouncing back with one of her wonderful beaming smiles. “Good! Because this calls for a celebration!”
“Annie, stop!” he laughed. “You do not need to go out of your way.”
But she was on a roll now, and he wasn’t about to stop her. He never would. “Anything good calls for a celebration, Cole, you know that! Your good health! My good health! Diwa and Kaffi being the two ridiculous lovebirds that they are!” She shivered with glee, letting her wings ripple in the air. “What’s not to celebrate?”
“You are so relentlessly optimistic!” he laughed, giving her a side hug. “Not that I ever complain about that, Annie. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been doing better.”
Anna-Nassi ruffled her wings again and stood up. “Hmm. Perhaps. Eiyah, we did put in a full day today, didn’t we?” She pushed herself up and stretched all six of her limbs, towering over him, and let out a long yawn. Once more, he was worried that perhaps he’d fed off her all this time and exhausted her own energy in the process. He said nothing about it this time, however, because he’d brought it up before and she’d immediately shut that argument down. He still felt the occasional pang of guilt whenever he had to feed, but forced himself to ignore it. He may be siphoning minute amounts of her energy, she said, but she always had a surplus of it that she never had an outlet for. She was more than happy to share. And she always repeated the same words: you never need to ask, kae.
When did she start calling him kae? He knew what it meant; it was a mandossi semi-romantic term of endearment. He had no problems with it, but he often wondered if she meant it in a friendly way or if she meant it seriously.
Most of the time he could read Anna-Nassi clearly; this was because she so often laid herself completely bare for everyone to see and sense, even more so than most mandossi which were the easiest beings for a hedraac to read. She never hid a thing from him. He couldn’t remember the last time she held secrets. She wanted to share it all with him. It helped him regulate his feeding, for one. But she truly did enjoy being with him. And he felt the same. He felt calmest around her. He looked forward to her company every day. They kept each other balanced.
Maybe she was being serious…?
“Your mind is running again,” she teased, elbowing him in the side.
“When is it not?” he smirked, elbowing her back. “Hey, I just remembered – it’s almost the end of the month, and I haven’t heard anything from Diwa or Kaffi about our monthly meeting. Have you?”
She shook her head. “No, not yet, but they’re probably distracted again. They’ve been all lovey-dovey distracted ever since that trip to the city! I’ll go prod them when we get home, slap some sense into them again. Eiyah, isn’t that Graymar…?” She lifted her chin in the direction of the large tintrite crossing the front parking lot towards the transport shelter, his gait slow and deliberate, perhaps overly so, like he was hiding something and hoping no one would notice. His wings seemed pulled much closer to his body than normal, and there was also a strip of white cloth wrapped around the knuckle bones of his right wing. He was purposely not bringing attention to himself, but nor was he paying much attention to those around him.
He held his energies so tightly it felt claustrophobic. That must not feel natural or comfortable at all.
“Yeah, that’s him,” he said, frowning. “He doesn’t look very happy to be here.”
“Hmm,” she said, her shoulders visibly drooping. “I don’t think it’s the location. It’s the method of transportation.”
Graymar stopped under the shade of the shelter, waiting for the next bus. He was stretching out his arms, but only his left wing. He’d pulled out a tablet and was tapping a message to someone, possibly Shahney or Samuel. Cole could feel his misery from a distance.
“Pain,” he said, wincing. “A lot more than he’s letting on.”
Anna-Nassi nodded, her wings faltering slightly.
Kaffi was understandably quiet during their monthly meeting, and Diwa didn’t push him. Samuel and Graymar’s bitter argument had affected both families. They’d made peace and come to a tentative agreement, but everyone was still on edge. Graymar had returned to Building C after the co-op run feeling angry and ashamed, and it pained Kaffi to watch his paddir suffer through that. Diwa still felt miserable as well; he hadn’t wanted to push his father, but it was a necessary point he’d had to make. He’d shut himself away for too long, and someone had to make him understand that he was not suffering alone.
Still, he and Kaffi had each other, and they had Annie and Cole, to stay in high spirits. This meeting wasn’t of that much importance, just an update of ongoing projects and a bit of estate gossip. Diwa had his notebook out, scribbling out all the updates so far: Cole’s report on the progress at the co-op farm, Anna-Nassi’s report on the tenants, Kaffi on the upkeep of the estate, and Diwa with the paperwork and accounting. The meeting proper lasted no more than twenty minutes, the rest of the hour turning into a chat circle between friends, talking about inconsequential things.
Diwa used this time to reconnect with them on a deeper level. They were all doing their own things, but he wanted to remind himself that they were still there, in his mind and in his heart as close friends and confidants. Anna-Nassi and Cole’s bond had grown as strong as his and Kaffi’s, in their own special way over the summer, much to his delight. Elise-Nooviya had been the instigator there, of all people – she’d not only assigned Annie to farm days coinciding with Cole’s shifts, but she’d also taken Cole on as the farm’s chief representative in the committee, just to make sure they spent as much time together as possible. And she’d also taken Diwa aside and explained her decision, wishing to clear it with him before making it official. That had been the surprise move; she’d come to him, not to Samuel.
He was already establishing himself at this estate, so soon after leaving school.
This year was going by so fast, he hoped he wouldn’t forget any of it.
“You’re in a pensive mood,” Kaffi said to him after the meeting had adjourned and the other two headed off for a stroll around the apple orchard. They’d sensed that he and Kaffi needed to have a conversation about their fathers, and had made themselves scarce.
“For obvious reasons,” he said. “Pop is doing alright…but he’s still moping. At least he’s not hiding in the office anymore. Ina’s doing what she can to lift him up when he needs it.”
“How is Graymar?”
Kaffi huffed a breath through his nostrils and ruffled his wings slightly. “The best he can,” he said, measuring his irritability. “Given the situation. He’s doing short, low-impact flights to keep himself in shape, but he takes the light rail when he needs to go long distances. He hasn’t flown with Samuel for two weeks now.”
Diwa frowned. “It must bother him. It really bothers Pop, too.”
“It does,” he said, touching him on the arm, giving it a soft squeeze. “He keeps it quiet. He always does. He won’t show it. He’ll shuffle through the nest, grumbling and snapping at everyone until Shahley or Iliah chases him away to get him outside. He’ll bark at me if I push him too hard to open up.” After a moment, his own scowl faded, and he let his wings flutter just a tiny bit. “But…on the plus side, he’ll still go up to the roof and spend time up there. A lot of time. He’ll even sit down here, if the weather is good. And at least once a day he’ll fly over to Palm and join Samuel on the roof and have a few beers.”
Diwa smirked. “I’ll be honest, I’m glad our fathers are at least taking their semi-retirement seriously.”
Kaffi snorted, tapping a happy talon against the table. “Indeed! They’re still spending all their time together, and that helps.”
Diwa hummed in agreement. “Samuel spends time with the family as often as he spends time with Gray now,” he said. “He still forgets to tell us things now and again, and he still closes up when things get bad, but I think that will change. We’re glad that he’s making the effort. It took him a while to get used to the fact that I’m carrying part of his burden of being co-landlord now.” Thinking back on those first few days made him laugh; it certainly wasn’t an easy transition, not when he wanted to do everything from the get-go and his father was so reticent to accelerate any of the training! “He had all this extra time on his hands and nothing to do at first, and no office stacks to hide behind. I had to find errands for him until he got the hint!”
Kaffi smiled. “Same here,” he said. “I don’t mind if they lighten up on their job, we can certainly take care of it. I just want them to spend more time together.”
“So do I,” Diwa said. “They’ve more than earned it, yeah? I have no issues with doing all the work on an unofficial level right now.”
“Hmm. And if we can talk them into doing the Panooria run…”
“Yeah…” he winced. “That still seems a tender subject. I mean, I get it, but if we’re available for it, send us along, right? I just…” He glanced over Kaffi’s shoulder at Palm Building just beyond, half expecting Samuel to be there on the balcony, but he was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he was up on the roof with Graymar, just out of view? He sighed once more and turned back to Kaffi. “Eh…I just want to float the idea their way, but it just never seems like a good time. And by the time I think about it, one of them has already signed up your uncle or someone else.”
Kaffi’s wings rippled slightly as he tapped his talons on the table in thought. “Let’s bring it up at the start of next month, then,” he said. “Both of us. Seems clear to me that it just hasn’t occurred to them. Maybe they’re still seeing us as landlords-in-training.”
“Hmm, could be.”
“Well,” he huffed, and pushed himself up. “No use talking and not doing, as our paddir would say, yeah? Come on – it’s almost time for the committee meeting, and I need a snack before it starts.”
Diwa stood up and stretched his back. “Good idea. Mari’s supposed to be starting her internship with them tonight, by the way. I’m sure she’ll be happy to see us.”
Kaffi hummed in agreement as he gathered his things, and together they made their way to the community center. They saw a number of tenancy committee members already at the door, deep in conversations or waving to their neighbors. This was not supposed to be an important meeting as far as he knew, and this seemed like a slightly larger audience than usual, but he didn’t question it. He was happy enough to be surrounded by them right now, knowing they were there and connecting with each other.