Chapter 11

A Patreon exclusive story by Meraki P. Lyhne

 

 

Aaron sat on the floor of his studio and watched the many people standing around, talking. Matadon stood with Geodin and Ramudon—the brother who’d turned out to be very different than Aaron had thought. Freydon stood with his mom and dad, talking to a new Guard Lady. Dawdon stood with his dad and Heimli, the world-famous photographer, and his assistant Chas, who’d both kidnapped the King when thinking him a mere human beautiful enough to be collected. Geradon stood with his parents and Master Harrodon—the son of Nol-Elakdon. He really looked like his dad, and he was just as kind, too. Aaron could watch him for days and not get tired of it. But he didn’t get that pitter-patter like Dawdon caused.

To wrap his mind around the fact that Daniel had sent him on a mission, Aaron sat with a notebook and scribbled…keywords at best. He barely knew where to start with all the thoughts milling about. There was so much to be done and figured out. And remembered.

Guards stood around the room, all visible. Some spoke with Guard Lady Lopdin, others watched from the walls. Like Bowdon. Judging by his expression, he was on Aaron’s detail at that moment because he didn’t look away, often, and when he did, it was to quickly check the surroundings, then focus on the area closer to Aaron.

Ramudon glanced over and looked troubled upon seeing Aaron. He excused himself, thus calling attention upon Aaron. A worried expression took over Matadon’s face, but he stayed with Geodin while Ramudon came to Aaron. “May I?”

“Sure.” Aaron closed the notebook, while Ramudon sat next to Aaron and looked around at the many people.

“I’m sorry to say I can’t even help you.”

“Of course you can.” Aaron smiled at him.

“Yeah? How?”

“There are so many young people full of talent in the human world, and their lives can easily be put into one of three categories. Those who have no support from loved ones, those who get a pat on the back and a few encouraging words in equal measures to indifference of their passion, and those whose closest drive them forward toward that passion with such force that it either breaks or propels the young talent.”

“I hope there are nuances and balances to be found, too.”

“Of course there is. But my short life has so far mainly identified these three as what others mention.”

“Which did you grow up with?”

“The middle one. A pat on the back, go for your dreams, but play it safe.” Aaron looked at Ramudon. “I don’t believe in playing in the safe zone. It’s a comfort zone. If I want it, I go for it, and nothing stops me. If I don’t want it, it gets zero attention.”

“Balance is needed there, too.”

“I know. But we’re talking passions, not necessary evils. My…human dad, Dan, loved my mom’s dreams of building their own. They worked well together. Until it got difficult. Then he became the naysayer of category one, I mentioned. Everything became so negative around him—including my dancing. My mom told him off. To let me dream. She also wanted me to play it safe and get good grades and a steady job, but keep dreaming and pursuing your passion, just…secure your safety net first.”

Ramudon nodded slowly, thinking. “And you didn’t.”

“Nope. If I had, I wouldn’t sit here with the skills to be sent on a mission to save others like myself.” To actually put words to the mission’s goal made it hit so much harder. Either that or he’d merely managed the distance to fully realize what Daniel had asked of him, and Aaron grew a bit lightheaded. Aaron covered his face and breathed heavily. If he failed, Halflings would get hurt from not being Empowered. They’d get very sick, and humans wouldn’t know what to do.

“Hey…” Ramudon forced a strong arm behind Aaron’s back and the wall, easily rearranging Aaron sit leaned against him and be hugged. It felt strangely nice. “How can I help you?”

“Like this. Thank you.”

“Well, this I’m good at.”

Aaron chuckled. “What else are you good at? What are your strengths?”

“I’m good with my hands. I’m good at building stuff. I’m good at seeing visions through. I don’t get overwhelmed by the process because I have confidence in knowing what to do every step of the way, so I simply work my way through all the steps that I break the vision into before starting. And then I’m stubborn enough not to leave a piece of work undone.” Ramudon chuckled. “Dad didn’t see that as a strength. Always, I mean.”

“Why does that make you chuckle?”

“Because I remember we had dinner a few years ago, and he admitted to it. He’d arrived late because a cub had wanted to finish a drawing before going home, and she’s sat at his dinner table with stubborn tears tolling down her cheeks, coloring the sky blue. The other kids painted the clouds blue, but she knew the sky was blue. So…instead of a cloudy day, she’d set out her project and painted most of that piece of paper blue.”

Aaron chuckled. He could kind of imagine an average children’s drawing with the flat landscape at the bottom, stick figures holding hands, the sun in one corner, and a lot of sky. “And what did he learn that day?”

“That that little Succubus is one to support in suborn pursuit of perfection. That’ll be her Cu’Boka one day.”

Aaron still hadn’t fully wrapped his mind around the full concept of Cu’Boka. He figured it was because it sounded so…utopian coupled with some communism. Then again, politics was probably the area he knew least about, so he merely parroted the political narrative from home and school. Maybe that was the problem? He didn’t understand Cu’Boka because he didn’t have the insight to see more than face value?

At the moment, it wasn’t what needed his attention. What struck Aaron the most about their conversation was that Ramudon knew how to break monumental tasks down to steps he felt confident in being able to perform. Aaron knew he could do this, but the size of the task did seem overwhelming.

He took the notebook and opened it for Ramudon to see. “How do I even get all that onto paper?”

Ramudon chuckled. “You don’t. Well, it’s a good start, but I’ll help with this if you want. Dad’s good at it. He taught me some of the tools I use today. He’s just way better at it. And his brain’s a clipboard.”

Aaron grinned, remembering that telephone numbers were stuck in there, too, so the clipboard analogy seemed right. “What else is he good at?”

“Seeing opportunity. The what-ifs. He adapts to situations because he searches for opportunities, always.”

That meant Aaron had two people around him to help figure all this out. When would he have time to dance? They needed to come up with epic stuff.

His phone vibrated, so he pulled it out and thumbed to the app. Daniel was calling him, so he answered with the camera on.

“Oh, uhm…” Ramudon felt a bit restless.

“Hey, Daniel. This is my brother, Ramudon.”

Daniel smiled. His eyes were human green. “Hi, Ramudon.

“My King,” Ramudon croaked.

How are you, Aaron?

“Overwhelmed.”

But?

“But I can do this.”

Daniel smiled. “Your dad and Geodin are close. I know you can always ask her. Ask him to ask her if you need to.

Aaron gnawed his lip. She kinda terrified him, and he didn’t want to seem incompetent now that he knew how close she was with Matadon. He didn’t want to embarrass Matadon.

The feed of Daniel jumped around, and ruckus followed.

“Daniel!”

I’m okay, just…Guards being Guards.” The feed stilled, focusing again on Daniel. “A fistfight broke out.” Daniel looked like he stretched to look, but he at least didn’t seem worried.

Still, Aaron gaped. “A fistfight?”

I’ll tell you all about it. Later.

“Like, who won?”

Daniel chuckled. “Sure.” Daniel focused on the screen again. “Trust in your team.

“Who to team Freydon with is…” Aaron ran talent through his mind to see who would fit, but something kept teasing. “Freydon will be empowered in a few years, meaning he’ll need the rut years out of the spotlight. Why even bet on him as one of your influencers now?”

The power of a comeback.

“Ah! Setting early stage.”

Exactly. I’ve called in a spin doctor to be on your team. A Mingler Mecla named Malinda.

“M and M and M,” Aaron said. Daniel snickered. “Do I pick others his age? Or Minglers?”

That’s up to you. Pick the best team but keep Cubi eyes out. What reasons are used for Freydon pulling back from the group will be up to Malinda. She knows how to spin the media. One of my influencers is on the judging panel, but she’s fair, so you won’t get points for being Cubi.

“Cool!” Aaron hated rigged games. “Why keep colors out?”

Your dad’s purple can be explained away as not contagious if there are only his. More, and it would seem suspicious.

“Unless it’s a dance group made by people who share more than dance passion. Like…people find each other to support similarities—especially when they’re minorities.”

Daniel gaped. “Holy shit, you opened up for an idea. Cale! Ela! I gotta run. If you pick an entire team with colored eyes…do that, and Freydon can be in there as a sibling supporting one with the eye-disease. Malinda will help spin the rest. She should be there tomorrow at the latest.

“Okay.” Aaron wondered what idea he’d sparked.

Talk soon, send pics.

“S M C!” Aaron grinned at the end screen, not knowing whether Daniel had heard him before hanging up in a hurry.

“S M C?” Ramudon asked.

“We were at this summer camp for a week when we like…seven, and we wrote our parents a letter putting S M C at the bottom as a P.S. They had no idea what it meant, but we all did it. Some parents were cool enough to know that it stood for Send More Candy and did. Ours weren’t.”

Ramudon chuckled.

Picking among Cubi with colored eyes? He had to run that one through the Grand Lady, so Aaron reluctantly pulled away from the comforting embrace of his brother and smiled at him. “I better talk to Grand Lady Geodin about this before I start putting down names.”

Ramudon nodded and got to his feet. He pulled Aaron up and followed back to where Matadon and Geodin had joined Dawdon, Geradon, and their parents.

Aaron took Dawdon’s hand, wondering how they were doing with the news of being sent into the human world. But they were ultimately Heimli and Harrodon’s responsibilities, and Aaron needed to focus on the dancers. At the moment, at least. They’d have time that evening.

“Was that Daniel calling?” Geodin asked.

“Yes.” Aaron repeated the relevant snippet of their conversation regarding colored eyes. As suspected, the Grand Lady looked hesitant about it. “I’ll respect whatever you decide, Grand Lady. I just need to know fast so that I can gather a team. And we need a tryout. We’ve danced so much with humans here to strengthen their sense of belonging that Cubi dancing is more like…fun to be disinfected later.”

Matadon chuckled.

“So, the recital is out?” Geradon asked.

“No.” Aaron shook his head. “Freydon definitely needs it. If he’s to dance on a stage with cameras and human spectators and the world watching, he needs that mindset pushed. Here is best.”

“Meaning we need to make it way bigger?” Geodin asked.

“The dance routine isn’t big enough for something like that. It’s not even at a stage performance level that calls for it.”

“It could be if the Cubi are allowed to know about the talent show,” Geradon said. “I can spin that.”

“They are, but Harrodon and I will both edit your piece,” Geodin said.

“Yes, Grand Lady.”

“You mean so that everybody will tune in and watch us on TV?” Aaron asked.

“Yes, and vote for you,” Geodin said.

“Sounds rigged.”

“Nah, everybody suffers from favoritism in some form or another,” Matadon said.

“I’ll…just call someone.” Geodin pulled out her phone and stepped back.

Matadon stepped up close to Aaron. “May I make a suggestion?” he whispered. Aaron nodded. “Have an evening with Dawdon, Geradon, and Freydon. They’re nervous.”

“So am I,” Aaron revealed.

“We all are, but those three have never been in the human world.”

“Will you help?”

Matadon smiled. “Of course I will.”

Aaron texted Alex whether he could swing a teenage worthy buffet in the no dosing pad, yet Aaron had to invite his dad. Maybe Ramudon? He had to try out his big brothers’ support, and the fact that Aaron sought it out said something. For some reason, it seemed easier than with…a dad.

“We go ahead with the recital, and then you and I set full sails on the at least three choreographies. We need backups, and we need to find a style. Our branding.”

“Other than the two with the guy with the weird eyes,” Matadon said. He did not look thrilled.

“Yeah. And we need another name.”

“Can’t really play with that before you find your style,” Geradon said.

“Horse before cart, yeah.” Matadon gnawed his lip, looking at Aaron, thinking.

A text rolled in, so Aaron checked his phone. Like…pizza and soda and snacks?

Yes!

A thumbs up. Need forty-five minutes.

Aaron checked the time, then looked around the impromptu meeting that had gone down the past few hours after the mission had been outlined and parents had asked their questions. Freydon’s parents were worried, and the King’s sister seemed to be more than any. Dawdon’s dad looked mostly proud. Same with Geradon’s parents.

Aaron felt grateful he’d have his dad with him. Even though they still didn’t know each other that well, Aaron didn’t fear the lack of bond because they had dancing. He feared when they’d find the areas where they didn’t mesh while on a mission that important.

“Everybody!” Aaron stepped away to make sure he could be seen. “There’s a bunch of stuff to figure out now, and we got some of it out of the way today. Recital will still be on. Call it practice. Dawdon and Geradon, please spend more time here with your…what’s the one with an apprentice called?”

Chuckles.

“Trade master?” Matadon suggested.

“Let’s go with that. Use this time as dress rehearsal, too, and we can have meetings whenever we feel the need. But right now, I’d like for Dawdon, Geradon, Freydon, and Ramudon to join me and Matadon because three of you have never been in the human world, and I’m pretty sure I know exactly how you feel. Because I felt like that when coming here. I had Daniel to help me out, and I’ll be here for you.”

Dawdon smiled, looking extremely grateful. Freydon still looked a bit pale, but he was smiling.

Aaron texted the information Alex needed. Four to eat. Beverages for two dosing Cubi.

Feeding patterns?

My Dad. And Oliver or Leon for my brother?

Geodin and Guard Lady Lopdin came over, reminding Aaron that he probably wasn’t the one to call the meeting to an end.

“Focus on the dancers first, yes.” Geodin nodded. “Tomorrow around nine, I’ll come by with Malinda.”

“We’ll be here, I suspect.” Aaron pointed to the floor to indicate the studio.

“Then we come here. I’ve given you access in the app to the Grand Council’s schedule and a list with all our numbers and email addresses if you need to send us something. And a Guard board for you and them to share information.”

“Thank you, Grand Lady.” Aaron immediately checked the app, finding those two boards pinned to the very top, ruining his setup. Didn’t matter. At least they’d be easy to find.

She put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m very proud of you, Aaron.” She leaned in and kissed his cheek.

“Uhm…thank you, Grand Lady,” Aaron said. She smiled and went to Matadon, but Guard Lady Lopdin stayed. “Do you need to tell them something, too?”

“Are you done?”

“No…yes. Telling them to be here tomorrow morning…”

“Before you do that, please schedule with me.”

“Yes, Guard Lady.”

“When suits you and Lord Matadon? A meeting where we coordinate?”

“I have no experience with this.”

“Tomorrow morning before you start here would be optimal.”

“Six AM in the kitchen.”

Her bows rose. “An early bird?”

“No, a practical bird. Lots of work needs lots of hours in the day and lots of coffee, so…kitchen.”

She chuckled. “Okay. At six o’clock tomorrow morning, you and your dad are ready for coffee.”

“Yes, Guard Lady.”

She walked off, so Aaron joined Matadon, Dawdon, Geradon, and Freydon. He looked around, finding Harrodon and the photographer, Heimli, chatting at a distance, apparently already coordinating.

“You and I have a meeting tomorrow morning at six AM.”

“Ugh.” Dawdon shivered.

“Don’t worry, I’ll try not to wake you when I rise that early.”

“Sir Heimli might make me,” Dawdon whispered.

“Master Harrodon certainly will me,” Geradon said.

“And me?” Freydon asked.

“I dunno. We come here and work on the dance part right after the meeting with the hunter Guards. I can call you, or we can swing by? I think tomorrow morning is planning schedules and stuff.”

Freydon nodded, looking more worried than Aaron had imagined, so he hugged him. “Thank you.”

Aaron tightened his grip for a moment. “Let’s go to my place. I asked Alex to make pizza.”

“Oh, need!”

 

 

Aaron, Dawdon, Geradon, and Freydon had eaten, and Matadon and Ramudon had fed. They all sat in the King’s pad with the TV running, streaming the talent show they were to go undercover in.

“Name ideas?” Freydon asked. “Also, I’ll be in another group, so two names.”

“And group members for you.” Aaron sighed. “Ideas?”

“I don’t know enough around here, and mostly colored eyes,” Matadon said.

Geradon pulled a notepad from his pocket. “Keywords. We can play with names, then.”

“Uhm…” Aaron, Matadon, and Freydon looked at each other.

“Art and alive,” Matadon said.

“LiveArt,” Freydon said.

“Life, love, art, passion,” Aaron listed.

“Hmm…” Geradon looked up. “I sense art being a common denominator here.”

“And dance, but that doesn’t fit in a name,” Matadon said.

Aaron agreed. “Yeah, art dancer. Passion dancer. Sounds weird.”

“Duo dancers.” Matadon shook his head wide-eyed, making Aaron chuckle.

Keywords, keywords, keywords. Aaron sank down in the cushions and drank from his soda. What they brought to the dance, maybe? Or…well, from a marketing standpoint the what was just that. The why would be what drew people with similar passions to it. “How about just…Cu’Boka?” Aaron suggested.

“I kinda like it,” Matadon said. “They’re so going to ask why, so we need that story straight.”

“Any ideas?”

They all looked around, thinking.

“How about you just…dug out a handful of Scrabble pieces and fitted them together?” Geradon suggested.

“Not bad. Or three darts on a periodic table,” Matadon said.

“Who’d believe we have a periodic table poster?” Aaron asked. “You don’t look any more book nerdish than I do.”

Matadon chuckled. “True.”

“Also, there’s no ka on there,” Dawdon said.

“There is in Scandinavia. Potassium is called Kalium.”

“And Bo?” Dawdon asked. “Boron?”

Matadon nodded.

Aaron felt way out of his safe zone. “Well, that could work.”

Matadon snickered. “Especially if the story goes that we came up with it during detention in High School.”

Aaron snorted. “That’s even credible. So, we made a dance group while in detention?”

“Ever dance in detention?”

“Whenever possible, but we usually had to do homework with a sour teacher watching us.”

“Did Daniel ever get detention?” Freydon asked.

“I don’t think I should reveal too much.” Aaron grinned, remembering that they once got detention together. It had been a few months before Aaron’s parents announced they’d have to move far away.

“Except you don’t look exactly the same age,” Ramudon pointed out. “You could look like siblings, sure.”

“So, we have a geeky mom or dad?” Aaron asked.

“A chem teacher?” Matadon gnawed his lip.

Aaron stared at his dad for a moment, then at Ramudon. He sat with family, yet it felt different from when he’d sat with his mom and human dad. He had no siblings, but he could imagine it kinda being like this. What if Aaron and Matadon grew close as siblings instead? At least to begin with? At least for Aaron’s peace of mind instead of the confusing emotions when looking at his dad, seeing someone only a few years older than himself, yet he was just over five hundred.

That could work. Except…

“I already have a human identity, and there are no siblings connected to it. With success and spotlight comes nosey reporters, and they’ll dig into everything…including the eye disease.” That made making a group a bad idea. Then again, Aaron didn’t know too much about it. He didn’t know what the public knew, so he googled it.

“What worries you?” Matadon asked.

The result came up immediately, showing weird eyes. The Elaktis’ Heterochronic Iridocyclitis pictures showed Cubi eyes changing, and a few sets of fully changed red and purple.

“Oh, listen to this. A suspected rise in Elaktis’ Heterochronic Iridocyclitis caused for concern as the CDC received numerous calls regarding the rare, non-contagious eye condition. The CDC put out a statement on their website.” Aaron clicked the link. “People are apparently genetically predisposed.” Aaron looked at Matadon as in duh, making him laugh. “The CDC reports no rise in cases and thinks that noticing it is due to people growing more confident in an increasingly more tolerant society.” Aaron put the phone down, thinking about what idea he’d apparently sparked with Daniel.

“Is that true?” Ramudon asked. “Increasingly tolerant, I mean.”

“What I glanced from the article, they went onto how many years the disease has been known but in a less science-based time, Cubi, or people with weird eyes in general, had been banished for being devils and ghouls. I dunno. We had a neighbor who’d call everything she didn’t like as something the Devil made, and she’d preach. Then we had this other guy who was a woo-doo doctor. I swear I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a shrunken head for medicinal purposes in his apartment. Those two didn’t get along, and he had to call the cops on the devil lady a few times for vandalism. But most other people rolled their eyes at both.”

“There’s a Succubus down the hall from me that sounds like the woo-doo guy,” Geradon said. “She kinda frightens me with talks of spirits in the hallways.”

Aaron snorted. “She believes in ghosts?”

“I don’t know. She calls them nature spirits, and we have to stay friends with them so that they’ll protect the House of Beaudon.”

“Wow. What other strange people live in the House?”

“We’re not accustomed to badmouthing other Cubi,” Matadon said. “That’s to make sure rumor mills won’t run rampant and ostracize someone without merit.”

“Sorry.”

Matadon smiled. “We do anyway, but in private while grousing to close friends. I just figured I’d put that in there, considering I know for a fact that that’s not how it works in the human world.” He looked at the three cubs, soon going into the human world, and Aaron got why he mentioned it. It wasn’t to scold Aaron or Geradon—it was to educate them in what to expect.

Aaron wondered about all the things he took for granted from having grown up in the human world. To help them, he figured he had to look for what had seemed the hardest cultural clashes when he arrived at the Cubi House.

“The three of you probably noticed that I’m very poor at using titles. Being well-behaved in the human world is different than here, and many places—especially where we’re going—it’s a dog-eat-dog world full of drama and frienamies. Mind those who seem the kindest to you. They have an agenda, and it’s only their own. Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”

“Wow,” Freydon said. “Why not just ignore them?”

“Because you can never tell whether they’re one or the other. Cu’Boka exists as a fundamental trait of some people. Others, they’re so wrapped up in their own little world that they’ll elbow their way to the front, not caring who they hurt on their way. Especially in a place like where we’re going. I even suspect you’ll see a dramatic and instinctual change in me from having grown up with it as a dancer in the human world. I’ll become a fucking ass to anyone not on my team, yet I might…I might even say shit to you guys that I wouldn’t in private.”

“You’re definitely the one with the insight to run an operation like this,” Ramudon said.

“It’s a mindset of survival,” Matadon said. “The human brain evolved in clans up to eighty individuals. That’s the stretch of their capacity to care for others. Put a million in a city, and you have a lot more crime because the human is shutting down from having too many to focus on. It can’t, so it shuts down. Then it’s no longer a moral issue to steal from your neighbor. They’re strangers. Small towns? You see it way less because people’s humanity hasn’t been maxed out and suppressed, leaving survival mode among possible hostiles. Frenamies, as you call them.”

“Don’t Cubi have anything like that?” Aaron asked.

“It can for a while, but not with a risen Royal. They repair it because they the birth of Cu’Boka. We’re all connected differently from humans because of a Royal.” Matadon smiled fondly and cast a saying glance at the heavy golden crest on the table.

A Fountain, Aaron understood. Fountains distributed the dose, and the dose was part of what connected the people. Aaron’s place among the Cubi was to function as a Fountain for Cu’Boka?

It completely flipped his entire look at the life Daniel had instinctually chosen for him. Aaron had to work on becoming a center, and his dancing sure would do that. From there he had to bed many Cubi to share the Cu’Boka of Daniel.

Aaron looked at Ramudon, wondering whether he took to the brother on a genetic level, then. If that was part of it? If that was part of what made such a difference between Matadon and Dan, who’d easily enough pushed Aaron out of his life?

“What’s the greatest risk?” Freydon asked. “Among humans out there?”

“Slander and shitstorms.” The fear or at least trepidation in Freydon indicated that Aaron had to focus on him more than anyone else. “Until we leave, you guys need to watch some reality TV, then deduct half as sensationalized bullshit for entertainment purposes, but it makes money because humans like the drama and voyeurism—they just don’t admit to it. It’s really not that bad at a general societal level, but we’re going into a highly competitive environment with cameras everywhere. Even people in authority in there will abuse power.”

It occurred to Aaron that he’d met a Cubus who was kinda human in that regard. Esdon.

“If we have a meeting at six AM, I need to go to bed soon,” Matadon said.

Aaron grabbed his phone and looked at the time. “Wow. Yeah.” It was just past ten PM.

“When do we train?” Freydon asked. “So I can be ready.”

“I don’t know how long the meeting will take, but I’ll text you as soon as it finishes.”

“Do you want me to ask the graphic designer to draw up a sketch for your dance logo?” Geradon asked.

“I’d love that.”

“And we need to look at costumes,” Matadon said.

“Yeah, with Seldin and Letadin out of the House, I only know one in textile.”

“Who are they?” Ramudon asked.

“Sorry. Dames, identical twins. They ran point on Halloween costumes.”  

“Magic!” Freydon exclaimed.

Aaron grinned at Dawdon who’d managed to come dressed up as a picture. He’d made a frame, fastened it to himself with suspenders, and painted a cloth as a backdrop to hang from the top of the frame, over his head, and behind him. It had been quite cool in a very nerdy way.

The way he’d goofed around posing in that frame was part of what Aaron had fallen in love with, he guessed.

“Why are they out of House, then?” Ramudon asked.

“They’re with Sel—Tunra-nol Seldon. They’re both pregnant by him so they went with Daniel.”

Aaron still worried about Daniel, but the fact that Seldon had brought his mated family still spoke for there being no reason. Except now Daniel had been close to a fist fight, which was apparently normal there. Close to a Viking born and raised King? Why not?

Matadon yawned loudly, covering his face. “I’m sorry. I need to sleep. Thank you for a lovely evening.”

“I’ll dash, too.” Ramudon rose with Matadon. “If you need me, Aaron, just plot it into my schedule. If possible, I’ll prioritize it.”

Matadon looked proud of him, and Aaron felt grateful for how that bad first meeting had been overwritten by discovering kinship.

Aaron rose to see them out, and it broke up the party, so he put the crest on from habit now. They cleared the space and filled their hands, swinging by the kitchen with plates, glasses, and cutlery before seeing Ramudon, Geradon, and Freydon off.

Dawdon stayed, though.

“I’m so happy you’ll come, too,” Aaron said as they got to his room and made ready for bed.

“Me, too.” Dawdon undressed and tossed his clothes on a chair. “Being taught by Heimli himself is…that’s like a dream come true.”

“And you and Geradon out in the world to report?” Aaron hung the gold crest on the bedpost, then followed Dawdon into the bathroom and relieved himself.

“That, too!” Dawdon shoved his toothbrush into his mouth, but he was too excited and spoke around it. “I can’t wait for breakfast with him tomorrow morning.”

Aaron grinned at his excited boyfriend, finished up, and washed his hands. He wondered whether they’d be staying close enough in the human world to be able to sleep together at night. He had no idea about Cubi out there or whether there was housing set up in Las Vegas.

Mostly, when thinking about Vegas, he worried he’d run into his mom. He wanted to go home and say hi. He wanted her to meet Dawdon. What he feared the most was meeting her by chance instead of coming home because he knew she’d be hurt if that happened.

She felt abandoned by him, too. Like she’d felt about Dan. He hated that he’d made her feel like that, and he suspected he had to talk to the Guard Lady about it the next morning. He had to go see his mom.

Maybe she’d come with him? Like Daniel’s mom had? But that was different. Aaron certainly didn’t see a future with his mom and real dad mated like Susan and Roardon were now.

“Here.”

Aaron looked up, finding that sweet and patient side of his boyfriend staring back at him. Dawdon held out Aaron’s toothbrush, already prepared with paste. “Thanks.”

Dawdon slipped around Aaron, encircled him in his arms, and kissed the nape of his neck. “I get why you’re distracted. You’re the one calling shots on this mission.”

“I was thinking about my mom. She lives in Vegas. I was thinking that, if possible, I want to introduce you to her.”

“Yeah?” Dawdon looked up, catching Aaron’s gaze in the mirror. Aaron smiled at the upbeat expression. “Does she know you’re gay? I mean, I know that can be an issue to humans.”

“I’m pretty sure she just rolls with it and won’t be surprised. I wear heels at home, too. But I’m bisexual. Which is normal here, I hear.”

“Yeah. I dated a girl a few months ago.”

“What changed?”

“She had different passions. We didn’t share the artistic aspects, so she thought I was too narrow in my focus.” Dawdon squeezed Aaron and pressed their cheeks together. “That’s why I don’t mind you dancing so much. We can both delve deeply into our passions, and we understand each other’s need to.”

Aaron smiled. Dawdon had managed to put words to something Aaron had feared would come in their way. It had before, and not just for Aaron, it seemed. “I love that we can share our passions, too. Combine them, somehow.”

“I do love having you in my lens’ focus,” Dawdon purred and kissed Aaron’s neck some more.

Aaron groaned and got on with the project of brushing his teeth so that he could snuggle up with Dawdon.

Also, that six AM meeting kept looming as the clock ticked closer and closer to midnight.