Ian lifted me to the kitchen island, and I leaned against his hand as Eliza took Juni and Charsi in turn to stand next to us. I could see the apprehension in Juni’s face as he stood in the metaphorical shadow of the ten-year old ka. Charsi likewise clung tight to her brother’s arm for courage and support.
“How does everyone like watermelon?” Catherine asked, standing opposite the counter from us.
I nodded. Remaining silent, the kids did too.
“Jun, Sisi,” Eliza said, leaning against the counter. “Ian’s going to take good care of you while I’m gone this week. He has school, but when he’s home, he’ll get you everything you need. I know I’m the only Iatvi you’ve known, but I promise you, Ian is the greatest ka in the world, and the best babysitter you’ll ever have.”
Ian bent down low, his eyes level to Juni’s, peering over his fingers.
“I hope we can be friends.”
I gave him a small smile, despite the depression growing in me. He had the same glint in his eye that he had the first day he knew me.
“Baby… sitter?” Charsi asked, her eyes nervously looking up to Eliza. “I’m not a baby.”
“Me neither,” Juni said.
“That’s what I said,” I replied. “He may be the Iatvi in charge, but it’s more like we’re babysitting him.”
“Hey, that’s not fair,” Ian said, his chin rising to the surface. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Ian, I’m teasing. You don’t have to worry about this katol. He takes care of me, and that’s saying some- ouch… Ian, can you… help me sit?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah,” he said. I leaned on his thumb until I descended and sat on my bottom; my legs were still shaking from my encounter with Xande, and they were in no mood to be stood upon.
“Eliza told us you can’t walk very well.”
I looked at Charsi.
“I haven’t had much strength in my legs since I was very young. Aria has cared for me, and Ian’s been a great help to me since I came here.”
“I accidentally hurt Lenn…” Ian said. “But I’ve learned a lot about being careful.”
“Yup,” I agreed. “You’ll like this kid. He’s loud and goofy, but he’s very kind.”
“I’m not goofy,” Ian argued. When he saw the kids’ reaction to his volume as he stood above them, he then put a hand to his mouth. “Oh. Uh… I am loud, though.”
“And you’ve got dirt on your face, just like Eliza,” Juni said, pointing to the bridge of his own nose.
Ian tried to rub off the ‘dirt’, but Eliza poked his cheek.
“He means your freckles.”
“Oh. Yup. Iatili don’t have freckles?”
“Nuh-uh,” Juni said, and Charsi shook her head along with him.
“Doesn’t sound like it,” Eliza said.
“Really? I could have sworn some of the kids at my village had freckles… Maybe it really was dirt.”
“But look at Charsi,” Eliza said, pointing to the little girl. “Black hair, thinner eyes. Doesn’t she look a little Asian to you? Isn’t that interesting?”
Ian bent down low and examined her. Of course, he did so a little too closely. Charsi made a soft squeak and covered her face with her hands, leaning into Juni’s arm.
“Sorry, I’m sorry!” Ian said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Ian,” Juni said, waving at him. “Kemas.”
“Uh, come here.”
Ian bent his head down.
“No, sadi,” Juni said.
“English please, Juni,” Eliza said.
“Sorry… Um, Ian, closer.”
“Oh, uh… like this?”
Ian hovered within an arm’s length away from the very brave Iatili. Ian’s eyes crossed. Juni’s hand gently slid across the point of Ian’s nose. He next dared to touch the edge of Ian’s upper lip. This made the Iatvi boy quietly giggle, and in a flash, his tongue emerged; Juni recoiled away with a quick yelp. Undeterred, Juni’s concerned face turned to amusement as his fingers grabbed a handful of hair that fell over the ka’s eyes.
“Bodliel Charsi?” Juni said, nudging her from her frightened position. “He’s got dark hair like you. And really straight, not like Eliza’s.”
Charsi opened her eyes just long enough to see very large and bright blue-green Iatvi eyes within close proximity. She made another squeaking noise and hid back into Juni’s shoulder. Juni released Ian’s hair before Ian could complain.
“And look,” Eliza said, bending down and pointing to the very corner of Ian’s mouth. “He’s got a little dimple that shows up whenever he smiles. Just like you, Charsi.”
“I do not,” Ian said, unable to maintain a grumpy complexion. Just beside his toothy grin was a small imprint that bent downwards along the crease of his muscles. I hadn’t really noticed before.
“I see it,” Juni said, pointing.
Ian rose up and let out a puff of air, which made both Iatili kids react.
“Why is everybody looking at me?” he asked. “Go look at Lenn.”
“I look like any other Iatili,” I said, spreading out my legs, my mood darker than I intended. “And I’m as threatening as a wet rag. You’re the thing they haven’t seen before.”
“Yeah,” Juni said. “I’ve never met a ka Iatvi before. You’re ten?”
“I’ll be eleven on December 7th.”
Juni pouted his lips and parted his curled blonde hair from his eyes.
“I’m twelve. I think. I don’t know mine.”
“We’ve celebrated Juni and Charsi’s birthdays together in March, the same month I found them. I figured it was as good a time as any.”
“Here you go, Eliza,” Catherine said, turning from the far counter. “Here’s a few plates.”
Juni and Charsi took a seat, and the delicious fruit pieces were divided amongst us all. I wanted to talk to Eliza and the two kids, but… with everything that just occurred (not to mention the pulsing pain in my nose), I couldn’t bring myself to be pleasant and social. In all honesty, I wanted to go back into the dark corner between the bed and the bedside table, curl up, and sleep until all pain went away. Ian noticed my sudden silence, and rubbed my back with two fingers without any words.
Eating the watermelon was a bit difficult. While Catherine cut them up nice and small, I still dripped melon water all down my arms. It seemed Juni and Charsi were having similar difficulties. Seeing this, Catherine quickly grabbed the paper towels and handed them out.
“I’m still learning how to feed my little friends,” Catherine said to Eliza. “Have you figured out how to do it without making a mess?”
“Would you believe you can find silverware online that is small enough for them to use? I packed them into their bags. They’re adorable.”
“Wendalem,” Charsi said.
“Oh, good. I did.” Eliza leaned against the counter. “I’ve even been able to find furniture and beds they use for dollhouses. They come in all shapes and sizes, and they’re pretty cheap unless you want something really fancy looking. Charsi and I even made little bean bags that they use as chairs.”
“Oh, that sounds fun!” Catherine said. Juni and Charsi looked up at Catherine and nodded, both of them chewing.
“Unfortunately, no one makes clothing for Iatili. I’ve looked into custom clothing for dolls, but doll proportions are all wrong. That’s where I’m hoping you can help.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Catherine said with a wink.
“Hey kids, you’ll actually get to eat homecooked meals.” Eliza smiled at Catherine. “You know me, I’m terrible when it comes to cooking.”
“Nuh-uh, ‘Liza,” said Charsi quietly. “We eat really good food.”
“Right,” Eliza brushed the Iatili girl’s hair with her finger and thumb. “That’s because all we have at home is sugar cereal and cheese sticks.”
“And chicken,” Juni said. “Chicken… nuggles… nugglets? Is that how you say it?”
Ian nearly choked on the watermelon in his mouth.
“Chicken nugglets!” he finally swallowed. “I’m calling them that from now on.”
Juni laughed despite himself.
“Well, they’re not too different from regular kids, are they?” Catherine laughed.
“No they are not,” Eliza said, admiring them with her head resting on her arm.
“Okay, they should have everything they need,” Eliza said, bringing a pair of Iatili-sized plastic bags from the outside. “They’ve got a change of clothing, blankets, pillows, and what-not. They’re pretty independent, at least in my apartment. As long as they have the basics, they should be just fine. Especially with Ian and Lenn to watch after them.”
“We’ll take good care of them,” Catherine said.
“Um…” Ian said, pointing down at Juni and Charsi on the kitchen island. “How will they… uh… go to the bathroom?”
“Same way I do,” I said. “Except for bathing. They can probably do what I can’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just leave the bathroom sink on for them,” Eliza said. “Leave the stopper in so they don’t fall down the drain.”
“Olem, Eliza,” Juni moaned. “I’m not kani.”
“And I’m not kalni,” said Charsi.
“Eliza.” She looked my way, her smile fading only a touch as I spoke. “Did… Xande say anything when you went out there?”
“Other than him complaining that he’d die of heat stroke? No, he didn’t. He’s still fuming. I think the next conversation you’ll have with him will be over the phone. He can’t stab you that way.”
“I don’t know what I can say to make him change his mind about me. But whenever he wants to talk, tell him… I’ll be around. I’m not apologizing for anything, but he deserves to know what he’s missed since he left.”
“I’ll tell him that.”
Eliza sighed, returning her gaze down to ‘her’ kids.
“You two cool? Ready for a fun vacation?”
Their reactions were less than excitable. Juni looked up at Ian. Charsi only had eyes for Eliza. Her hands lifted upwards.
“I don’t want you to go…” she whispered, her voice breaking near tears.
Eliza reached out her hand, and Charsi embraced two of her fingers.
“Hey, you have nothing to worry about, kalnisi,” Eliza said. She bent down and gently kissed the top of the little girl’s head. My own head tilted and I couldn’t help but marvel: I had never expected to see any relationship like this in my life. “If all these big mean boys drive you crazy, then you can always hang out with Aunt Catherine. She’ll protect you just like I do.”
“That’s right, honey,” Catherine said, leaning across the counter and catching Charsi’s attention. “Do you like to draw? I have colored pencils and paint, or I’m sure I can find some fun books for you to read.”
Charsi turned to look up at Catherine, but her expression didn’t seem to change. Then Catherine gasped.
“Juni, Charsi, I’m going to make you some brand-new clothes. I’ll measure you from head to toe, and you can pick out your favorite colors to wear. How does that sound? And Charsi, maybe you would like to help me sew? We can make pretty little designs, whatever you would like.”
Both Iatili perked up.
“Clothes that will fit me?” Juni asked. “Really?”
“Yessir!” Catherine said with a laugh.
Charsi showed a little encouragement.
“Can I have a dress?” she whispered.
A tender expression appeared on Catherine’s face, one I hadn’t seen before. And there was little wonder I hadn’t, considering my own mother never shared it with me: the gentle smile of a mother prepared to say all the right things. I’ve seen it on your face a few times since, haven’t I?
Catherine reached for Charsi’s hand.
“Yes, you beautiful princess, we can absolutely make you a dress. Would you like to help me? Let’s make it together.”
Charsi’s eyes looked to Catherine, then back at Eliza.
“Go on, Sisi,” Eliza said. “Go have some fun. We can always talk on the phone whenever you want, okay?”
After a single moment of hesitation, Charsi released Eliza’s fingers and took Catherine’s with her hand.
“Hey Juni,” Ian said. “Want to come hang out with Lenn and me?”
Juni looked right up at Ian and nodded.
“You have games? I play games on Eliza’s phone, but they get boring. I want to see yours.”
“All right, you two,” Eliza said, her hands upon the counter. “It looks like you’re ready. I’m so excited for you guys! I know you’ll love it here. It will be much better than staying in a dark apartment for a week. Right?”
“Sia,” Juni said.
Charsi nodded but didn’t say a word.
“Okay,” Eliza said. She took the plastic bags, examined them for a moment, and then handed one to both Ian and Catherine. “This is for Juni, this is Sisi’s. And I think you’re all set.”
Catherine kindly offered to clean my shirt for me, and I accepted and removed it before asking Ian if he could take me back into the guest room to sleep. I’m sure he expected me to remain with him and Juni, but I wouldn’t have been very fun to be around at that moment. With my heartbeat still sounding out loud beneath my bruised nose, I quickly fell asleep under my cozy blankets and dreamed of you.
You might think this funny. But when we were kids, I never saw you as a “girl” exactly. In fact, I didn’t quite know what I thought. You were the only one our age brave enough to speak to me, and when you did, the taunting of the other kids didn’t deter you. If I were a different ka, I would have thought it was my good looks and quick wit that won you over. But I don’t think I had either of those things. If I were more pessimistic, I would wonder if I were just a curiosity… or a charity case. But you stayed. And together we became outcasts.
You had the choice. And you chose me. Not all at once, of course, we fought all the time. But you chose me, and I didn’t understand for years why. I only accepted it, and didn’t question it. Not out loud. Not because I didn’t want it, but because if I asked why I deserved your friendship, it might have gone away. When I finally saw you as a ‘woman’, I became even more afraid of finding the answer. You lost Xande, and you clung to me all the tighter. Yet I became distant without intending to. My family died, the village began to wither, the elder’s distrust for me intensified…
And it all came to that singular moment, sitting in the empty classroom, surrounded by scraps of torn papers, words, images, maps, and manuals we would never really comprehend on our own.
I finally asked you why. Do you remember what you said to me?
“Because you were worth the trouble,” you said.
We both laughed and our conversation carried on, but your answer mystified me. It wasn’t enough.
“I am here for you,” I told you. “And I am here because of you. But why me? Why did you pick me?”
I didn’t need to voice these doubts. They’d existed since our relationship began. But I needed to know. I needed something to lock into place, some logical or even physical reason for why you stayed with me. Why you endured the years of my pain with me. Why you endured years of your own.
We had never said it out loud before. We had never dared to, even in the dark during the rain. Even when we held each other close, hoping no one would care to find us.
“You’re part of me,” I said, with your hands grasping mine.
Before I could stop myself, the words emerged from me.
I love you.
My life hovered across a chasm, bound with no line that could save me but one. Before I could fall-
“Se ondia,” you called back to me as if we’d tripped over the same stone in the trail, your voice dancing across the words, ungainly as I did. You laughed, I laughed with you. And that night, I offered you everything I was, perhaps everything I’ll ever be.
I awoke in the Petersen home after that dream with tears in my eyes. I sat up and stared at my hands, yearning for you, willing you into existence just beyond that great white door beside the bed. Then I could tell you, again and again, se ondia, se ondia, without hesitation and without fear.
Strangely, when reality dawned upon me that the likelihood of you standing inside the Petersen’s home was infinitesimal, I felt no pain. Alone, I had no chance to find you. But Xande lived. He had found a family. And so did I, one I wanted you to be part of. If pure circumstance could reconnect Xande and I (my face to his fist, specifically), I could find you.
I could have called it stress-induced delirium if I wanted to. But waking from that dream, seeing my whole world again in my mind as plainly as if I had been there before you… Nothing held me down. Tears streamed down my face, but I didn’t cry. I laughed. I laughed like a child, taking the crutches that James had crafted for me and crawling off the side of the bed. Although I still felt pain from resting my entire weight under my arms, I lunged across the carpet and out the crack in the door, still laughing; I was almost dancing. Ian and Juni were in the kitchen when I emerged, and Ian said something in a panic, I didn’t hear him over myself. He raced around the kitchen island and dove towards me, and my crutches flew away as I collapsed into his hands.
“Lenn, you’re scaring me! Why are you laughing?”
I couldn’t stop. I wish you could have seen me. Or, maybe I don’t: you might have thought something in my mind snapped like a dry twig. When I finally found enough breath in me to speak, I could only form snippets of words.
“Lenn, keep it together!” Ian insisted, trying to be serious and composed. But I looked up at him, and saw that dimple. “What’s so funny?”
“I… I love her, Ian!” I screamed at the top of my stone-washboard voice. I think I even pounded my pathetic fists against the palms of the boy’s hands, not out of anger, but out of enthusiasm. “Damn it, I love her! I don’t care about anything else, I love her!”
“Who… Aria?” Ian asked with a clueless gasp, lifting me off of the ground. “You’re talking about Aria?”
“Of course I am, Ian!” I cried in pure joy. “And I’m going to find her!”
Ian’s smirk was unmistakable, sure as if I’d been a three-year old who thought they said something incredibly profound.
“What, by yourself?”
Life slapped me across the face.
“Well, uh…” I stumbled, wiping the tears away with the back of my hand. I swallowed, finally noticing that my airway did not appreciate my energy. “If… um… if you help me.”
Ian laughed out loud, and, taking me with a single hand, messed with my hair.
“You are the weirdest person I know,” he told me. “What’s gotten into you?”
“I don’t know, I…” I gasped. “I had a dream, and I… I saw her… I don’t care about Xande, I don’t care about my legs, I don’t care about this whole umovre da-th-this whole world! I’m going to find her, Ian! You’ll help me, won’t you?”
“Lenn, Lenn,” Ian said, sitting on the ground and placing me in his lap. “Calm down! I’m going to help you, I already said so! Are you okay? Xande didn’t damage your brain when he hit you, did he?”
I laughed, hard enough to hurt my throat again.
“Yes! I mean, no, no, I’m fine, kani, I’m… I mean, maybe he did hit me hard enough to… Ahh! I want you to meet her, Ian. I want you all to meet her. And I know you will. I know it now!”
“You had a dream about this?”
“It was… sort of, it was just… it was so real, like I was holding her close to me again…”
I wiped my eyes, and I saw Ian beaming at me.
“You sure you didn’t see a pillar of fire first?”
“No, I don’t think I did… but… but it was so real, I remembered everything…”
“Lenn?” said a small voice from atop the kitchen island. Ian and I looked and saw Juni on his hands and knees looking over the side. He then asked, quite innocently, “Have you gone crazy?”
Ian and I both laughed.
“He might have!”
“I hope not…” I said, patting the back of Ian’s hand. “I hope not…”
As a teacher and as a child myself, I’d seen children both shy and confident, disobedient or eager, cooperative or just plain mean. Ian had been correct about himself… Ian was surprisingly shy when it came to making a new friend. I watched Ian and Juni getting to know each other, talking with each other, making awkward jokes, and stumbling over Iatnasi and English. While Ian’s self-confidence level landed on the low end, there didn’t seem to be an end to Juni’s.
Ian seemed nervous to touch Juni; with his strength and dexterity, Juni didn’t appear to need much assistance. But when something was apparently beyond Juni’s reach, Ian didn’t quite know how to help. He acted just like Aaron, in fact. Did he dare make himself overbearing by doing everything for the Iatili boy, or did he leave Juni to his own abilities? With me, he had no such hang-ups since the help was obviously needed. Even though I could now amble across flat surfaces with my excellent crutches, I continued to struggle climbing.
Juni didn’t seem to notice Ian’s nervousness at all. Being older and very capable, the boldness he demonstrated immediately out of Eliza’s backpack only grew as he became accustomed to his new surroundings. Having been unconscious for the first two hours of their friendship, I saw a step ahead: Ian’s excitement at his new friend grew even as his hesitation did, and for Juni, this new world was thrilling.
As the afternoon sun streamed a sliver of light through the shades, Ian walked into his room, followed by Juni and I behind him. The Iatvi boy produced his phone from his pocket and collapsed front-first upon his bed. Juni raced ahead of me. Just like watching a squirrel race up an oak tree, Juni clambered up the side of Ian’s bed and, to my surprise, copied what I’d done the night before: he jumped right onto Ian’s back, walked up to Ian’s right shoulder, and stretched out on his stomach to see the screen in Ian’s hands.
“What are you going to watch?” Juni asked, steadying himself on Ian’s shoulder by grasping the Iatvi boy’s collar.
“Not sure,” Ian replied with a slight laugh, the insecurity of having the older boy so close painfully obvious on his face. “Lenn, you remember that paper I have to write for Monday? Do you know anything about history?”
I leaned on my right crutch and thought for a moment.
“I’m not sure I do,” I answered. “I’ve read news from magazines, but nothing that goes back very far. What kind of history?”
“Um, it’s called…”
From my perspective, I couldn’t see what else was on the bed. But Ian pointed at something and appeared to survey its contents.
“Nineteenth-century westward expansion of the United States.”
“Yul, eh… No, sorry. Are we in the west? I know this place is called ‘Color-aydo’, but I didn’t think it was particularly… west.”
“Yeah,” Ian said. “Sort of. A lot more west than New York. Or Washington D.C.”
“I don’t know where those are.”
“They’re east, next to the Atlantic Ocean.”
“Is that ocean close to the Mediterranean?”
Ian laughed, his eyes remaining on his phone as he typed something. But then he paused.
“You know, I think they’re connected. But it’s practically on the other side of the world.”
Ian looked at me.
“What does ‘yda’ mean?”
I pursed my lips.
“Have I never said that before? Huh. It means… ‘nice’? But not ‘friendly’ nice, just something that’s interesting. Or ‘oh, that’s nice’.”
“Could I say… vah yda?”
“You definitely could,” I said with a grin.
“There’s an ocean in the way to the other side of the world?” Juni asked, grabbing Ian’s hair to stay steady.
“Uh-huh,” Ian nodded, not seeming to notice. “Both east and west. There’s the Atlantic to the east, and the Pacific to the west.”
“Is Pacific by… what’s it called… Canifornia? That’s as west as you can go without a boat?”
“California,” Ian said, correcting Juni. “And yeah. Or a plane.”
“Oh. Eliza’s gone on a plane. Not me.” Juni said next. “Hmm. How does a big metal plane fly?”
“A big plane like that needs big jet engines to make it get off the ground,” Ian said.
“What’s a jet engine?” Juni asked.
“If it’s an engine that makes an airplane fly,” I said, crutching towards Ian’s bed. “Then I imagine it’s something gigantic and loud. Any chance you can help me up, Ian?”
“Uhh…” Ian dropped his phone and peered over at Juni. Before Juni could notice, Ian reached over and wrapped his hand around Juni’s middle, peeling him off and flipping him upside down.
“Ah!” Juni cried. “P-Put me down! Ow, rotis! Hurt!”
“Oh, sorry!” Ian replied, surprised at the Iatili’s negative reaction. He quickly placed the boy upon his back. I placed my crutches down on the floor just as Ian took me by my waist and hauled me up.
“Oof,” I grunted as he lifted me, fighting to breathe.
Juni struggled to his feet as I landed on mine.
“I’m sorry! Are you guys okay?”
“I’m fine, don’t worry. Do you have something I can write with? I’ll keep notes for you while you study.”
“Yeah,” Ian said, lifting himself from the bed.
I looked over at Juni; he seemed a bit rattled.
“Vah sulm, Juni?”
His eyes were wide.
Yes, just a little…
“Neh vah travo. Vah desni atai, vah dranir erdi.”
Juni looked upwards, his face painted in fear. I turned around, and Ian was looking down at us with hurt in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, kneeling down in front of us. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“You’re all right,” I said, no longer able to confidently stand on my legs. I sat down on the very edge. “I just told Juni that you’re learning how to help us. I’m comfortable enough when you hold me, but I don’t think Juni’s quite used to it. I think you surprised him.”
I turned to look at Juni. He nearly looked ready to flee.
“I didn’t hurt you bad, did I?” Ian asked with sorrow, lifting his hand palm-upwards and offering it to the Iatili boy. Juni took a step backwards as the curled fingers approached.
“It’s okay, Juni. Just tell Ian what you want.”
Juni’s mouth hung open for a moment.
“Please… please don’t do that again,” Juni whispered, resisting Ian’s outstretched hand. “Neh media lai vanir odane…”
Before Ian could ask, I translated: “Juni says he doesn’t like to be scared.”
“Oh. Me neither,” Ian said with a nod. “I’ll ask you from now on, I promise. I won’t do it again without permission.”
“Can you still be friends, Juni?”
Juni’s gaze went from me to Ian’s face and finally to the hand before him. Although no doubt still unnerved, he reached his own hand forwards and touched the tip of Ian’s forefinger. Ian held it with his thumb.
“Sia,” Juni said with only a bit of a pause. “Friends.”
As large as I could write, I kept detailed notes as Ian dug through information for the subject of his paper. I didn’t say so, but the kind of history he shared seemed very complex for a boy his age to write a report on. Of all the things I did not expect, however, was Juni: instead of remaining distant and withdrawn after his brief but harrowing experience, he actually turned back into his rather confident self. Keeping notes and watching Juni at the same time was difficult but rather entertaining, especially as I watched Juni walking to and fro. I wanted to shout at him to return and sit still as the Iatili boy came close to Ian’s legs. But I didn’t want to alert Ian.
Ian didn’t notice at all. He continued studying, and I struggled to listen.
The ivory legs occasionally bent and bobbed up and down, but Juni showed little hesitation. He finally stopped at the level of Ian’s socked feet. When it appeared that Ian would slow down and stop moving, Juni dared something I would never have: he gently touched the Iatvi’s heel with a finger. He actually did this several times.
Ian didn’t notice at all. He continued reading.
I had to stifle a laugh. I looked up at Ian, and, for a split second, the boy looked at me. I tried not to show any emotion other than studious. Ian returned to face his phone.
Juni then returned, playfully drifting his hand just a few inches away as if to steady himself against the human. When a few seconds passed and Juni finally returned to Ian’s shoulder, he performed something that would have been difficult for me to manage: he bent down to a crawl and wedged himself beneath Ian’s underarm, emerging beneath Ian’s chin. This the Iatvi boy did notice, and paused just long enough to acknowledge the strange Iatili with a nervous laugh before continuing to scroll through his studies. Juni, taking a seat within Ian’s arms with a huge grin on his face, looked at me. With one hand, he plugged his nose, and with the other, he pretended to wave the smelly air away.
I laughed. Too hard. Ian stopped reading and looked down at me.
“…what?” he asked. “Did I say something wrong?”
Juni’s face turned to horror.
“No, everything makes sense,” I replied. “Just, eh… slow down a little bit so I can get everything, okay?”
“Sure,” he said, and continued.
Juni wasn’t done. He crawled back under Ian’s underarm, and when he emerged, wore a very pained expression on his face. He stuck his tongue out; gross, and pretended to throw up.
I couldn’t hold it in. I made a sound that resembled someone sneezing.
Ian looked up, looked at me, and turned to look at Juni. Juni froze.
“What? What did I do?” Ian asked. He then frowned. “You’re making fun of me.”
“Not me,” I told him. “But I think Juni has something to tell you.”
The iatili’s eyes grew wide.
“Uh… No, no…” Juni whispered. “No I don’t.”
Ian’s gaze jumped from me to Juni to me again.
“Remember what I like to complain about, maitoka?” I asked.
Juni “sneezed” like I did.
“Maito… what does…?” Ian paused. He then angled his nose downwards. “…oh.”
“Ian vah maitoka, des aeria lai ilirka.”
“You think so?” I asked him. “English, please.”
“Um…” Juni said, with a sincere cough this time. “Ian is… smelly, but I like him.”
“Really?” Ian asked. He put his phone down. “I like you too. But I bet you smell worse than me because you’re a teenager.”
“Olem…!” Juni said, unable to resist smelling under his own arms. “A little. You have a… a bigger smell.”
I expected Ian to argue, but he pursed his lips.
“Well, don’t get so close, silly,” he laughed.
“When Charsi’s done, she’ll probably hang out with us for a while,” I told Ian. “How about you go take a shower and we’ll finish taking notes tonight.”
“How much do you have now?”
“Um… two pages. Front and back. Can you read my writing?”
Ian looked over them one after another, flipping them around.
“Yeah,” he said finally. “Yeah, these are awesome. You’re the best little teacher ever.”
“Best little note-taker, you mean,” When Ian nodded, I waved him on. “All right, maitoka, go wash up. Let’s make a good impression for Charsi.”
By the time Ian had finished bathing, Catherine returned and announced it was Juni’s turn for measuring. The exchange was done over the kitchen island; Juni’s excitement matched Charsi’s fear of the giant boy and the strange cripple before her. I hobbled over to her and reached for her hand; she took it.
“Val sulm, Charsi,” I said to her. “Ian vah sulmka, vah dani lai kal bodlir.”
It’s okay, Charsi. Ian is a good boy, he’s happy to see you.
Charsi regarded me for a moment before looking upwards. Upon Ian’s face was a soft smile. In the very least, his clean and damp-tossed hair and fresh clothes made him much more presentable to a little lady.
“You boys take care of our princess,” Catherine said, taking Juni in her arms.
“We will,” Ian and I said at the same time, tossing a glance at each other.
“Do you like cartoons, Charsi?” Catherine asked. “Ian has a television in his room.”
“They’re pretty funny,” I added, patting her hand. “But you probably know better than me anyway.”
Still looking at Ian, Charsi nodded.
Ian took Charsi in his hands first and carefully lowered her to the ground. He then took me with a little less finesse, but I was used to it by then; I grabbed my crutches that lay upon the ground and hopped towards the young girl. I noticed her frightful eyes were not up towards the pinnacle of Ian’s head, but at his bare toes not more than a few inches away.
“Come on, Charsi,” Ian said, leaning himself on his knees. “My room is this way.”
As he stepped towards the hallway with the thud of footsteps, Charsi retreated backwards towards me.
“Don’t worry, Charsi, Ian can be a little quick, but he’s very attentive. If he does something that makes you nervous, just let him know, okay?”
Charsi looked at me as if wanting protection, but my crutches impeded any. So I took the lead, and made sure she followed after.
Even worse than with Juni, Ian had no idea what to do with Charsi. When Ian turned on the television and set it to the proper channel, he nearly forgot to lift us up onto the chair in the middle of the bedroom. Then, after we were all set up and seated, he flopped down on his bed (making Charsi jump) and didn’t say more than a few words to us. It didn’t help that although Charsi looked backwards towards the Iatvi every few seconds, Ian engrossed himself on his silly phone and didn’t pay much attention.
We watched the television in silence for more than a few minutes, and even though I laughed at a few parts of the cartoon, Charsi remained stoic. She did not enjoy her surroundings at all. When an advertisement came on, I cleared my throat.
“Will you like your new clothes?” I asked her in Iatnasi. “Catherine does great work.”
“I’m excited,” she said in a decidedly less-than-excited tone. “Eliza tries to make me clothes, but they don’t fit well. It’s not comfortable.”
“I’ll bet it isn’t,” I said. “Though I’m sure Eliza does her best. She seems like a very special person to you.”
“I love her. If Eliza and Xande hadn’t taken care of me, I would have gotten very sick and the same thing that happened to my parents would have happened to me.”
I nodded and fell silent for just a moment.
“I’m sorry. My parents and my little brother and sister died from sickness too.”
“Do you miss them?” Charsi asked.
“Sometimes. But I found a new family, just like you did. Now all I need to do is…”
I looked at Charsi and nodded.
“You’ll love her when you meet her,” I said, the hope my dream gave me still brightening my thoughts. “She is so patient and kind, I don’t deserve someone like her.”
“But you’re patient and kind too, aren’t you?” Charsi folded her hands in her lap. “I wish you and Xande were friends. He’s kept Juni and I safe for a long time. I love him, too.”
I offered her a smile.
“It’s… complicated. But I wish we were. Aria and Xande could both live with us, and we could protect her the way Xande protects you.”
“And your baby.”
I nodded, looking at the television without watching it.
“I… I can’t believe I’ll be a father. My own father wasn’t the best example for me. Far from it. But it’s my job to make Aria and the baby safe and comfortable. And I can’t think of any better place to do that than here.”
“You’re not afraid of Iatvi?”
“I am. And I was, when Ian and his cousins saved me. I thought Ian would lock me in a backpack like Eliza did to Xande. But he took me to his dad instead. You’ll meet James, he’s a very talented doctor and very friendly. He made sure I survived and healed. I owe the Petersens my life.”
“Is that why you wear bandages?”
“I was floating down a river when I hit something very sharp. It sliced my throat and I couldn’t speak for a while.”
Charsi cringed, clutching her own neck.
“Ow…” she whispered. “That sounds like it hurt.”
“It did. It still does.”
“Iatvi scare me,” Charsi admitted. “Um…”
She turned her head to see if Ian was listening. He wasn’t. In fact, he had laid his head down and seemed to be falling asleep.
“Ian scares me.”
“But you’re not afraid of Eliza?”
“I used to be. For a long time.”
“It’s just like I told you,” I said. “All you have to do is tell Ian what you want. He’s a very good listener. He has a great responsibility on his shoulders, after all.”
Charsi tilted her head.
“It’s the same responsibility Eliza has. Not only does Ian have to learn how to treat us with respect, he has to keep us a secret from almost everyone he knows to keep us safe. Including a lot of his family. Sound familiar?”
Charsi remained quiet.
“It’s worse for Ian, though. He has no Iatvi friends to rely on. So if he were to hurt us or mistreat us, he thinks we would stop being his friend, and he would be completely alone.”
“But that’s sad,” Charsi said. “You wouldn’t stop being his friend, would you?”
“Nope. But it’s been difficult to convince him. He hurt me very badly the first week I was here, and he still has nightmares about it.”
Charsi parted the black hair from her eyes and thought.
“If he were Iatili, I would be friends with him.”
“What’s stopping you from being his friend now?”
Charsi looked back at Ian laying upon his bed.
“…he’s not Eliza.”
“But Catherine is like Eliza, right?”
“You sure it’s not because he’s a boy?”
Charsi looked up at me with a scowl.
“No! I’m not scared of boys!”
“Well, guess what?” I said, leaning backwards. “I think Ian is scared of you because you’re a girl.”
“What? But why?”
“You’ll learn this about boys real quick,” I said with a laugh. “They get spooked easy, especially by girls. You should have seen me around Aria when we were teenagers. She’d been my friend for years. But one day I didn’t see her as just a friend, I suddenly saw her as a girl. A very pretty girl, too. I started saying really stupid things around her, and she thought I’d gone crazy.”
Charsi’s eyes were wide.
“Ian didn’t say anything stupid.”
“That’s because he didn’t say anything at all,” I said. I pointed over at him. “Notice how he ignored us when the cartoon came on? It’s not because he doesn’t like you, it’s because he’s too nervous to speak to you.”
Charsi frowned again. She looked over her shoulder to look at Ian, then looked back down at her lap.
“But that’s strange. Why would an Iatvi be scared of me?”
“Let’s go find out.”
Charsi’s head spun at me in horror.
“What? No no… he’s… he’s sleeping, I don’t want to wake him.”
“Come on, Charsi,” I said, scooting myself towards the corner of the chair. I held out my hand to her. “I’ve woken Ian up many times, he’s never angry.”
Charsi didn’t speak, holding back.
“Ian wants to be your friend,” I said. “He just needs a little help. Come talk to him. And don’t be afraid, I’ll be with you the whole time.”
Charsi took one last look at the Iatvi boy behind her before reluctantly taking my hand.
I descended to the floor with much more success than a few months prior and discovered that much like her brother, Charsi was an excellent climber. I left my crutches on the floor and chose to limp to Ian’s bedside, taking hold of Charsi’s hand to ease her fears. When we climbed to the surface of his bed (Charsi after me), we both approached Ian; his face was turned towards the wall. Fortunately, his arm was hanging over the edge instead of guarding his head, so we had no obstruction before us. Charsi understandably stood at a distance while I approached the great hairy crown.
“Hey, sleepy,” I said, reaching my hand out into the tangled bundle of hair. Smooth and washed, I brushed it side-to-side to get the boy’s attention. “You awake?”
“Hello, kani?” I said. I knocked on Ian’s head, right where his hair parted. “Ian?”
I heard Charsi gasp, and I looked up to see Ian’s opposite hand itch the spot I’d hit. Then, the whole form of the Iatvi rose upwards on his elbows as the head turned towards Charsi and I. His exhausted expression suddenly turned into a gentle kind of fear as he recognized the two figures beneath him.
“O-Oh,” he stammered at once, holding himself up with one arm and rubbing an eye with his other. “I’m sorry, I… I didn’t mean to fall asleep…”
“Charsi and I just want to talk to you.”
Ian looked at the surface of the bed.
“Um, okay,” he whispered.
Scooting back so as not to push us off the bed, Ian sat with his back to the bedroom wall with his legs folded. He’d only been laying down for a few moments, but his hair was already disheveled on one side. And even though his posture appeared tired, his eyes and nerves were alert.
“Charsi,” I said, waving her to my side. I took her hand. “Tell Ian what you told me. If Ian were Iatili.”
Ian placed his hands in his lap as Charsi gathered her courage.
“I… I want to be friends,” she said quietly. “If you were Iatili… it would be easier.”
“Oh,” Ian said. “I guess… I’m… sorry I’m not.”
“Ian is Ian,” I told Charsi. “And you’re you. No use wishing to change that, huh? You don’t think you would get along?”
Charsi shrugged, still not looking upwards.
“I don’t like to be scared,” she said.
I looked up at Ian, and he acknowledged my expression; exactly what Juni had said.
“But I’m not scary. I promise I’m not.”
“I told her that you were scared of her too,” I said, much to his surprise.
“What? Why? What do you mean?”
“You’re not nervous around girls, are you?”
“Nerve…? Nuh-uh, I’m… I’m not.”
I grinned at him.
“I think you are.”
“But I’m not. I’m not… nervous around anyone. Not cute girls, not anybody.”
Charsi looked up at me, then up at Ian with a slight blush.
“You think I’m cute?”
Ian’s face drained of color and his eyes grew wide.
“I… I didn’t… I mean, that’s not what I meant, I just…”
Charsi looked pained.
“You don’t think so?”
Ian’s hands wrestled with each other in desperation as his eyes flew around the room.
“N-no, that’s… I mean, I mean yes, but I didn’t…” He looked directly at me and pouted. “This isn’t fair! What is this, ‘Make Fun of Me Day’?”
I laughed out loud, and Charsi even showed a small smile.
“You did that to yourself!”
“Vah sulm, Ian,” Charsi said with her delicate voice. “I… think you’re kinda cute, too.”
If there was any more confidence in Ian’s face, it vanished. Ian couldn’t even stammer. He simply looked at Charsi in true terror.
“Nice work, Charsi!” I said, lifting her hand in triumph. “See what I told you? You’re scarier than he is!”
For more than a moment, Charsi looked up at Ian with a delightful smile and Ian looked back at her, stunned.
“Well?” I said, stepping forward. Charsi followed me. “What do you think of him?”
“I don’t want you to be lonely, Ian,” Charsi said. “And I don’t either. I… I think I can be your friend. If you want.”
Ian sat there for a moment more. Then, he lowered both of his hands and placed them palms upwards before Charsi and I.
“Can I… hold you?” he asked sheepishly.
Charsi looked at me and held my hand tighter.
“He’ll be careful. Won’t he?”
Charsi relented, and I held her hand as she awkwardly stepped onto Ian’s fingers. Unable to keep proper footing, she lowered herself to her hands and knees. She shot one last unsure look at me as Ian raised her up into the air.
Charsi turned herself to sit cross-legged. They stared at each other.
“…your hands smell like soap,” Charsi said.
“Uh-huh. I keep them clean,” Ian said with a laugh. “Lenn told me to take a shower.”
“He listens to me sometimes,” I said up to her, and Ian grinned.
“Yeah, just sometimes.”
“But… if I’m going to be your friend, you’ll keep me safe?” Charsi asked. “Just like Eliza?”
“Of course,” Ian said. “Just like I do for Lenn. I won’t let anyone hurt you.”
I couldn’t quite see from my perspective, but from Ian’s reaction, I could tell that Charsi was doing something, perhaps drawing her fingers along the creases of Ian’s hand. The boy laughed.
“Aww, that tickles!”
“Yep,” he said, gritting his teeth. “What if I tickled you back?”
“No, please don’t,” Charsi whispered. “Juni does, and I don’t like it.”
“Ian, be nice.”
“Ah!” Ian giggled, straining but unable to put Charsi down. His hands shook, but the now-comforted girl showed little fear. “Ah! Stop! Lenn, make Charsi stop! Tell her to be nice, not me!”
For the first time, I heard Charsi laugh. And I laughed along with her.
“Remember, she’s the princess,” I said. “That means she’s in charge, not me!”