Disclaimer: Rights to Animorphs and its respective characters belong to the respective parties.
Warning: Minor adult content. Also, all apologies for my probable mis-use of the Russian language.
Summary: Loren tries to make a life, all the while remembering she has a son who wants nothing to do with her.
By: Kim Hoppy
If you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you, it's yours forever. If it doesn't, then it was never meant to be.
It was a house on the 3500 block that had been sold. There was nothing very special about the house. It was a normal two-story brown house with a porch. There was a maple in the front yard whose leaves fell onto the Richardson's yard and had given a lot of heated arguments between the former owners and their neighbors, to the drama of the block.
On the second floor was a door that opened to a bedroom. It was a nice bedroom. There were big windows with thick blue curtains to block the sun, soft carpets, a desk, dresser, closet, a bed with pillows and patterned comforter, folded quilt at the bed, and it connected to a half-bathroom. It was a nice bedroom.
It was just never used. It was if the room wasn't wanted, it didn't exist. But that was okay for the new owner, there was plenty of other house.
When the house was sold, there had been so much gossip! Any new neighbor attracts that, but this was more. The new owner knew Them. Whispers and speculations over hedges and fences ranged from the mundane to the wild. Old Mrs. Harris thought it was disgraceful they'd move here, sure they'd somehow ruin her prize-winning roses somehow with their wild, unnatural ways. Ms. Becci said, while primping her hair, she heard that it was the popular one, they'd have reporters everywhere. The kids on the block – nay, the street, had their own musings and hopes. They wanted stories. They wanted to meet the kids, kids not much older than them. Just think, they could have been saving the world instead of going to school, those guys were so lucky!
With such a build-up, there was a noticeable deflating when the new owner moved in. A week of moving vans bringing in furniture, and then there was the yellow taxi. The entire neighborhood held its collective breath, nose to windows, sheers stilled, phones at their ears ready for reports to friends and family.
When the dog jumped out, there were excited whispered. Was that one of them, in … in morph? Everyone looked at the creature and completely missed it when the woman stepped out as well. Wearing a pair of no-nonsense sunglasses and blond hair tied back, the middle-aged woman was unremarkable in jeans and a plain shirt. No one paid her any attention until she called from the house door, "Come on, Champ. Inside."
Gossip and talk resumed, and neighbors visited, offering food and barely disguised curiosity. The blond woman was polite, and soon it was clear the dog was merely a dog. There was talk that the rumor was unfounded, that she had no connection to the famous Animorphs, but the first reporter cleared that misconception.
She – Loren – was the mother to one of the Animorphs. Not the one that died, the one who disappeared because his girlfriend had been the one to die. It was all so very tragic.
But the mother didn't talk about that. She didn't say much about the Animorphs or her son, she didn't speak much to anyone. There was speculation that she could morph too, but no one ever saw it happen. She kept to herself and eventually the neighbors went back to their own lives, the reporters went away. If they saw her walking the dog, she waved and nodded, was neighborly.
It was a nice house. Very nice. They gave her the money – "a token of our appreciation" – and she took it and bought it because you need a house to live in. So she bought this one. It was a good size, there was a backyard, she had thought it had been perfect. It still was.
These days, sometimes it seemed too big for just her and Champ. But of course it was, because she hadn't chosen the house so it fit them. It was a bitter thought, made bitterer each time she looked out the window. Loren didn't miss the still nosy neighbors, and she didn't miss the birdless skies. Or at least that they were one bird less.
She had tried to fill it nice things, lots of nice things that people should want, that would be tempting, that … that would be wanted. She bought a television – still in the box, she hadn't bothered with a television in years – and a computer – also still in the box, what did she know about computers? She didn't even want one, but she thought …. What else did she need? Was she missing something, some final bit of temptation?
Loren could accept she wasn't enough, not anymore. Yes, he had saved her life, rescued her, but apparently, that really didn't matter, did it? She thought maybe it had, but she really didn't matter to him. Her son – could she even call him that, she hadn't been anything like a mother to him – would rather live in the woods far away from her. He didn't want anything to do with her, despite the pretty sentiments he said when they first met again.
No, he'd rather wallow in some empty teenage angst about lost love, live as an animal. That was better than living with his mother in a normal home, something she could finally give him.
She didn't listen to the radio anymore, or keep up with the news. She didn't like the reminders of her son. Few of her neighbors were crude enough to drill her, but she managed them. The last thing she wanted to hear about was the Animorphs, Andalites, Yeerks, Hork-Bajir, Taxxons. It all made her sick, and part of her hated all of them with a passion she hadn't felt in years.
Again, all she had in her life was Champ. It was a bitter reality to know your own son wanted nothing to do with you, but Loren went through it. She had already been jaded since her accident, already knew life wasn't fair or right, but she could not stop the deep, burning resentment to her son for doing this to her.
They could have been a family now. They could have been together.
But no. No.
It would have been a lie to say Loren missed her son during those long years. She didn't even know him, remember him. He hadn't been anything but another baby to her. But she had loved and longed for the idea of him, her son and family. But there was no way she could have cared for a baby, not for a child.
And when she felt she could have – because, at one point in her life, Loren felt she could have, or she could have at least met him – she didn't know how to find him. Her sister – or her husband's sister, she was never clear on that part – had disappeared, and with her, she had taken Loren's son. There was never any phone call, any messages.
Blindness isolates a person. Surrounded only by darkness, one can never know if they were alone, if the rest of the world existed. Hearing only went so far, touching alleviated the feeling a bit. But to see – when she had regained her sight, the world existed again. She wasn't alone.
And now, when she wasn't alone, she was.
Champ was here, at least. She wasn't completely alone with him around. And eventually she stopped checking the skies for a flash of red tail. He wasn't coming back. Not again.
But if he did, she would be ready for him. She wouldn't miss that chance.
The first time Loren met Anna, his nametag had thrown her. She hadn't been sure how to ask her question, but something must have tipped him off and he looked down before smiling with a familiar ease of one used to the problem.
"My friends, it is their little joke." His accent hinted he was from eastern Europe somewhere, perhaps Russia or somewhere like that.
"To change your nametag?"
"Nyet. To make it my nametag. It is how they know me, Ahnah," he said, accenting with his native pronouncing. "When I first came here, my accent was much stronger. It is what they hear when I introduced myself. And so it is what they call me."
"And what's your real name?" she asked, curious despite herself.
"Anatoliy, but I respond to Anna now." He forced the English name from his lips.
"You don't mind?"
Anna shrugged before smiling devilishly. "It is funny to see the confusion."
They met because Loren needed someone to install her computer. Sick of the boxes from things she bought for reasons she tried to forget, sick of them sitting in her living room for months, she finally called and asked someone to come over and hook up the internet thing. And they sent Anna.
There are always these stories people think of when the cable guy comes over. It was a product of too much TV, or at least the wrong sort. Whether it was an over-active imagination or some deep desire, the thought had dangled in the back of her mind with a sort of silly anticipation. She had few friends, and even fewer came to her new house.
Nothing happened. (Nothing would have. She wasn't that kind of woman, but it would have been nice to make the rejection. To have a chance to reject someone. Not being insulted in such a way was a rejection.) Anna – Loren was careful to think his name with the accent – was professional, did his work, helped her set up her computer, and then left. Aside from the confusion about his name, they really hadn't spoken and there was no reason to expect them to ever meet again.
Life was full of those sorts of ironies. The people she should have met she didn't, and those she shouldn't, she did. Six months later, it had taken Loren a full fifteen minutes wracking her brain trying to figure out why the man reading and making notes at a table in the bookstore looked familiar. He hadn't noticed her, focused on his work, and she only looked that way because someone had spilt coffee on his laptop and drew everyone's attention. Pretending to look at books, she kept stealing glances at the man, trying to remember where she had seen him before. If she hadn't overheard him speak to a customer who asked for some napkins, she never would have remembered.
Curiosity assuaged, she might have left it at that, but the temptation of speaking with another human had been too great at that moment. She remembered him being polite and nice, so Loren went over and said, "It's Anna, isn't it?" She made sure to use the right accent.
Anna had jumped and turned, blinking owlishly at her. It was clear he was trying to remember her, but he couldn't. Of course not. She hadn't even been worth ravishing. "Da, it is?" he said cautiously. There was still no recollection.
"You installed my internet and set up my computer some months ago," she offered. No, still nothing, she wasn't that important to remember. If her own son didn't, a complete stranger wouldn't. "I just wanted to say hi. And thank you."
"… You're welcome."
By then, Loren had felt the dread and exposure of her choice and would have made a quick exit had Anna not asked, then insisted she take a seat, and then offered and again insisted on buying her a cup of coffee. When he was left, she had leaned over and tried to see what he had been working on, looking for possible conversation topics, but his writing was in his native language and the books he had been using were cookbooks. She had few talents in the kitchen. Part of her had never trusted herself to use the stove beyond the basics.
When Anna came back with her latte, Loren was sitting innocent, as if she hadn't tried to look through his things. After thanking him and taking a sip as he sat, there was a few moments of awkward silence until Loren remembered she never really introduced herself and did so. Then there was a few minutes of painfully neutral topics about the weather and the like, filled with silences. Conversation had faltered spectacularly when Anna tried mentioning the news, the story about the upcoming trial of the former Visser, but Loren shot that train down so ruthlessly that they both put far too much effort into drinking and avoided eye contact. Loren berated herself for her reaction and desperately tried to think of something to recover with. Nothing came to mind and she wished her latte wasn't so hot, so she could drink it in one gulp, leave, and hide in embarrassment.
" … Did you find any books you like?" Anna tried again.
Loren winced. She could have asked that! Stupid. "Yes. I mean, no, not really." She didn't want to admit she'd finally worn down and looked at Marco's book. The hype was finally down on it, it was actually on the shelves for longer than five seconds. Her eyes had looked for her son's name, but … well, it was Marco's book. She put it back on the shelf within five minutes. A few spots down was Cassie's book, but there wouldn't be any mention of her son in that book, so she hadn't bothered to pick it up. "I decided I really didn't want that book, once I looked at it."
"Ah, that is always disappointing."
"Yes." It was her turn. "And you? You look like you found something, at least."
Anna nodded, looking at the books. "Da. I take notes from them. Some are very helpful."
"They wouldn't help me, probably. My talents begin and end at dumping things into boiling water."
He smiled at her exaggeration. "I cook a little. I collect recipes and try them."
"That sounds like fun. Unless you're really bad at cooking."
An expression of surprise crossed his face and he straightened in his seat. "I am not bad," he stated.
She couldn't help it, she had to cover her smile at his tone. "I'm sure you're not."
"I'm not," he repeated, before smirking. "I can prove it."
"We meet next week. You taste and see."
Loren widened her eyes, but she agreed before she thought about turning it down. He nodded with approval and she couldn't help but ask, "You do this often?"
"Demand complete strangers eat your cooking?"
He had the grace to look abashed. "Apparently we are not complete strangers," he offered.
Close enough, she thought but didn't say. "Even still."
"If you don't want to …"
"No, no," Loren said quickly. "Now you've got me curious. Like those people that hand out weenie tots in the store as samples. I should know better, but I still take one."
A look of horror crossed his face. "You eat those things?"
Laughing, Loren defended herself. "I did say I should know better."
"Da, you should." As if just reminded of something terrible, he gave her a worried look. "You are not strange in your tastes, are you?"
"You do eat meat? You eat … you are not allergic to fish?"
She understood, or she thought she did. "I'm not a vegetarian, and I'm not allergic to anything, not that I know, anyway. As to having strange tastes … no, I don't think so."
"Good. One time I bring dish and my host was allergic to shellfish. It was not good."
"No, I don't think that would be. Was he all right, your friend?"
"Da, we got him to hospital in time. But now he no longer trusts my cooking." Anna scowled at the thought. "It was very good."
They sat for almost thirty minutes talking before departing, agreeing to meet in one week at the same time. It wasn't a date, even if part of her did nurse the idea and spent a few extra minutes preparing. It was more the novelty of actually meeting a new person than any romantic inclination she wanted, and later Loren truly understood they met again only because Anna was competitive and had enough pride in his cooking that it bordered on arrogance. If he even thought someone was criticizing his talents, he challenged back. His conceit wasn't unfounded, she found out. He could cook quite well, and for a good ten minutes the first time she had demanded he tell her where he bought this while he smugly repeated that he had made it himself.
It became a weekly thing for them to meet and eat whatever Anna wanted to show off, so much that the coffee people had their drinks ready by the time they arrived. Sometimes, if she was lucky, Loren found things to criticize – like it was too spicy, it was tough to chew, wasn't there supposed to be something in this? – and Anna, even if he obviously didn't like it, listened and sometimes made notes in a small battered notebook. Most of the time, however, she was forced to agree they looked better than they tasted. (It was one of her more common complaints that whatever he brought looked strange, but Anna would scold her and tell her to eat it.)
At first, Loren had felt guilty at coming to their meetings with nothing but herself, but Anna refused her suggestions. (A wise choice, for Loren was no cook. Moms were supposed to be, but she wasn't one, so maybe she couldn't be the other.) She was his guinea pig, he said, but he relented to her paying for coffee. Unless he arrived first.
The conversations had focused on the food at first, Loren asking him how he made it, where he got the recipe, things like that. There were more than a few Anna had tailored himself, and if she criticized those ones even minutely, he huffed in his notebook for at least five mouthfuls writing down things Loren never understood. He never directly said which ones he made up – he'd never tell her until either she was full, wouldn't eat another bite, or there was no more food left – but Loren soon noticed Anna was more focused, sat straighter, leaned forward, beamed more, and scowled harder during the ones he was more responsible for.
After the first month, conversation expanded. Almost everyone was talking about the infamous Trial at The Hague, and, even though he clearly remembered what happened last time, Anna brought it up. He only brought it up because it went into his next topic. "You were in a magazine."
She nearly choked on her lasagna. "I was?"
His eyes were narrowed on her. "Da. It was a review of everyone who fought, as if anyone forgot."
She must have missed that one, but she didn't say anything, scooping another forkful of the meal.
"It was only a small picture," he added, now sounding uncomfortable. She didn't respond. "You must be very proud of your son."
"I don't have a son."
"But it said –"
She looked up, angry. "If I had a son, he'd be living with me. Not off in the woods as a bird."
Anna shifted in his seat. "I'm sorry."
"Don't worry about it." She looked at her watch. "Hey, sorry, I got to run. I've got this thing. Yeah. It was really good, Anna." Forcing a polite smile, she grabbed her purse and walked to the doors. She had been halfway down the block before she recognized her name being yelled behind her. She ignored it.
He grabbed her arm before bending, trying to get his breath back. "I'm … sorry," he repeated.
Loren shook her head, frowning. "I said don't worry about it."
"Nyet. I should not have said anything. I was … I did not know you were famous."
He ran a hand through his hair. "I am not saying this right, I think. I mean, you feel very foolish when you meet a famous lady and do not even know it. I was being stupid and angry."
She really didn't understand his logic, so she just stared at him.
His smile was uneasy. "We meet next week? I will make pirozhki."
"And what are those?"
"You have to come to find out. They are good."
She rolled her eyes. "Everything you make tends to be, Anna."
He beamed in pride before looking uncertain. "So next week?"
"If your, what were they again?"
"If pirozhki is as good as you say, I don't have a choice, do I?"
"Nyet." He grinned. "And if do not show, I know where you live."
Her eyebrows went up in surprise, and Loren smiled. "With a threat like that, I guess I have to show."
"Good." A few seconds went by before Loren asked, "Are you going to let go?"
Confused, Anna looked down and blinked, as if he had forgotten where his hand was, and he let go as if he was shocked. "Sorry."
"It's okay." And spurred by an impulse, she leaned forward and kissed him, a quick peck and his beard, instead of scruffy, felt like soft fur. "See you in a week." And she walked away. This time, he didn't chase after her, which would have been nice if it had happened. Awkward, but nice.
It was only later Loren thought about what she had done and felt embarrassed. After feeling awkward for the action, Loren was greatly relieved that the next time they met everything was just like before. Another might have lamented things in real life weren't anything like romantic movies, or, if they were, what that meant for her, but she was glad she still got lunch weekly.
The first time she was in Anna's apartment it was because it had been raining. Anna took the bus almost everywhere, except when could he use the company car during his job. She had learned that. Anna had still been dripping when it was time for them to leave, umbrella offering little protection, and the bus stop was several blocks away. With her own license and a fancy car three weeks off the lot, Loren insisted until he relented.
She'd been one of the slowest drivers on the road, the downpour worried her so much. They said it had been raining when she was in the accident the first time, the time she didn't remember.
Anna's directions led them to, while not fashionable, a serviceable side of the city where there were duplexes and apartments. He invited her inside until the rain let up, and she took it.
The first thing that hit her was the smell of bread when Anne opened the door. He had looked over his shoulder, apologizing for the mess, and toed off his shoes onto a mat before slipping into a set of house-slippers and setting the Tupperware from their meal on a counter. She took off her shoes as well – they were drenched wet– and looked around while he disappeared to get a towel.
It was a small apartment on the fifth floor, with only a bedroom, living room, kitchen, and bathroom. The kitchen, not to her surprise, was filled with kitchen gadgets, and there were baskets and bowls filled with fruits and vegetables, jars of nuts and powders all carefully labeled in a language she didn't understand. The sink was half-filled with dishes, a drying rack filled. One drawer wasn't completely closed, and she could make out the shadowy outline of books.
The living room, on the other hand, was sparse. An old couch, an armchair, a few side tables, a small television, and a bookcase was all the furniture in it. The walls were dull off-white, the carpet tan. But what made if different – better – than her house were the pictures everywhere on the wall. Photographs of Anna's friends, family, of his himself were on every conceivable flat surface or place on the wall, and dominating one wall was a huge landscape painting. It was beautiful.
"Here, to dry off," he said, returning with a towel.
"Thanks." She wiped off the excess water from her skin and hair before wrapping it around her. "This is really beautiful. Who painted it? Monet or someone like that?"
Anna smiled and shook his head. "Nyet. Nyet." His voice was quiet and he didn't say anything, thinking about his answer. "My fiancée painted it."
She blinked and stared, more surprised than any other emotion. "Fiancée? You're getting married?"
"I was to be married." He straightened a blanket on the couch and picked up an old sweatshirt from the local university.
Pity replaced her emotions, and she sat down on newly cleared the couch. "What happened? If you want to tell me," she added.
Anna sat down as well, but in the arm chair, leaning forward to look the shirt in his hands. "I came here for graduate studies. My great-grandfather Elim supported me, and my parents let me come because he did. I met a very nice girl, Kalina. Lina. We were to be married, we had a big wedding planned, all the details. My family was going to come. But we had to cancel. My Uncle Sergei, he was stupid and trusted the wrong people, lost most of my family's money and risked our livelihood. I had to go home to help."
He took a deep breath. "It took years, and Lina forget about me. Nyet, nyet, I'm being cruel. She did not forget me, but she stopped loving me. She met another man and she marry him instead. She told me in a letter."
Loren reached out to touch his arm, trying to offer sympathy and comfort. "Why'd you come back?"
"I am a black sheep. I did not want to stay and be like everyone else. But I did not come back right away. I stay with my parents, helping to pick up the pieces. But a few years ago, when one of my old friends offers me a job here, I take it."
"You took a job installing internet?"
"It is the American dream, isn't it?" he quipped. "But that was not my job then. I did not like it and I quit, though I still do some work for them. And instead of going back home, I get a new job. I do not just install internets, only when people call in sick."
She laughed lightly. "My mistake. And you kept her painting?" Loren thought she might have burned it.
"I keep all of her paintings. I love her. And they are all very beautiful, but this one is my favorite." He looked up at the landscape.
"She was very good."
"Da." He looked at her. "I do not blame her, and I do not hate her for it. Lina was a good woman and deserves the best. I am sure she is happy and got what she deserves."
Loren won't have been so charitable, but she didn't say anything. "You have a lot of pictures," she said instead.
"I have too many," he said with a forced laugh. "They make dust. That is my little brother."
She looked where he indicated, seeing a smiling young man with a red nose and ears on a fence in the snow. Because of the winter clothing, it was difficult to see any resemblance, but both brothers had brown hair. There was a woman next to him. "Who is that with him? His girlfriend?"
"At the time. They broke up. He has a new one now. Elsa or Andrea or something, I cannot keep them straight."
"He a ladies' man, then?"
"Maybe." Anna leaned back in his chair. "But it is hard to keep track of those that are his friends and those who are his interests. He is a sporadic writer and forwards more e-mails than actually writes them."
Loren had an e-mail account. Besides the messages from Anna and a rare mass holiday greeting from Cassie, there was rarely anything in it she wanted to read. "How old is he?"
"He is, let me see … twenty-five? Nyet, twenty-six. One of those surprises in life. He has a degree in computer engineering and fluid mechanics, and is a hobby-pilot. He was in the military."
"Wow. What's his name?"
"Misha," she repeated. "That's a nice name. Not like Anna." She smirked.
Anna laughed. "Only friends and family call him that, actually. He was born Mikhail, but Misha is a common nickname. Sometimes when I speak with my family, I have to get used to being called Tolya again. Too long in America."
"Doesn't it bother you, not seeing your family?"
"Sometimes, da. But I speak with them often, and I visit twice a year. And I have many friends here."
"So I see," she said dryly, eyes going over the many picture frames. Some of the ones with Anna she could tell were several years old, possibly when he was in school, and a common feature caught her attention. "You wear glasses?"
"Da, I come from a family of four-eyes. As soon as I could, I got the surgery and have not missed my glasses since."
"It is nice to be able to see," she agreed quietly.
The two of them continued to talk about nothing for several hours, trapped by rain.
The second time Anna came to her house, he brought a puppy.
Loren had cried herself hoarse for three days after Champ was put down. What had started as a minor ailment had spread and exhausted her only companion for so many years. The vet had offered a few other options, but in the end, he did recommend this course of action.
She cried in front of Anna when she told him, cried so much that he made her stay the night on his couch because she was in no condition to drive, and then the next morning made her a big breakfast that she couldn't even eat it without feeling sick. He said, if she wanted, he could call in to work, but she said she'd be fine and told him to go, and then, once he was gone, she went home herself and cried into her pillow.
Everyone probably thought her mad for falling apart because of a dog, but Champ had been the only one she could rely one for almost ten years. And now he was gone, so fast and without any warning.
The next few days she barely moved, ate only the crackers she dug out of the cupboard. She took the phone off the hook and stayed dressed in her pajamas. It was melodramatic and pathetic, but she missed her friend.
When her doorbell rang, she didn't move, not until the person started keeping their finger on it nonstop and it got very annoying. She staggered up, not bothering to wipe her face, smooth her clothes, or fix her hair. When she saw who it was through the peephole, she sighed, undid the locks, and opened the door a crack.
"I don't need you to check up on me. And I don't need food," she added, noticing the large cardboard box.
The only expression Anna made to her appearance was a quick widening of his eyes, but he said, "I am not checking up on you. And I do not have food. At least I hope you do not consider it food." He did not wait for her to open the door more, pushing it and stepping through. Loren was forced to the side, but she shut the door behind him.
"So why are you here?"
"I bring you a gift. Here." He held out the box, and, giving him a look, she gingerly took it. But when it shifted in her hands unexpectedly, she screeched and he dove forward to catch it. "Careful!"
An answering yip from inside agreed.
"What did you get me?!" she demanded, even though she now had a good idea and Loren backed away from the box, arms crossed over her chest.
He set the box down, opened it, and withdrew a small fluffy tri-colored puppy, who instantly yipped and licked his face, shaking with excitement.
"You got me a puppy?! Champ just died and you got me another dog?! What kind of idiot are you?"
Anna gave her a reproachful look. "A friend at work needed to get rid of them. Here." He held the small thing out.
She backed away, glaring.
"I do not want him!"
"You have to take it. My apartment does not let me have dogs. If you do not, I have to take him to the pound."
"Then give it back! I don't want it." She stalked away, back to her couch. Anna, with the puppy, followed. She sank back into her couch and hugged her pillow, glaring over it at the pair.
The puppy was a wiggling mass in Anna's arms. The man sat in a chair and somehow managed to look dignified and nonchalant with the creature yipping and licking his face. After a few minutes, Loren was glad she had the pillow, because it hid her emerging smile.
"I see you have been coping well. I was concerned when you did not answer your phone."
He smiled and raised his head so the puppy couldn't lick him so much. "Da, I see. I'm sure crackers are very filling," he agreed, having noticed the plastic wrappers.
Anna opened his mouth to make another comment, got puppy tongue, spat, and tried again. "And basic grooming and hygiene is no longer necessary."
Loren glared and didn't respond, slouching.
Before he made another comment, Anna stopped, looked down at the puppy, and then sighed when he extracted his arm. The sleeve had a faint wet spot of puppy urine. "Excuse me," he said, standing up. She nearly made a comment about not taking anything that wasn't potty trained, but couldn't because he dropped the puppy directly on top of her pillow. "Watch him while I clean up."
She had only grabbed the puppy so it didn't go tumbling away. "Hey –" she yelled, but Anna had already made it out of the room. Loren scowled in his direction, and then at the puppy. "Stop that!" she scolded when it tried to lick the salt from her face. It annoyed her for a good ten seconds before puppy magic worked.
"Aren't you a pretty boy?" she murmured, scratching his perky ears. Maybe she was being disloyal to Champ, melting to the little guy, but petting the small ball of fluff made her feel lighter. It didn't remove the pain, it didn't dull it, but it somehow made it bearable.
"You like the puppy now? He can stay here?" Anna asked after several minutes later, smiling smugly from the door frame while she hugged the puppy.
"Just because I don't want him to go to the pound," she sniffed.
"What's his name?"
"Auburn, I think Jenny said, but you can change it."
"No. I like it." She cuddled with the puppy, burying her nose into his fur. "Auburn." When she looked up, Anna was looking at her, lips quirked in a half smile. "Thank you."
"Do not thank me," he dismissed. "Auburn needed a home. And you need food. I cook dinner. You … play with the puppy."
It was a good division of labor, Loren thought.
The first time Loren met Anna friends had been an accident.
It was only an accident in that it wasn't planned. Loren doubted Anna was intentionally hiding her, and she wasn't avoiding them. It was merely that their lives never crossed like that. Aside from random e-mails, confirmation phone calls, a few visits, and their weekly luncheon, they really didn't intrude on each other's lives. Loren's neighbors knew about Anna and Anna's friends heard Loren's name, but that was about as far as they infringed.
They had just been leaving the lunch, having come to a draw about which Star Trek series -- and failing that, which particular captain, doctor, or other position – was best. Neither had been a staunch supporter of one in particular, but they enjoyed countering whatever points the other made.
Anna, opening the door for her, had been saying that no matter how good Dr. McCoy was, the Doctor would be better, while Loren countered it wasn't a fair comparison because there was a century between them. "Does not matter," he stated. "If I were dying, I would trust the Doctor to find cure. I want the best."
"All he has is lots of data, that doesn't mean he's better. You think he'd do better if they both came up against the same unknown disease? All he'd do is keep you alive until someone else found the cure."
"I want to be kept alive, and if –"
"Anna? I thought I heard your distinctive twang!"
The two of them turned to see a man leaving the bookstore, bag in hand. "Larry!" Anna said, blinking and then smiling. "What are you doing here?"
"I can read. And who is this lovely lady?"
Loren laughed. He was too amusing.
"This is Loren. Loren, this is Larry. He is old friend."
"Enchanté, Loren," he said, taking her hand and instead of shaking it, he bent over it.
She gave Anna a look, who rolled his eyes. "Nice to meet you, Larry." Once she had her hand back, she said, "I'll see you next week, Anna."
"Bye Larry." And over Larry's protests, she left.
That was how she met the first of Anna's friends. It probably wouldn't have gone further had Anna not have had nosy friends, but the next week several of his friends just happened to also visit the same bookstore at the same time. Auburn nearly had a heart attack because all the excitement and pets. Loren was more amused than annoyed, and Anna was more resigned than anything else, and he apologized for the intrusions.
"They do not often get let out in public," he finished, sighing at the direction the latest one had gone.
"Don't worry about it," Loren said, working on drinking her coffee before it got too cold. "They were nice."
"I should have expected. Larry has a big mouth and makes drama of everything. All week I've been asked about my pretty blond."
She laughed again. "A pretty blond in California. How original. I hope you told the truth about me."
"I said you were very nice."
He shrugged, hiding his smile. "I tried to be honest, but they thought I was lying and were worse. If I say what they want, they go away."
"No. If you tell them the truth, I'm interesting and they want more details. If you lie, I'm bland and boring. It works."
"But you are bland and boring."
"So you lied by telling the truth?"
Anna grinned. "I tell them you are nice and we are friends and meet to eat, which was a dumb thing to say."
"Yeah, that was pretty stupid," she agreed, finishing her coffee. "But I don't meet you for your brains, but your cooking."
"It is the same for me."
"I don't cook."
His look said he was well aware of that fact. "I meet for my cooking. It gives me chance to test foods on unsuspecting person. You eat anything."
"Not anything," she protested, though it was mostly true. As long as Anna did not tell her what was in whatever he made, she at least gave it a bite.
They left before any more of Anna's friends appeared, purpose done and more for Anna's benefit than hers. The last thing he wanted was to give more fodder to his friends to torment him with, and Loren respected him enough to not make his life miserable if she wasn't there to witness it.
Two days before their next luncheon, there was an e-mail from Anna, which she only knew she had because she checked it just before she left to go to said luncheon. He had stated in no uncertain terms they were meeting at the park that was three bus stops before the bookstore, because everyone he worked with were busybody idiots.
Curious, she noted the address to the park, packed up Auburn, and, stopping only to get their regular coffees, was only a few minutes late. She looked around the small park and found Anna already eating.
"Next time you change our place, call. I'm not you and compulsively checks my e-mail fifteen times a day," she said by way of greeting. "I would have been sitting at our table alone like an idiot, starving."
"You would have had company soon enough," Anna stated, taking his coffee. "But I'm sorry. Next time, I call."
"So why are you hiding?"
"They know who you are."
"Yes, that is what happens when you're introduced. And what's this?"
"Eat first, then I tell you. And my friends learn your … connection to … to them," he finished lamely.
Loren, almost ready to chew, froze and looked up. "Oh."
He shifted, still eating. "They are eager idiots, don't listen to me. I thought you would be uncomfortable."
Of course she would have been. "We could have just cancelled this week," she said, finally starting to eat the dumpling-like meal.
Anna rolled his eyes. "I work on this for hours. I'm not cancelling."
"Hours?" she repeated, not believing because she knew it was not true. These couldn't have taken him more than an hour.
"I have to shop, I have to look for recipe, I have to change recipe. Hours," he affirmed, though he was smiling.
"I stand corrected. They're good. What are they?"
"You know, one week, you could just make hamburgers."
He snorted. "Why? We could go to McDonalds if we eat that."
"I think yours would be a better than theirs."
"Da, they would."
"Or you could just make a dessert one time," she continued.
"Maybe." He knocked a bit of food to the ground for Auburn, who gobbled it instantly before sitting pretty again. "You are not mad, then, that I make us meet here."
"No. It's a bit of a relief, I guess, better than being questioned about people I never see or have nothing to do with." Her tone was momentarily bitter. "But what would you have done if it was been raining?"
"Good thing it is not." Loren shook her head in amusement. "My friends want to invite you to party."
"What? I don't even know them."
Anna looked up. "I rephrase. They want me to bring you to party. Big anniversary. The big five."
"You mean five-oh."
Surprised, Loren said, "Well, it is California. When is it? I can make sure to have plans, if you want."
"If you want to come, I can take you. I will relent to the nagging and pressure," he said, rolling his eyes. "I did not want you to be made to."
"Thanks." Toying with her food, she thought about the idea of meeting new people and found she liked it. "When is it? Maybe I really do have plans."
He gave her the date, and then added, "They still have no tact and are idiots. I can tell them not to ask, but they don't listen to me."
"Anna, I can deal with it. Have you met my neighbors? I can manage," she soothed. "I'm not made of glass."
"Then I make us meet here for no reason!"
"All right, all right, I admit, forewarning is nice. And just tell them, if they piss me off, I'll go Kujo on their asses. Literally."
"So you want to come?"
"I don't think I have anything that evening, so it'll be fun."
"You like dentists, too?"
She laughed. "They're your friends!"
"All together in small space," he added. "They'll be concentrated. And I know them. There will be drama."
"As long as the party doesn't end with a divorce, I think it'll be fine. Do I have to bring anything, like a dish or something?"
"Nyet, not have to. Catered." Anna's tone carried his opinion on that, or at least on the caters that were being used. "Besides, you can't cook."
"You know, I can cook some things, Anna."
"Mac 'n' cheese from box does not count."
Sometimes, Loren wanted to witness Anna make something burned and completely inedible. "You know, I actually have no proof you've made any of this. You could be lying and are the world's worst cook," she said.
"I make all of these," he said shortly. If he had known less of her, Anna might have had his pride wounded greatly, but he knew enough about her to realize she was striking back with no true faith in her words. Still, he was mildly insulted, because it was how he was, and it showed in his posture.
Since they were eating in a park, afterwards they spent a few minutes tossing a stick for Auburn to chase after and letting the children pet the puppy before leaving. Loren drove Anna to his apartment and said she'd call to let him know one way or the other for sure.
It was amusing to see that she did have something planned for that evening. She still put hours in at the Crisis Center, though less than in her life before. Sometimes Loren volunteered for similar activities, soup kitchens and the like, though she was careful not to advertise herself. It just made everything awkward, and she wasn't doing it for recognition. These days, she wasn't even doing it because it was the right thing to do. Her motives were far more selfish, merely to keep her busy and not isolated. Sometimes Loren thought about getting a job where she didn't need many skills or a degree, instead of continuing to rely on the monetary thank-you, her old insurance settlement, and the rather sporadic paychecks she got from the odd short-term stay-at-home jobs she took to try and keep busy. Money was never tight, but she couldn't afford to be too extravagant in her spending. That wasn't a problem for Loren, because she had years living frugally. Anna may mock living on Ramon, peanut butter, and Mac 'n' cheese, but a person could survive on it. Her only recent extravagant purchases had been the house – and then filling it up with things – and her car.
After about an hour on the phone sorting out a rearranged schedule with all the parties, she called Anna to let him know she was coming.
"Are you sure you want to?" he asked.
Loren laughed. "Do you not want to be seen with me, Anna?" she teased. "Afraid I'll embarrass you in front of your friends?"
"Change who will be doing the embarrassing and you'll be right." However, he didn't continue trying to dissuade her. "The party starts at six, supper at seven."
"I can pick you up. This'll be fun."
"You are a very strange woman, Loren."
"Thank you, Anna."
The weeks building up to the date didn't fly by or drag any faster for her. On the day of, Loren wore a comfortable dress shirt and skirt, took her small gift, and picked up Anna. They traded spots in the car, as he knew where they were going, and as he drove, he warned her about the many guests. Loren listened to none of it, because she wouldn't remember it anyway.
They ended up in front of a large reception hall some twenty minutes away, and Loren let herself out and looked eagerly at the milling people. Anna followed slower, and he looked like someone being led to the gallows. "You did want to come to this, didn't you?" Loren asked, feeling guilty. She hoped he wasn't doing this just because she wanted to meet people.
"Nyet. Da," he corrected quickly. "They are my friends."
"But?" she probed.
"It will be crowded. And there will be fights." He sighed. "There always is. Not all my friends are friends. Not once they get into their drink."
"Ah, the drama you mentioned."
"Da, the drama. Parties I go to always end same way. Unless I am lucky and I get hit trying to stop fight."
Loren kept this in mind. "And if you're unlucky?"
"I get hit and vomited on."
"Maybe they're won't be any alcohol."
He looked at her like she was mad. "Then it would not be a party!"
Sometimes she just shouldn't even try. "Come on, let's go in."
Anna guided her in, and Loren quickly realized what he meant by crowded. The place was full of people talking and chatting, some even dancing, with barely any room to get through. Anna pushed his way through and she followed, smiling and nodding at the people. They hadn't been inside two minutes before Loren heard several people call Anna's name, and he grinned and called their names back, waving.
And then Loren was being introduced to people, shaking hands and laughing, and someone got her a drink. It was a bit over-whelming, she wouldn't hesitate to admit, and part of Loren saw what Anna meant by drama. Anna was generally a stoic and quiet man, but his friends, at least once they got some drinks in them, weren't. They were loud and boisterous, and they weren't shy in saying they wanted to ask something but Anna said they couldn't but they planned on asking anyway. More than a few were disappointed that she really didn't mingle with any of the heroes of the war, and some might have been disappointed in her, but Loren, on the whole, was not disappointed.
Eventually Anna figured she wasn't going to be eaten alive, at least not without a fight, and he disappeared into a group of friends by the bar, laughing and toasting loudly as they entered an impromptu drinking competition. She didn't bemoan his absence, because his friends were nice and friendly.
By the time supper was to be served, she still hadn't figured out exactly who exactly the anniversary couple consisted of, but she had given her history with Anna at least five times. Instead of sitting next to Anna at a table, several dragged her to sit with them, and she went willingly. While she didn't know who Betty was, Loren found herself very curious about this affair.
As per Anna's predication, there was a scuffle at the bar, which she only noticed because of a minor increase in yelling. The women merely rolled their eyes. "Matt. The man can't hold anything," one of them said.
"No, it was Joey. You know, because of his wife."
There was a knowing look around the table.
With everyone actually sitting at the tables, it seemed less crowded. It was still loud, Loren had to lean forward to hear and yell to be heard, but she had quite a bit of fun until someone brought up talk about Hork-Bajir. It started as a light mention before spiraling into something more negative. She frowned at the words and descriptions. Having lived with the aliens for some time, she couldn't bring herself to disparage them.
"They are not monsters. They are some of the best people in the world," she said, setting down her silverware and glaring.
It was the start of a veritable debate at their table, and for anyone who could overhear. Loren was not afraid of her opinions and she was not so desperate for companionship that she wouldn't speak them, especially in defense of the tree-herders. The argument spread to the Taxxons and Yeerks and even Andalites, which Loren had less positive things to speak about. It turned out few people were pleased to be allowing aliens on Earth, making room for them when humans had enough issues, or turning the planet into a tourist spot.
By the time the meal ended, Loren was sick of the discussion and slipped away to the bar for another drink. She had to dance around a few rather drunk friends and over-eager persons that wanted to meet Anna's blond date, but it was nothing she couldn't handle.
"So you're Anna's little bird?" a lady bartender said, leaning across the counter.
"Apparently," Loren smiled, taking a drink. Across the room, the argument she left still raged on.
"It's about time. Anna's been pining for that bitch Lina since she left him," she said, opening a bottle of beer for herself.
"He did mention her."
The woman leaned closer. "Just so you know what kind of tramp you're dealing with, she had the nerve to ask us if he was around after her divorce."
"Divorce?" Loren repeated. "Anna never said anything about that."
"That's because he don't know. No one's gonna tell him. And if you do, you'll have a long line of everyone who'll kick your ass, starting with me and going twice around the block. If he knew, he'd go and stupidly ask her to marry him."
"If he wants to."
"You are a blond."
"The bitch would bleed him dry and divorce him. Or string him along. One or the other. He doesn't need his heart broken twice."
Loren nodded and took another drink to keep from answering. She had only ever heard of Anna's impression of Lina, and he was admittedly biased, but Loren had never bothered to think about his ex-fianceé beyond being angry on Anna's behalf that she had left him at the proverbial alter. Apparently the woman was not as perfect as Anna believed, though it was just as likely his friends were biased in the opposite direction.
"So how is he in bed?"
She almost choked. "We're just friends."
The woman gave her a look. "It's just girl talk, you can say."
"We haven't. We're just friends. Without those benefits," she added.
"Oh. Damn." She took a drink. "There goes twenty bucks."
"What? Did you … bet?"
"Of course. Damn, I seriously thought he had to be getting some. He must be."
"Just not with me," Loren grinned. "Dare I ask why you think that?"
She laughed and shrugged. "Because celibacy is over-rated. And, between us girls, I wouldn't kick him out. I'd have jumped him if I were you. Damn, if I was him, I'd jump you. Even if I wasn't him, I would."
Loren laughed more to cover up her nervousness at the conversation. "He cooks me lunch, that's it."
"Just imagine his breakfasts. And you could work up an appetite." The woman waggled her eyebrows before laughing gaily. "Whatever you two do, you keep doing it. I'll take anything that gets him meeting a woman outside of work."
"I met him when he was working."
"I thought he said it was a bookstore."
"Six months later. The first time we met was when he had to hook something up for me," she explained.
The woman nodded. "Well, that's a nice little cute-meet. Oh, there's John! I should get by him. This is our party!"
Loren watched her dart away from the bar, not a little surprised. "No wonder they threw a party for their fifth anniversary. They'll be lucky to make it to six," she mused.
A few more people came over to speak with her, some even asked to dance, but soon she decided it was time to good home. It wasn't late by any means, but the novelty of new people whom she didn't know had faded. And besides, she had to get home and let Auburn out before he wet all over the floor.
Braving the crowd and following the familiar voice, he found Anne in a heated discussion with several of his friends at a table. It was nothing serious that she could tell, they were talking about something electronic, and were surrounded by bottles and glasses of drink. Anne accent was thicker, but otherwise he was steady in his seat.
There was some good natured teasing from his friends when they noticed her, things about girlfriend and blond, but Anne scowled at them. "Da?"
"Hey, I'm just telling you I'm heading out. Do you have a ride?"
"You're leaving? It is early! You not having fun?" he asked, concerned.
She laughed. "I had a great time, but I'm exhausted. I think I need to build up to all-nighters. You'll be all right?"
"I be fine. Someone give me a ride or I take the bus."
Someone pushed him and hissed in what he must have thought was a quiet way. "Ah, Anna, you idiot! Go home with the lady! Look at her!"
"She wants you, man!"
They were obviously drunk, so Loren did not take offense. However, Anna was a different story, and she spoke fast to avoid his temper coming out. "Thanks for inviting me. And if you do need a ride, give me a call."
"I will be fine," he repeated, glaring at his friends.
"See you at lunch."
And she left, saying good-bye to anyone who she remembered and ran into. Some begged her to stay a little longer, but most told her to drive safe and that it was pleasure to have met her. She left with many e-mail addresses and phone numbers tucked in her purse, and had given out hers without a thought, though later she hoped she wouldn't have to change either of them.
Auburn was beyond excited to have her back, as he always was, and he sniffed her shoes and person for the unknown scents before rushing off to relieve his bladder. At home, the full extent of her exhaustion hit and she was in bed within the hour. If Anna had called for a ride, she slept through it.
The first time Loren saw Anna without his Van Dyke-style facial hair, she didn't recognize him, and when she did, she nearly choked on her laughter. He scowled at her.
"What … what happened?"
"I lost a bet. I either have to shave head or face," he said, bending to pet a barking Auburn, who had been trying to levitate to his lap. On days with good weather, she took the dog with and they sat at an outside table.
"Good choice. And a few days in the sun, no one will notice. What was the bet?"
He stubbornly refused to tell her, instead making the puppy go through simple tricks. "He is better." Auburn only made a few mistakes, and Loren thought that was because he was an excited puppy who didn't understand Anna's accent.
"He's smart. And don't worry, it'll grow back and no one will remember the great Anna lost a bet."
He mumbled something while digging in his bag for the food.
"Nothing," he said shortly, handing over the Tupperware. He also withdrew a third one, which he opened and set on the ground for Auburn. "Scraps. No use."
Loren rolled her eyes. Anna tended to have a lot of scraps with no use these days. Apparently not trusting food that came already prepared in bags, cans, and/or boxes also extended to dogs as well as humans. "So tell me why you had to shave."
She pouted for a few seconds before complying. They spent a few minutes with her praising and questioning the meal – some dish from South America, Anna said he found it online and wanted to try it – before drifting into other general topics. Anna periodically rubbed his face and frowned.
"It's not that bad."
"My face is cold."
Loren gave him a look. "Your beard wasn't that big, Anna. It couldn't have kept you that warm, especially in California."
"It did. Now my face is freezing."
She kicked him gently. "You're an idiot. It'll grow back. And honestly, you aren't completely disfigured without it. It's weird, yes, but not bad." She finished her last forkful. "And you know what would go good with this? Ice cream."
"Nyet, it would not."
"Trust me, ice cream goes with everything." She dug for her purse and got some money. "What flavor do you want?"
"Anything but strawberry."
"Keep an eye on puppy," she said, leaving. Auburn didn't notice for several seconds, but once he did, he barked frantically and pulled on his tied leash trying to follow her. He had enough puppy power to move the table a few inches and spilled some of the coffee.
"Bad dog," Anna scolded him sharply before picking him up from the ground and mopping the mess with some napkins. "Look at mess you made!" Auburn was not contrite, licking his face.
It only took Loren five minutes to get two cones of ice cream, and she had already finished half of it by the time she made it back. There was a complicated twisting in order to hand over the cone without sharing it with Auburn. Loren took the bouncing puppy from Anna and set him on the ground. Auburn instantly jumped up and tried getting into her lap. "Nyet. Down. Sit."
He obeyed the command for two seconds before it became too much. Loren set the Tupperware on the ground and he eagerly attacked it.
"You could sell your own brand of dog food," she grinned. She already knew Anna had no intention of ever opening a restaurant from previous discussions. He liked to cook for himself, for people he knew, for fun. As a job, he felt he'd be miserable.
"A dog willing to eat food is not a good sign for that."
"Maybe not," she agreed.
The first time Loren spoke to Anna's mother, it was because Anna had been doing the dishes and had soapsuds up to his elbows. It was drizzling outside, she could have managed it, but it had become habit for them linger at Anna's if it was raining. Anna had a huge collection of musicals – a private obsession – and usually they watched one of them, or at least she did. She had few movies of her own.
When the phone rang, Anna asked her to get it. "It is Nata. She said she call."
So Loren leaned over to the phone and picked it up. "Anna's apartment. Loren speaking."
There was a long silence, so long that Loren would have hung up, but finally there was a woman's voice. "Tolya?" It was the accent, heavy and thick, that clued Loren in.
"Just a minute, I'll get him." She jumped up. "Anna, it's not Nata. Someone else."
"Who?" he asked, turning around.
"A woman who sounds like you."
His eyes narrowed in confusion before he wiped his hands and took the phone. "Hello?" He only a listened for a moment before blurting out, "Mama?" His eyes instantly went a clock on the wall, what he said was set to his native time. It was almost midnight and he spoke in his native language his confusion and concern.
Loren sat back down, watching the man and trying to understand what was going on. Calls at midnight were never good. Yet Anna's face relaxed when he listened, before turning exasperated and saying something back, and Loren thought she heard her name. He kept speaking before looking at her awkwardly and going into his bedroom for more privacy.
"I can leave," Loren said, sticking her head in.
Anna shook his head and covered the mouthpiece. "Nyet, nyet," he whispered. "This is nothing bad. I be done so—" He stopped and started speaking his language again.
Back on the couch, Loren leaned and tried to listen even if she couldn't understand. The movie was forgotten. Yet within fifteen minutes, Anna was back. "Is something wrong?"
"Nyet, my mother merely call to tell me about everyone expects me in a week." It was the second time he would be returning home since they had met. Their luncheons were, of course, placed on hold, and this time Anna promised to bring her a cheap knickknack. He understood her look. "I suspect trouble of some sort. Normally, it is me calling at midnight to speak with them."
"But nothing bad happened?"
"Nyet, nyet. She just call to make sure I come, not cancel at last minute. Do it once and you are forever not trusted to make it home."
"You bad boy. And did I hear my name get mentioned in there?"
Anna smiled. "Da. My mother was surprised and confused." He shrugged.
"She doesn't know you as Anna, so it makes sense. What are you going to do when you see them?"
"Just spend time with them. Maybe we will go to the theatre. Things like that, what you do with family."
She nodded, wrapping her arms around her legs. She had never done that. Before she could think too long on the cold truth, Loren grinned and said, "Do you know, Will called me?"
"Yes. He fed me some line about keeping me company for the week since you're away."
"He did?" Anna looked confused for a moment. "He said he was going to, I did not believe him. If I did, I would have warned you."
"Hey, don't worry about it. He seems nice." She stretched her legs. "I think he's planning on us eating in some restaurant or something like that. Some big surprise."
He made a sound. "He is idiot. You should get along well. Now I know why he kept hounding me about you all week. I thought he merely try to make my life miserable."
"Asking about me? Like what?" she asked eagerly. Will, five years off a divorce, dated anything with two legs, male or female. She found it a surprise he'd look at her, closer to middle age than youth. But, then again, Will wasn't picky.
Anna went back to the sink. "What he always asks. Color of eyes, favorite flowers, color, foods. Like I know answers."
"Oh, god," she said, burying her face in her hands. Those sorts of questions promised nothing good with a luncheon with Will. "And what did you tell him?"
"I said I didn't know. He was upset with me, I think. I was no help."
"I'm not surprised, except that you couldn't tell him what I'd eat." They didn't have that sort of friendship. If Anna gave her flowers, Loren knew he'd tell her what parts she had to eat with what spices.
Anna laughed. "Da, perhaps."
And he went back to the dishes and she went back to the movie.
When Anna had to catch his plane, she didn't bother seeing him off. They had lunch the day before and said what they had to. Anna had only been gone a day before Will called and begged his lunch with her. She agreed because it would save trouble in the long run. Will picked her up in his Rolls Royce, took her to some moderately dressy restaurant, ordered for her, and simpered.
"You must be absolutely bereft with Anna," he sighed.
"No, not really."
"Ah, that's good. And I hope you don't feel too disappointed that I didn't make anything for you like Anna does."
"I wouldn't expect you to."
He leaned forward. "You know, half the floor can't figure out how you did it."
"Get him to make lunch for you. Anna's refused to for years."
Loren laughed. "All I said was I didn't think he could actually cook."
"And he let you live?" Will sat back and laughed.
"He's killing me slowly by raising my cholesterol."
Will leaned back in what was a practiced debonair pose. "And you continue to lower yourself to mingle with the Commie."
"He brings food, whether he cooked it or not."
"Well, enough about Anna. Let's talk about me."
Loren smiled and agreed, and listened to Will expound himself, usually by comparing how much better he was than Anna or some other person she knew. She humored him, because it seemed like it was the only way Will could feel decent about himself. The divorce must have been a real blow to his ego. Lunch was, for once, a long affair, and Loren was relieved when the check finally arrived. Will beat her to the folder, demanding it was his treat. Loren allowed him to it, and then casually was vague on her agreements to meeting again. While Will was good company when there was additional company, she decided as a sole companion, he was trying on the nerves.
When Anna returned and their normal lunches resumed, she was relieved when Will stopped calling. He gave her the promised gift, which she eagerly opened and was delighted with the nesting doll. All opened, there were ten the little figures. "They're adorable, Anna!"
"I knew you'd like them," he said, pleased with himself while she put the dolls away slowly, admiring the intricate painting.
"Someone said I wouldn't?"
"They scold me for giving child's toy. I say simple thing for simple mind."
"Tch! Did you have fun?"
He took a sip of his coffee. "My brother is to be married."
Her eyes widened and she sat up straight. "Really?"
Anna nodded. "Da. To a girl named Ilsa. They be married in three months."
"They are young, eager. And it is not that soon."
"So what's she like?"
He was quiet, thinking about his words. "She is a nice girl."
"But Misha likes her. She is his choice. I promise I send them on their honeymoon, wherever they wish."
"That's nice of you."
"I hope it makes them not come here. I do not want to show newlyweds around, and I do not want them in my apartment."
Loren laughed. "Such a generous big brother you are, Anna."
"Da, I am." He turned his cup in a slow circle. "It is least I could do for Misha. We are not close, because of me, because I choose to live here."
"That doesn't mean you're wrong to do it, Anna."
"Nyet, I know that and I do not regret my choice, except that I am away from my family. I miss them."
Sometimes, Loren wondered if her son missed her, but then realized, no, he couldn't miss what he never had. She could not even claim to miss him. She wanted to, desperately, but, in the end, she did not have a gapping hole in her at his continued absence. Perhaps she was no better than him. Unable to say anything, she leaned back and sipped her coffee.
It wasn't her first phone call in the middle of the night. Unable to think of the worst that could happen, Loren groggily clawed for the phone. Auburn lifted his head before dropping it back down.
"Hello?" she mumbled.
"Is this Loren?"
"Anna?" No, wait, the voice was wrong. The accent was okay, but the voice …. "Who is this?"
"I am Misha Shcherbakov, Anatoliy's brother."
Still sleepy, she struggled with the accent. "Misha? What, why are you calling? Your brother's not here, he's at his apartment. It's the middle of the night. Go back to bed."
He laughed. "Sorry, sorry. I call to invite you to my wedding."
"My wedding," he repeated. "You come."
She was too sleepy to be flattered or to think this through. "M'kay. That's nice. Anything else?"
"Yeah, sure. Say hi to Ilsa for me. Good night." And she hung up and was asleep within seconds. It wasn't until Anna called at a decent hour, and after her coffee, that she even remembered.
"Did Misha invite you to his wedding?"
"Wha, huh? Who?" Loren repeated. "What are you talking about?"
Anna started again, slower. "My brother. He left message to say you accepted his invitation."
"I didn't … ooooh. Oh, I might have."
"The phone rang like at two in morning. I can't remember what I said." She rubbed her hair. "That must have been him, I think I thought he was looking for you. I was barely awake."
He sighed. "I am sorry. He had my phone for a while, he must have gotten your number then. I am sorry. I will tell him you cannot make it."
Loren fell back on her couch. "Why would he invite me anyway? He doesn't even know me."
"I cannot say."
"Does he know about me?"
Silence followed her question, followed by a long stream of his native language. "That must be it. I am sorry. I will call him back now."
She sighed and rubbed her forehead. "Anna, look, don't make this a big deal. He's your brother. If it will make him happy, I'll come. It's his wedding, his day."
"You should not have to!"
"I know. Don't worry about it one way of the other. If it matters that much, I don't want you getting into a fight about this, not with your brother." She could hear his scowl. "Anna, promise me you won't blow this up."
"I will not blow up."
"Good. And if I have to, well, I always wanted to see Europe."
"Not much to see."
"Still, I see. Whatever you two hash out, just tell me at lunch this week."
"Okay. Again, I sorry for my brother."
Loren chuckled. "I can definitely tell you're brothers, you know. Bye, Anna."
He bid a distracted echo before hanging up, and Loren hoped nothing untoward would happen. While she had no pressing desire to go to Anna's homeland, she hadn't lied when she said she had wanted to see some of the world. See being the operative world. If this was how the opportunity came about, she wasn't going to turn it away.
By the time their weekly lunch came around, she was mildly curious at the outcome and came a little earlier than her wont, though she pretended it was because she wanted to check out Jake's book. The reviews said he told about Rachel and her son, and that was ever the only part of the books she wanted to read.
Within a few pages, she wished she hadn't. While Loren doubted Jake lied or exaggerated, it was an uncomfortable reading such honesty. Would it have been different if she could have found Tobias, if they could have lived together and been the family they could have, should have been?
She had meant well … but everyone knew what good intentions were used for.
Despite the discomfort, she read on. Her son would never tell her this, and Loren still wanted to know. True, she was skipping half of the book, but that didn't really matter. She was reaching a chapter about when the Yeerks were stalking her son, when a cousin wanted him to move in with her. Loren wasn't aware she had cousins. Maybe they could meet … or maybe the woman was dead.
She jumped and then smiled as Anna sat down. "Hey." She set the book aside.
Anna gave it a curious look. Aware of her preference on the war, it was an unusual reading choice for her. However, he didn't question it, instead handing over the food. "Were you waiting long?"
"No, no." She opened and sniffed the wafting air. It smelled delicious, as usual, and her mouth watered.
They ate in comfortable silence until midway through, when Anna cleared his throat. "My brother apologizes for waking you."
Loren could tell his brother did no such thing. This was merely Anna's way of starting a conversation he didn't want to. "It's all right."
"Da." He sighed and pushed his dish aside, rubbing his eyes. "Do you want to come to his wedding?"
"Honestly? I don't care one way or the other," she admitted. "I don't know your brother and he doesn't know me. Now why he wanted –"
"He did not know," Anna interrupted. "My family did not. Now they do." He made a face at the admission. "I know you told me not to, but I was angry at him."
"Then why did he?"
"He think he was funny. When I visited, my mama wanted to know about the girl who answered my phone." There was a pained look on his face for a second, and it kept Loren from laughing.
"If it'll make it harder on you if I come, I won't," she said.
"It will be harder now if you don't."
"Well, then I'll come. I suppose I should take a crash course in your language."
Anna shook his head. "Most speak some English, and I will be there."
"Even still." Loren had a feeling that while Anna might translate, he wouldn't translate everything. "So when is it?"
He told her the date, and then added, "We are lucky. It will not be too cold, but you will need coat and boots. I have extra coat you can use."
That was right, Anna lived where it was cold and snow fell. She had forgotten about that. "Thanks. And I'll buy some warmer clothes, and something nice for the service."
"Service isn't important. The reception is. Wear shoes you can dance in. Nice clothes. Nothing fancy. No one will remember anyway. We all be drunk by the end."
She made a face at that. "Not me."
He grinned at her. "Have to. Only way wedding is a success. Have to get drunk both days."
"Da. Wedding lasts two days. There are lots of games and is funny, if you are not the bride or groom. Everyone makes fun of them. My brother has to win Ilsa before the ceremony and then pay ransom if she is stolen. I will have to bring lots of money."
She giggled. "That sounds fun. So I guess I should get a passport."
"And visa. You need one to enter the country."
He nodded. "Da. Lots of annoying paperwork. My family is sponsoring you."
"You have to do all this when you visit?"
Anna laughed. "Nyet. I am dual citizen. I just need passports and make sure they stay current. And it is not so bad, once you get used to it. First time is awful."
"Thanks," she said, sarcastic. "You're really making me want to do this. And I'll have to get a hotel and have someone watch Auburn."
"My parents insist you to stay with them, but I do not know where they put you. They have a small apartment."
"What do you do?"
"I go in my old room. Misha and I will probably share this time."
"Ah, so you'll listen to him go on and on about Ilsa. You won't have any trouble going to sleep then."
"Nyet, he will keep me up whole night." He poked at his food. "I will book the flight. The wedding is on Friday, but we should leave Tuesday so we get used to the time difference. It always takes me a day or two."
"Tuesday?" That seemed like a long time to Loren.
"They are half a day ahead of us. If I get nonstop, we only fly maybe twelve hours, but rarely I get so lucky. Most have two stops. It takes almost full day to get there." He shrugged and gave a small smile. "Sometimes I spend hours in airports."
"Then I can go sight-seeing?" The idea pleased her more than she thought it would, and Loren felt herself getting excited at this impromptu holiday. She was going to have to buy a camera.
"If you like. And if there is time. And you are awake."
"I think I will. And stop picking at your food. You know it's not poisoned. Or is it?"
"Only to heart and arteries."
She nodded with approval. "All good foods are."
"You do not have to go if you do not want to," he said again.
"It'll be fun," she repeated. "Dancing and drinking. What more can someone want?"
Anna laughed and agreed. When they finished eating, he promised to forward her details and help her get everything ready. After they stood up and moved a few steps, he looked back. "You not going to buy your book?"
Loren looked back at the table, then shook her head. "I don't think there's anything more I can learn from it. Nothing important."
The first time Loren was on an airplane, she almost threw up. Her ears popped and her stomach rolled, which killed a lot of her excitement. Anna looked at her with a cross of pity and amusement before leaning back with his book.
"Why did I let you talk me into this?" she moaned.
"It is not that bad. Take nap."
"I thought I was suppose to stay up and get my clock set or something?" she scowled even as she curled up under the coat in the too small seat.
"Sleep. You feel better."
She didn't sleep, because it was weird. Anna insisted he pay for the flight because he had so many frequent flier miles to waste, and he helped her pack, which mostly consisted of him saying she was bringing too much. He insisted everything either had to be worn or had to fit in a carry all. One bad experience with lost luggage ruined him for life. If they needed something, it was better to just buy it. And he said she better make sure she had room for souvenirs and threw out even more of her things.
Loren hadn't admitted it, but she had a panic attack before they left. She nearly backed out, suddenly afraid that while she was gone, her son would come. And when he did, she'd been gone, and he'd think she didn't want him and she'd lose him forever. She even cried for a while and punched in six of the seven digits on Anna's number.
But eventually she got control of herself, wiped her eyes, set the phone down, and redid her make-up. She couldn't live in fear, in what ifs, she wouldn't let herself. She'd been here for a year, it wasn't fair to worry about being gone one week. If she still looked horrible by the time Anna arrived, he didn't comment on it, instead rushing her to the waiting cab and fretting about missing the flight, which was three hours away.
She let him. It was amusing watching him be such a mother hen, and Loren wondered if all of this was for her benefit. She had a sneaking suspicion Anna was like this on all his flights.
They had to change planes in Los Angeles, which was annoying. Landing was not much better than lift-off, as far as she was concerned. They had to hang around the airport for an hour, and Anna said the next time they landed they'd be in Germany. She perked up, but it didn't last long when he said they wouldn't have time to tour anything but the nearest coffee shop.
By the time they reached Germany, the time of day was wrong and Loren was sick of sitting in a plane. They spent the time in the airport gift shop and restaurant, and Loren was impressed to hear Anna order in German. "I didn't know you could speak German."
"I can't," he admitted as they took their food. "I can order in German. Say a few other things with bad accent."
Before they boarded the plane, Anna called his family to let them know they would be there in a few hours. On the plane, he told her that they were renting a car. "It will be nearly midnight there. My family may be asleep. Though probably not. They eager to meet you."
"They better be prepared to be disappointed."
"They won't be."
Whether Anna meant disappointed or prepared, she couldn't tell, and she couldn't ask because they were boarding and there were other things to focus on. Like trying not to throw up her meal.
It was night when they landed, and Loren trudged after Anna, keeping close. She felt exhausted. Sleeping on a plane was impossible. And it was a bit unnerving to hear a language she didn't understand. In Germany, she hadn't noticed because Anna was still there. But here, he was speaking more his native language than English, and it made her a little terrified. The officials were polite to her, but going through all the checks were annoying. She had to give some paperwork and fill out more, watch it get stamped. Anna did a lot of talking for her, making her feel like a small child. Still, she tried to be polite to the officials.
"When do I get to have fun?" she moaned, following him to the car rental.
He laughed. "Soon. You are tired and cranky."
"Cranky?" she repeated. "Why'd I have to fill out all that stuff? Don't they want people to visit?"
"Only worthwhile people. And do not lose anything, otherwise you will not be able to leave without a big headache."
"This wedding really better be worth it!"
"You are baby. First time is always hard. Next time will be better."
"Next time," she scoffed. "What makes you think they'll be a next time? Your brother's not planning on marrying again, is he?"
"Shush! You'll jinx it!"
She looked out at the nightscape as Anna got the car. The city was there with its lights. It looked … like a city. She put on Anna's old coat and shivered from the unfamiliar cold. The coat was huge on her, and it smelled like Anna's aftershave.
The car was used, nothing to write home about, and it took her a few seconds to understand the wheel was on the wrong side before she rushed outside, threw everything in the back seat, and got inside. It was hardly warmer.
"It is not that cold."
"Yes, it is! There's snow on the ground!"
"Da, there is. But not much."
"So how much longer will we be sitting?"
She muttered something and, without thinking, turned on the radio. It came to her very fast that she wasn't in Kansas anymore, but she left it on and tried looking out the window. It was too dark to see anything, but there didn't seem to be any big differences.
Anna finally pulled in front of a series of apartment buildings. "We're here."
"Yay!" she said, trying to curb her sarcasm but failing.
He tolerated her, perhaps even agreeing, and they trudged everything out. Loren felt the breezy chill and tried not to rush him. It didn't seem any warmer in the building, and Anna led them up the stairs.
She might die before they made it, and Loren was glad Anna made her pack light. Both of them were gasping for breath when they reached the floor, but Loren nodded when Anna motioned for her to be quiet as they made towards the door.
It really was silly to do, because the second the door cracked open there was a fast chatter and the door was opened fully. Loren smiled as Anna was bombarded, wrapped up in hugs and kisses from who must have been his mother. His father was saying something as well, before they remembered her.
Anna extracted himself. "Mama, Papa, this is Loren –. Loren, these are my parents, Fyodor and Mariya Shcherbakov."
"How do you do," she said, smiling and offering her hand. It surprised her when Anna's mother rushed forward, took her hands, and kissed her cheeks before saying something in her language. Loren just kept smiling, though she looked at Anna.
"Mama," Anna scolded.
"Sorry, sorry, come in, come in," she invited. Loren, used to Anna's apartment and the unspoken or explained rule, slipped off her shoes. "You very pretty."
"Ah … thank you."
"Tolya didn't tell us."
His father said something which made Anna roll his eyes and his mother laugh. Loren made a point to ask what was said later.
"You did not have to stay up for us," Anna said, attempting to regain the conversation. "It's late, we should get to sleep."
"Da, da. Tomorrow big day. Your room all set up."
"I show Loren to it and slip in with Misha."
"Nyet, nyet, his friend Petya is staying there. No room."
Anna's eyes widened and he started a fast conversation with his parents. It lasted several minutes, which made Loren feel awkward. However, the argument ended when Anna's father said something that silenced Anna. "I hope you sleep well."
"I'm sure I will, thank you," she said, before looking to Anna.
He sighed and, after kissing his parents good night, indicated she follow him. They went through the kitchen, and Anna said, "Misha's room. Bathroom. And this is my room," he said. There wasn't even a door.
"Where do your parents sleep?" she asked as she entered. There was a small bed, wardrobe, and dresser, and not much room for more people.
"Living room." He put his bag on the dresser, and she leaned hers against the wall. Anna went to the wardrobe and pulled out a quilt. "You can take bed. I sleep on floor."
"Are you sure? I can sleep there. This is your room."
"You are guest. Don't worry. I be fine."
"If you're sure." She looked at him, but Anna ignored her, so she said, "I'll just go get changed. You said the bathroom was just a door down."
After digging in her bag for her toothbrush and pajamas, she tiptoed down the hall. She could hear Anna's parents talking quietly, but she didn't understand any of it. The bathroom was a little strange the toilet and tub in separate rooms. Feeling weird in a strange apartment, she went to the bathroom, changed, and did her teeth quickly. In Anna's room, he had already changed and was fixing the floor.
"Are you sure you want the floor?" she asked again, one last time to assuage her guilt.
"Okay." She jumped onto the bed and curled under the covers, and Anna switched the light off soon.
Loren didn't fall asleep immediately. Despite the exhaustion from the travel, it was still only midday to her, not to mention everything was so very alien to her. However, she must have drifted off, because she woke up shivering and there was light coming through the window. Sitting up wrapped in the quilt, she moved to the end of the bed. Anna wasn't there.
Pushing down the feeling of panic, she got out of the bed and cautiously stuck her head out into the hall. She could hear some voices and timidly started towards them. They were from the kitchen, and she peeked in to see Anna, his parents, his brother, and a young man talking in their language.
Anna had once said he came from a family of four eyes, and he was right. His mother wore thick round frames, his father dark frames found in the fifties. Misha had thin wire frames. Aside from some general appearances, there wasn't much that said they were related. The brothers had the same color hair, and Misha had a fuller beard than Anna. Their father, grey haired, had a longer one than both. The mother was a sharp iron-grey, hair piled in a loose bun.
Loren was relieved they weren't all dressed. Her pajamas weren't that embarrassing, but as a guest she wasn't sure how she'd be seen.
Misha's friend noticed her first, and he jumped up. "Pryvet! Dobraye utro!"
Everyone noticed her. "…Um … hi. Morning," she said, uncertain.
"Did you sleep well?" Anna's mother asked, concerned.
"Yes, yes, thank you."
"We have breakfast. Tolya, take her to sit. Go, go."
Anna smiled and, with his coffee, guided her away. Misha and his friend followed.
"You weren't waiting for me to get up, were you?"
"Da. But not long," Anna said.
"You should have woken me."
"Nyet." He made her sit down in the living room before setting up a small table.
"Ummm … couldn't we have just eaten in the kitchen?"
Anna shushed her before sitting next to her. Loren looked over and saw both Misha and his friend staring at her eagerly. It was a little unnerving and she had to squash the desire to fix her hair. "Hi. I'm Loren."
"Petya. Can you really turn to animal?"
She blinked while Anna coughed and Misha jabbed his elbow. "Shhh. Forgive him. I'm Misha."
"Pleased to meet both of you. And yes, I can. So you better be careful," she said playfully to Petya, who blushed. She looked at Misha. "And how are you holding up for your big day?"
Misha responded as a young man in the throes of love would, waxing on about his fiancée and other things. Petya, who must have been victim to such ramblings before, pushed his friend to silence him when the mother brought in breakfast, the father with the dishes and silverware. It was pancakes and eggs.
"Sorry it is not so much," Anna's mother apologized.
"This is fine. Thank you, thank you."
Breakfast was delicious, though Loren would forever remember it as a time for being peppered with questions. Anna's family had little qualm asking her anything about her life and hushed Anna when he protested, which in itself was amusing. She answered them as she could, even when they turned to talk about the war. The family and friend were beyond interested to know more. Anna must have told them something, since he lived in the area, but as a closer source, she was asked to repeat everything, and she had to say everything she never cared for about Hork-Bajir, Taxxons, Yeerks, and Andalites. She made a point not to be too negative unless it was called for. After all, Ax had been a pleasant Andalite, even if he never really knew how to act around her and looked at her curiously.
When the inquisition and breakfast were finally over, everyone went to get dressed. Misha reminded Anna about tonight, which the elder explained for her benefit. "His stag night."
"Ah. Well, hope he has fun."
"You can join with Ilsa and her friends."
Loren made a face at the suggestion. "No, I don't think so. I don't even know them."
He gave her a concerned look. "I do not want you to be bored."
"Trust me, I don't think hanging with girls half my age shoving money in the pants of hot young men half my … okay, that part I can handle."
Anna laughed at her. "Then you should go. It be fun."
"I'm still going to be surrounded by people I don't know," she said, digging for her clothes. She could hear Anna getting dressed behind her.
"You get introduced. Problem solved."
It wasn't that easy, but Loren didn't argue. "So what's going on today?"
"Last minute panicking. Party. Best to stay out of the mamas' way. I go and buy the drinks and food for tomorrow, if you like to come with."
She perked up. "Great!" She had been afraid she was going to be stuck in the apartment.
"Do not be too excited," he warned. "It be boring. I let you get dressed."
"Thanks. I'll be ready in a few minutes."
It was faster than a few minutes, because the lack of a door was a bit disconcerting to her. Fixing her hair to a high ponytail and putting on a few touches of make-up, Loren rushed out. It was silly, but Anna was the only one she knew and she didn't like the idea of losing him. She wasn't brave enough to just strike out on her own.
Before either was allowed to leave the apartment, they had to have coats and mittens, though Anna drew the line, arguing like a young child, at the scarf. Loren had to hide her snickers, but his mother caught her eye and winked, and Loren took the scarf with far more grace.
"When you get sick, it be your own fault."
"Da, Mama. Come on, Loren."
"You keep her safe, Tolya!"
As they went down the stairs, he said, "You see why I come back only twice a year."
"I like her."
"You say that now. Wait."
Loren was surprised at how long everything took to do something here. When Anna said they were going shopping, she figured maybe an hour, but everything was much more chaotic and more often than not they had to go to several small stores to get everything. It wasn't to say she was upset. She enjoyed the quaintness.
Anna, it was clear, was not the same. Privately to her he bemoaned the loss of large grocery stores and speed. "I'm spoiled," he admitted while they waited in line. "I not like to shop more than thirty minutes, or go to lots of places to finish list."
"It's different," she admitted. Really, they weren't in some traditional village, just some suburb, but the differences were there. She had drunk a pop and was surprised it tasted different. "And it's cold." She was glad she took the scarf.
He laughed at her. "It gets worse."
"No wonder you moved to Southern California."
"You have thin blood."
She rolled her eyes at him. "Don't tell me you're not cold, too."
The wedding was like nothing she experienced before. Misha, up early and waking everyone else, was in his clothing, and he had barged in and woken Anna and her, asking his brother to tie his tie. Anna had thrown a pillow at him before trudging up and getting the nervous man in a headlock. Loren had collapsed in sleepy giggles before following, because she had a feeling getting more sleep wasn't going to be possible, especially considering the yelling Misha was doing to free himself.
Friends and family started appearing soon after, and Loren helped set up and serve everything despite protests. She also dealt with the repeated questions. Soon the small apartment was filled with people, hardly any room to get by, and Loren smiled at the nervous Misha and his cajoling friends. She wasn't sure what they were saying, but it didn't appear to calm Misha, who seemed ready to leave now.
In fact, after a rousing cheer, he did leave, followed by his friends. Loren looked at Anna. "He is to get Ilsa. Once he does, we go to ceremony. Come," he tossed her coat, "you like this."
They drove with his parents in the car decorated with ribbons and pulled in front of another building. Other similar cars were there, and the crowd. Around it were posters, and Loren recognized Misha on some of them. "So … what's going on?"
"Misha has to retrieve Ilsa. Her friends, family try to stop him. He must pass challenges," Anna explained.
"They not make it too hard," his mother laughed. "Not like my family."
"Da. That was very hard time."
Curious, Loren got out and followed them. The elevator was blocked, and Misha was already being challenged by several young women. He did a strange and amusing dance before being allowed to the stairs, cheers and catcalls following him.
"See, this is why I would have had Western wedding," Anna murmured, smiling faintly.
"Too much work for you?"
"Too much embarrassment."
"Does he have to do this?"
Anna nodded. "It is all in fun. He will get her. If he guess wrong, he has to pay fine. If he was brave and stupid, he could avoid whole thing."
"Climb building. Friend did that once. Almost killed himself."
They followed at the back of the group. Several times Misha turned to his friends for help, and one time Anna yelled one to him when Loren said she thought that one quote was from Pride & Prejudice. Loren was so relieved she had been right, and she pushed Anna. He wrapped an arm around her, laughing. "This group need help. They not read novels. And it was right. Why be angry?"
Loren couldn't think of an answer, so she let him have the point.
"What happens with the money?" she asked after Misha failed to answer the rest of the challenge.
"It gets given to them. Helps them get started."
"And what happens next?"
"We go to ZAGS. Then reception."
"Like a civil ceremony."
"So no church?"
Anna waved his hand. "Churches just for show. Plus, we have to stand through whole thing."
"TOYLA!" Misha called, somewhat desperate, and rattled something off in his language. Anna answered back with barely a pause.
"What was that one?"
"Riddle portion. What do rich need, poor have, and if you eat, you die?"
"Nothing," Loren answered before Anna told her the answer, smiling slightly. "That's old."
Anna nodded and looked back to the show. Misha answered a few more riddles, also commonly known ones, before Loren saw the women at the top look at each other and grin, before reciting the lastriddle. It was quite long, and Anna quietly translated it to her, shaking his head. "I'm a riddle in nine syllables.An elephant, a ponderous house,a melon strolling on two tendrils.O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.Money's new-minted in this fat purse.I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.I've eaten a bag of green apples,boarded the train there's no getting off."
"What the heck is that?" she asked once he finished.
She wasn't the only one confused. The groom and his friends were stymied, looking at each other and shrugging hopelessly while tossing out a few suggestions. Loren looked at Anna shrewdly, because he wasn't even trying to help. In fact, there was a certain amount of smugness about him. "Don't tell me you know that answer to that!"
He shifted guiltily before smirking. "Da. Old poem. Pregnant."
"Tell your brother!"
Grumbling that eventually he would have, he called out the answer to Misha, and several of the girls were very upset at his interference.
"So how did you know that?" Loren demanded as everyone moved on.
He pouted for a moment, then shrugged. "It is how Lana told Mitch news. She give him letter and he spent all day on it, and he make all of us."
She struggled to remember which one was Lana, and it came to her that the woman was an English professor. "And you figured it out?"
"Nyet! He tell everyone next day. But I still remember poem, he said it that much." He shrugged, slightly embarrassed. "I have weird friends."
"Yes, you do. But you're weird, so it's okay."
They followed the rest of the challenges until Misha finally "won" his bride, which seemed to involve bribing the parents with vodka and then paying them for the real Ilsa, which was where Anna came in. Loren smiled and whispered to him when he came back. "You're such a good big brother."
"I am a very stupid big brother," he said, tucking his wallet into his pocket. "I brought too much money."
"Those are the best sort."
The first time Loren woke up in bed with Anna, she was hung over and miserable. She also, for the first time since he came to Anna's homeland, had not been woken by being cold. In fact, she was very warm. No, what had woke her up was the unconscious realization that she was being squished in combination with a killer headache.
It took her a while to realize her situation, but eventually she did because, realizing she couldn't breathe very well, she tried to push off the weight off her. The foreign grumbling and shifting made her open her eyes, which Loren immediately regretted because of the blinding pain. Becoming a bit more aware, she cracked an eye open and turned her head enough to see Anna's head. Every few breaths there was a quiet snore. Becoming a little more awake, she took a quiet stock of the situation.
He was half on her, legs tangling. She could feel his bare legs against the skin her skirt wasn't covering, and Anna's arm had slung across her, heavy on her stomach. Moving her arms and legs to the side, she felt the edge of the bed was far closer than she liked. It was clear the man did not know how to share a bed.
Still groggy and miserable, Loren closed her eyes. Nothing had happened, she was pretty sure. They were dressed, or at least close enough to count. She had a dim memory of staggering in, giggling and holding each other up, and she had a feeling Anna hadn't been speaking English but he thought he was, which had made her laugh even more.
Damn, she should have stopped after the fifth glass, the hell with being polite. There had been toast after toast after toast, a never-ending stream of them, and she had been yelling something that meant the couple had to kiss and throwing her glass down to break it. And dancing. Lots of dancing and music. Some of it she knew, but others she didn't. It didn't matter. Misha's friends and relatives had invited her to dance, and Anna even spent time teaching her something he was reportedly good at, though maybe that was only when he was sober. There had been food, more drinks, Isla had disappeared for a time, more dancing, more drinks.
God, she hoped she hadn't made a fool of herself. It was bad enough some of the time she had been forced to mime her conversations, the language barrier a challenge, and miming while becoming drunk was an experience in futility. And then there had been the impromptu language lessons. The less said might be better.
Groaning in her headache, Loren shifted as much as Anna's bulk would let her. It was too early to be up, she planned to sleep this off. Anna muttered something again, but she had enough force to push him off her and away a few inches. He twisted a bit, curling into the blankets.
She tugged some of the blankets to her before trying to sleep off the misery. She must have managed a little, or Anna was an irrepressible snuggler and bedhog, because he was back when his mother called – too loudly! – for them to wake otherwise they'd miss Misha's party.
Anna jerked awake, which got her up, when his mother called again, banging something loud. He muttered something very dark and dangerous in his language, burying his face into the pillow, and despite herself and the pain it caused, Loren giggled.
He looked at her with one eye. " … Shhhhhhh. Loud."
"I hate your brother."
"Da. Me, too." He sighed and closed his eyes, and Loren felt his hand move across her stomach as he stretched and came to rest without a thought.
"And Mama." He groaned and moved to get up. Loren was still miserably in pain and sleepy, so she wasn't sure what happened, but he suddenly moved so quickly he fell out of the bed with a thump.
"Anna! Are you all right?" she said, sitting up even though it made her nauseous. Anna was sprawled on the floor, rubbing his elbow and growing red in embarrassment.
"Fine, I'm good." His face winced in pain. "I need … washing, excuse me."
Loren was impressed at how fast he could stagger out of the room. She almost laid back down, but that wouldn't help, so she kicked off the blankets and woozily stood up.
This was why people didn't sleep in nice clothes. Her skirt was all wrinkled and her blouse had become half-unbuttoned and rumpled, which meant dry cleaning when she got back. She didn't even want to see her hair. Making use of Anna's disappearance and moving as fast as she dared, she changed into fresh clothes and brushed her hair back into pony tail.
Avoiding a mirror, she made her way to the kitchen. Once Anna's mother saw her, she beamed. "Loren, morning. Sleep well?"
"I think so. Until someone yelled. Thank you." She took the offered drink and drank gratefully. "You seem well."
Anna's mother laughed. "I not drink so much."
Loren wished she had been that smart, or at least more immune to peer-pressure. "Where's your husband?"
"He with friends." She was dismissive. "You have fun last night, you like the party?"
"Loved it. It was a lot of fun and I'm glad Misha invited me, headache aside."
She nodded, pleased and proud, and Loren listened with only a small amount of pain as the mother reminisced about yesterday. It was clear she was completely happy in the wedding of her youngest and Loren couldn't help but wonder if she had been worried about never having a wedding for either of her sons. Wasn't that something mothers worried about? (Loren didn't trust her own opinion on the subject.)
Anna staggered into the kitchen about fifteen minutes later, hair damp but otherwise presentable. "Why are they having party so early?" he whined, taking the coffee his mother handed him.
"It is lunch. Not early." He made a sound, and Loren had to hide her smile at his childishness. His mother gave him an indulgent smile. "I make a slight food for you, help you feel better."
They thanked her, and Loren was amused they ate in the kitchen. Prior meals Anna's mother insisted they eat in a different room. It was only because she was there, a guest, but it seemed even Anna's mother couldn't stand on ceremony after such a night.
She asked what would happen today and both natives told her about the plans. It was a much smaller gathering. There'd still be drinks and food – Loren would have been surprised if there weren't – and a few games. Anna said it was only to make sure no one important died after such a night, and made the bride and groom come up for air. His mother might not have understood the words, but she got the meaning and laughed, scolding him.
"Speaking of which, where are they going for their honeymoon?" Loren asked
"Disneyland." She gave him a look and Anna relented. "Paris. Very cliché. I tell Misha he only wants to go to Disneyland. He always wanted to go. Now, he never will. He never leave hotel room."
His mother scolded him again while Loren laughed. "Maybe they'll go," she said. "They have to come up for air sometime."
"And they risk scarring children."
"Tolya, be good." Despite the scold, it was clear his mother was just as amused and was only saying it for show.
Loren recognized his native apology before starting to go into some of the finer traditions of today's party. He promised to purchase anything she needed, which made Loren roll her eyes, and his mother said she got many coins from the bank. There were matching grins.
Sometimes during the conversation, mother and son would slip into their language. While Loren was curious, it didn't bother her very much here at this table. It was unlikely they were discussing her and it never happened for long. It wasn't fair to expect Anna's mother to speak English all the time, and Loren took the chance to try to figure out what they were saying. Most of the time she thought she got the gist of it, and Anna was usually pretty good at remembering she was there and bringing the language back to English and repeating whatever she might have missed.
The first thing Loren did when she got back to her house was collapse onto the couch in exhaustion. Though Anna chuckled at her, he also fell into a chair.
"That was fun."
"Da. Like torture."
She turned her head to look at him. "Baby."
He didn't respond, eyes closed.
She didn't think he was sleeping. Despite her exhaustion and the night sky, Loren still felt enough energy to do something. "If you want, I can drive you home." He probably wanted to get home as much as she had wanted to.
"Nyet. It late. Unless you don't want me to stay?" Now he looked at her warily. It had been their plan. If they got back during the day, she'd drive them to get food from the grocery store and take him to his apartment with fresh supplies, so he could avoid making numerous bus trips. If they got back late, he'd stay here and they'd do it the next day.
"Nyet, nyet, you can stay. I just thought maybe you'd rather be home than here. Home sweet home, and all that junk. And make sure nothing got stolen."
His lips quirked. "Nothing to steal. I'm fine, thank you."
"All right." She was quiet, looking up at the ceiling. "I have to get Auburn tomorrow. If the Jetlings give him up." They had two children.
"He will want to come home. Smart dog."
Loren laughed. "Dumb dog."
"We should go to bed. Few hours at least." In a few hours, it'd be daytime.
He was right, of course. They had to readjust to this time zone now. Loren nodded and got up, stretching. Looking at Anna, she felt a bit of pity. Though she probably looked no better, he was bedraggled as he got a blanket to prepare the couch. Before she really thought about it, she said, "Hey, you don't have to sleep on the couch."
After freezing for a moment, he looked up at her, confused. She wasn't surprised, as she hadn't ever mentioned any other alternative to him before.
"I've got another bedroom. It was for … it's never been used, but the bed's better than that couch."
"It's not bad."
"Anna, you gave me the bed before. Let me give you one here. At least you were nicer and gave up your bed. Me, I'm sticking you with a dingy guest one. Come on."
Still wary, he followed her up the steps. Loren only let herself have the briefest pause before pushing the bedroom door open and switching on the lights.
It hadn't changed since she set it up. Yes, it was a little dustier, but that wasn't anything bad. It was just that looking at it again make her throat close with a swell of disappointed emotion and dreams. Anna had cautiously walked in and was looking around.
She cleared her throat. "I'm sorry it's not clean and fresh. I sort of just forget about this room."
He looked at her. "I do not have to stay here. The couch will be okay."
"No, no, I want you to. There's a bathroom right there, so at least we won't be fighting for that!"
"If you are sure …."
Loren laughed. "Anna, it's a bedroom. It doesn't mean anything." Before he could counter again, because it would be so very much like Anna to be noble and stupid, she wished him good night and went to her own room. And she did not cry, and not because she was afraid Anna might overhear.
Loren couldn't say she was surprised when she got up a few hours later and found Anna making something, or at least had. She'd probably never be surprised he'd turn to cooking to keep himself busy. But Auburn greeting her surprised her, and she bent down to hug the barking, licking little monster. "Yes, yes, I missed you too! Did you have a good time with Betty?" Still petting the dog, she looked up at Anna, who had been watching her with an indulgent smile. "Thanks for getting him. You didn't have to do that."
"You sleep too long and I was lonely. Betty says she wants coffee and the story soon, as if you went on a grand adventure."
"It was a heathen, barbarian land. They made me pay for silverware."
"Your own fault. You did not let me pay."
Sometimes Loren wondered exactly how much money Anna had brought for his brother. He had been one of the most generous "buyers" of everything, despite all of his complaining, and part of her believed, even if she didn't want to or hoped it wasn't true, that he was trying to apologize for living in California. "I'm a modern girl. I can pay my own way."
She sat down at the table, still petting Auburn. "Can we stop at one of those 1-hour photo places before we start shopping? I want to get my pictures developed."
"Of course," he said, sounding surprised that she even felt she had to ask.
"I could get doubles and give you a set, if you want."
There was a pause while he thought about it before Anna shook his head. "Nyet. I will scan and print any ones I like. I have too many pictures already. And I do not what pictures of you being tourist, pictures of boring buildings."
"Hey, it's my film."
"And you waste it." He bent to check something her oven, was satisfied, and pulled out a pan of muffins. Before she met Anna, Loren didn't think she ever owned a muffin pan.
The scent was delicious. "Oooh."
"Too hot. Wait."
"What the heck did you use to make them? There's nothing in this kitchen."
Anna grinned. "There was enough. But you should have more things in cupboards."
Loren rolled her eyes. "Why? I don't cook."
"And you wonder why. You have nothing."
"If it can't be cooked in a microwave, it's not that important."
"Bah. Lazy American," he teased, gently removing the muffins and stacking them on a plate. "No wonder you all are fat."
She didn't point out his slight paunch, only because the plate of muffins made it near her hand.
"Thank you for letting me use the bed."
The muffin was just warm enough not to burn her mouth, and she had to chew before she could answer, which she did slowly. "Hey, it's got to get some use. Did you sleep well?"
"Da. Once I opened windows to air it out."
She winced. "Sorry."
He ignored her apology, as he had found it of no consequence to open a window. "It is a very nice, comfortable room. You did a very good job. I'm sorry you never used it."
Loren avoided looking at him, focusing on getting another muffin. Anna wasn't stupid and he was using that tone, so it was a safe bet he probably figured out why she had a really, really nice "guest" room. He would never start an explicit conversation about it, respecting her wishes, but Anna also didn't make his opinions unknown about things.
Sometimes she'd rather have him let her pretend he didn't understand anything, but other times she was glad for the support. Loren wasn't sure which this time was. "Well, I guess I'll just have to start having a lot of sleepovers now, since you broke the bed in and everything."
Anna smiled. "Good idea. And don't be a big pig. Stop eating all my muffins."
"I'm eating my flour and sugar and whatever else, so pffft," she replied maturely, sticking out of tongue.
The first time Anna slept over for more than one night, it was because his apartment needed repairs. Despite how it sounded, Anna assured her the water damage was minimal and there was no danger of his upstairs neighbor crashing down. From what Loren understood, the tenant's cat had knocked a very large aquarium's water filter askew, which ended up emptying the tank's water onto the floor. He merely needed a place to stay while they did repairs to his walls and the floor of his neighbor. If she hadn't offered the room, he knew he would have comfortably taken a hotel room.
He hadn't known immediately about the damage because he had gone to a convention in LA for five days, and his upstairs neighbor had abandoned her cat for the weekend. The fish ended up dead, and Loren suspected the cat ate them to survive.
While Loren had often thought about what it would be like to have another person sharing her house, the reality was a bit different than her musings. Mostly it was because with Anna it really wasn't that different from being alone. He was quiet and neat and acted no different than if he had come over for a quiet afternoon. The only noticeable change was now Loren tended to have three square meals a day and that Anna often spent a few hours in front of a laptop doing something she didn't really understand. It was amusing to watch him work, pen between his lips, and more often than not he muttered in his own language.
Around him more, Loren noticed he talked a lot in his own language. When he cooked she could barely make out words, but the cadence told which tongue he was using, and whenever Auburn was in the wrong place he scolded the dog in the language that always made the dog cock his head to the side.
Perhaps it was true that you never really knew someone until you lived with them.
They didn't talk any more than before, and they didn't talk about anything deeper. In fact, seeing each other every day created a sort of lack of topics at first.
There was one thing amusing, and that was the phone calls. The very night Anna came over, the phone had rung and she picked it up. "Hello?"
There was an exaggerated childish voice at the other end. "Hi! Can Anna come out and play, Ms. Loren?"
"Hello, Larry," she said dryly, after taking a few minutes to control herself. "Let me get Anna for you."
"Okay. I want him to come over and play video games with me! He's my bestest friend ever."
It would turn out, regular as clockwork, each night there would be a silly phone call, usually disguising some calamity Anna had to figure out. Loren listened to the hit F4s and control-tabs and right-click double-clicks, wondering how any of it made sense. Anna took it of it with his usual dry wit, and Loren wondered how much ribbing his friends were giving him at work.
It was how, Wednesday night, she found her kitchen held hostage by Anna's friends. Apparently it had been a literal request if they could come over. She didn't mind, letting the boys have their card game and beer, and rolled her eyes at any conversation she overhead before politely leaving the house to go shopping with the ten-page grocery list Anna just printed out. She had planned to go the next morning for the freshest fruit, but Loren was smart enough to realize Anna would have spent the evening keeping his friends from saying anything he thought she shouldn't hear, and that would only ruin everyone's fun.
They were still there two hours later, arguing loudly about someone cheating. It was amusing that several of the gentlemen stopped and offered assistance seeing her with large grocery bags, but Loren told them to get back to the game while handing them what should have been enough chips to last her two weeks. They said she was an angel and Anna didn't deserve her.
It took a bit more to convince Anna that she was perfectly capable to put groceries away, even weird things like pineapple and pita bread, and Loren figured he lost a few hands and several dollars making sure she did everything right. His faith in her was astounding and his obsession with foods, absolutely scary.
"Hey, Jerry," she replied with an equal energy, if sardonic.
The man was smirking, slouched in the chair and chewing on one of her pretzels. The man was a chronic smoker who was also chronically trying to quit, if only because the entire state was against him and his kind. And if the state wasn't, his wife was. "Anna won't share. Tell us –" He cut off with a loud swear, and the rest of the table was laughing as the man seemed to be tending his shin. Well, Anna was glaring, so not everyone was laughing.
Color her interested. "Anna won't tell you what?" She grinned at the very subtle murder threat.
Jerry took the hint. "He won't tell us where you hide the cookies," he muttered.
"Right. Well, that's because you can't have them." She made a mental note to drill Anna about what the man really wanted to ask. "And I'll just leave this little pool of testosterone. If you all get drunk, feel free to stay over. Just no wild parties."
Larry pouted. "So the strippers are out?"
"Not unless they're male."
"Works for me!" Will chirped.
She laughed at him while the men groaned, before saying she'd be upstairs. While it was still a little early, Loren was polite enough to not eavesdrop. Not that she didn't want to, because it would be fun to listen to men in their native habitat, but it would be rude. This may be her house, but they were Anna's friends and guests.
Upstairs with Auburn with at her feet and reading a book, Loren had to smile at the strands of loud conversation and laughter that made it through the floorboards. It was almost midnight before she heard the cars drive away, and curious, she went back downstairs to find Anna cleaning up.
He looked guilty at seeing her. "Sorry we keep you up."
"I was reading, you didn't do anything," she perhaps lied and helped him clear the table. "Did you have fun?"
"Da." He smiled. "Thank you for letting them come."
"They're your friends. Besides, I bet for once they didn't feel stuffed sardines like in that little apartment of yours."
"Be careful. They may think they always can come here."
"So how much did you win?"
"Negative fifteen dollars."
"Serves you right."
Anna straightened, still holding the bowl. "Pardon?"
She pointed accusingly. "You didn't think I could put anything away. If you had been paying attention to the game and not where I was putting the string beans, you would have lost less."
"Lost less?" he repeated, affronted.
"Yep." She pushed down the garbage. "What was Jerry going to say?"
"When you kicked him." She wiped her hands.
He rolled his eyes. "Something stupid."
"I know that. I want to know what he was going to say."
"I don't know what. I just knew he was going to say something."
Loren pouted at him. "Well, what did you think he was going to say?"
For a moment, he hesitated, but then shrugged and decided to for broke. "Lingerie. Positions. Things like that. He can't handle his drink."
"Obviously." She gave Anna a suspicious look, because he took a convenient time to start putting the bowls on their shelves. He was annoyingly honest, but he tended to find distractions to avoid being honest if he didn't want to be so at a particular time. "Next time just let him get whatever he wants off his chest, I can handle it. You don't have to lame your friends."
"They already lame."
"Ha, ha," she replied. "Seriously, you're more embarrassed on my behalf than I would be. Whatever they say, I can handle it. Unless you're embarrassed."
Anna made a derisive sound. "Not embarrassed. Mama and Papa taught me to be gentleman."
"They did a good job." She smirked. "Unfortunately."
He turned and looked at her. "Unfortunately?"
"Sometimes I just think you'd have a lot more fun if you loosened up a little. I could have talked circles around Jerry tonight." She hid a yawn. "And now that my house is all quiet, I'm off to bed."
"You said we didn't keep you awake."
"You didn't. Good night, Anna."
The first time Anna didn't bring food to their luncheon, he really didn't have a good reason, as far as she was concerned. "You're late! Where's the food?" Loren asked as Anna sat down, eyes bright. She was starving.
"I saw Andalites!" he whispered, leaning forward.
Loren didn't see the connection right away, but then horror filled her. "Anna, you didn't! You gave away our lunch, didn't you!"
He nodded, very pleased with himself. "They liked it very much."
"Andalites would eat vomit and think it's delicious." She sighed and tried not to pout at the lost meal. "How the heck did you see Andalites? As Andalites." While Andalite tourism was high, it was very rare to actually see them in their natural form. And if Anna was pleased about meeting them in a human morph, Loren was going to tell him he just got robbed by very mean real humans.
There was this strange convoluted tale that involved Andalites coming to where he worked, where Anna had been making a stop because he had to drop things off, to a lot of technical things and eventual parting – and inhaling, on the part of the Andalites – of food. "They're very strange looking. They not so blue on TV," he added as an afterthought.
"And they are tall! And the tails are very fast."
"Yes they are."
It was hard to remain vexed with Anna, who was going on with such enthusiasm and didn't even notice her sour mood. A few tables around them were also paying a bit of attention, Loren noticed.
"Is changing like that painful?"
"The morphing. It looks painful."
Loren shook her head. "No, no. It feels a bit weird, but that's about it." She couldn't remember the last time she morphed.
"What is it like?"
"It's been so long I really don't remember," she lied, and then felt a little guilty when some of Anna's enthusiasm finally dampened.
He was so disappointed she sighed. "It's different each time. It'd make sense if it always changed the same way, but it doesn't. And each animal is different, especially with the instincts. Dogs are very playful, don't even try bugs."
His eyes wide and head nodding, Anna's attention was riveted, and Loren suddenly wondered how long he had been interested. They never talked about the war or her (hardly there or important) part in it, nor any experiences that connected to it. The embarrassment hit her at being so selfish and Anna's own efforts not to bring her discomfort. Everyone always wanted to know about morphing and the war and the kids, and Anna was no different. He just didn't ask because he knew she didn't want to talk about it.
"It is a remarkable technology," he said, still awed. "Everyone always pretends to be animals when they are little. Pretend to be a big bear in snow or puppy." She smiled, trying to imagine Anna as a child, decked in a snowsuit, pretending to be a bear, and she found it surprisingly easy. "Could be anything. A lion or fish or bird flying."
Loren stiffened at the mention of bird, but Anna didn't notice.
"And now you can be, for real. Very, very marvelous. I wish they let people do it." He looked wistfully at his coffee.
Uncomfortable at being able to do something Anna couldn't, she couldn't think of any lies or truths to tell him. In all honesty, she didn't think about her morphing ability. It was like having blue eyes. She knew she had them, and there was nothing she could do to change them. It was just that some people were envious at the difference.
She hoped Anna wasn't, at least not like some people could be.
"And what would you morph?" she asked, because she was curious.
He laughed. "I don't know. Too many things."
"Maybe Auburn. I find out why he keeps digging in that one corner," he grinned. "And a giraffe."
"A giraffe?" she repeated, unable to not laugh. "Why?"
"Not a bear?" she teased. "You'd be a cute koala."
"Koala is not a bear. Maybe a brown bear," he allowed after a minute. "Or an elk. Or a goat."
She gave him a long look. "You want to be weird things."
"Or a llama or camel," he continued, ignoring her critique. "One with two humps, not one."
"What's the difference?"
"They have two humps."
She hit his shoulder. "You're a jerk."
"You just notice?" He took a long drink of his coffee. "They thought my food was delicious." He beamed with pride.
"Of course they did. Andalites eat anything and think it's good, even your slop." And it was a good thing, because if they said it was awful, Anna would have probably started an interplanetary incident.
For once he didn't take offense her mention of his culinary abilities, and Loren was struck that, to him, this was a big deal. Of course it was. He met real-live aliens, spoke him them, was complimented. She had become jaded to the experience, thought aliens common just because she lived and tried to fight alongside them. To him, it was different, some once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet aliens.
He really had to get out more.
"Come on," she said, standing up. Anna looked at her, confused. "Lunch will be my treat this time."
"I'm not eat macaroni and cheese."
Loren rolled her eyes. "There are these magical places called restaurants. They bring food neither of us has ever touched or cooked."
Anna looked appropriately horrified for someone who was trying to look so. "They let such places exist?"
"Some of them can even have your food ready in under thirty seconds."
He stopped. "We are not eating there. We eat at a real restaurant."
"MickeyD's is a real restaurant," she said over her shoulder. "We don't even have to leave the car!"
"That not funny!"
"We should go to KFC and see if you can figure out the eleven secret herbs and spices."
"Already figured it out."
She stopped and looked at him. "Did you?"
Anna nodded. "If I tell, they kill me."
Loren honestly couldn't tell if he was serious. About figuring it out, anyway, because she doubted very much someone would want to kill Anna. "Come on, we'll go to the Olive Garden."
Despite some undertone muttering, Anna didn't appear able to argue the choice, and for someone who didn't eat at restaurants if he could help it, he ordered quite a bit. At first Loren had been worried he was going to grade and criticize the food, but it seemed he just had a big appetite. She was managing to fill up on the bread alone.
"So … why were there Andalites where you work again?" Loren asked, suddenly curious.
He swallowed and took a drink of water. "For the company I used to work for, actually. Sometimes I do freelance programming. They think they might help few companies with new technology, see what has to be improved."
"If I know Andalites, everything." Anna snorted, hinting she was right. "So how did it end? They get the contract or everything?"
He shrugged and sort of blushed. "I had to leave because I was late for us."
"Well, I'm glad I fit somewhere in your priorities. Next time, though, don't give away my lunch."
"They liked it!"
"So you've said. Repeatedly. And I would have liked it too."
"Not that much."
No, Loren agreed, probably not. She wouldn't have tried to eat the Tupperware, which the Andalites probably had done. "I'm glad you got along with them. Andalites can be a little … arrogant." And water could be a little wet.
"They were very nice. I don't know why you say that."
She almost laughed at him, but a look showed that Anna was serious. Either these were very unusual Andalites or … Loren smiled. Any Andalite would be polite if Anna was holding his cooking. "Well, I just met the military ones. Different professions."
He nodded, agreeing with the logic. "Da. Like doctors." Anna was of the personal opinion his doctor was a relative of Satan, but refused to find another one when Loren suggested it. Apparently the two of them had drinks whenever soccer was on at the bar, but only when their teams were playing. Rivals teams, obviously. Still it was a better relationship than with his dentist, who apparently was the ex-brother-in-law to one of Anna's friends. The marriage had not ended well and sides had been very firmly drawn.
Loren would never admit that she thought Anna's friend had been in the wrong.
"I wonder if they ever let us be able to morph too," Anna said.
"I'm not sure if you're responsible enough for it."
He gave her a curious look.
"You'd get in a lot of trouble, I know you, Anna. Plus, I don't know if can trust you to follow the two-hour time limit." The thought terrified her that someone she cared about would get stuck in morph again, and he'd be forced to live as some animal. That's he'd perhaps prefer it too.
"Maybe they fix that one day," he said thoughtfully. "Make it longer."
There was a moment of silence before Anna said with forced casualness, "Maybe they make it so you can be untrapped."
Loren broke a piece of bread. "Maybe. But that only could work if the person wants to be fixed."
Anna didn't say anything in response to that, and neither spoke for several long minutes. Anna finally broke the silence by complaining the sauce was too bland.
It was the first time Anna had ever said something like that, and Loren stared at him without comprehending. And then she said the ever-intellectual, "What?"
He didn't look up at her, poking at his food. "I should, shouldn't I? Move back with my family."
There was no way she could think to answer that, no way that wouldn't make her stomach plummet. "Why?"
Anna shrugged, looking pitiful. "It'd be better. I'm being selfish, living here."
Loren struggled for words and finally asked, "Why the sudden interest in moving back?"
"I'm to be an uncle."
His comment didn't make sense for a second, but then she understood. "Really? I guess the Magic Kingdom had some magic. When's Ilsa due?"
Anna gave a small laugh. "It wasn't that much of a magic kingdom." He told her the date the mamas were certain was right. "I could be back by then."
"Yes, you could. If you wanted," she agreed.
"I'm tired of missing their lives."
She couldn't fault the reason. Indeed, part of Loren even felt proud he held his family so highly, (aware of how it was like when certain parties didn't,) but she couldn't deny the fact that the reasonable reason hurt. She touched his hand. "I know. If you want to, you should."
He gave a faint smile, indecision rampant. "You won't miss me?"
Loren laughed. "Of course, Anna. Not sure if I'll miss you or your cooking more, but yeah, I'll miss you. But it's not like neither of us will hear from each other, if we want. I do know how to work a phone and e-mail."
She stuck her tongue out. "Look on the bright side, if you do move back. You get to be a babysitter for when your niece –"
"Nephew," he corrected, lips quirking up.
"—niece," she repeated, grinning, "is born, plus you get rid of cooking me things. Win-win for you."
"Maybe." He sighed and toyed with his food again.
"You don't have to decide now," she added. "I'm not in that big of a hurry to get rid of you."
"You mean my cooking."
She gasped and slapped his hand. "You are far too cynical. Now stop playing with your food."
It wasn't a new experience, because Loren remembered enough of her life to be concerned when people said something that could influence her life is greater ways than she felt comfortable with. The idea of Anna leaving was strangely almost as terrifying as if her son had decided to actually live with her, so they could try to be a family. Her life now was … not how she wanted it, but it was expected. But disappointments were par for the course, so maybe she should have expected it.
Even still, she had subtly questioned his friends, to see if he mentioned it to them. They were, to her surprise, very blasé about it, and it took her a bit of work to understand how they, supposedly dear and close friends, could be like that.
It turned out they had expected it. There had been a running, well, not wager, there wasn't money being bet, since Misha's marriage. After spending one his friend's help move furniture, Loren learned that whenever there was some change in his family, he always said he was going to go back. When Misha had enrolled for college, he had thought about then living together in the city. It hadn't happened – perhaps Misha hadn't wanted it, though Loren couldn't see him being mean about it – and Anna acted like he never had the thought.
When his mom had had a heart attack – and Loren had been surprised there – he'd given up his apartment. But – and no one knew why – he didn't, and then spent three months in a motel until he got a new apartment. His friends did not remember that period of time with fondness.
With his track record, it wasn't that much of a surprise his friends didn't believe him this time. But Loren didn't have that experience, and it might not have made any difference. History really didn't mean anything in the end, and it didn't stop Anna from making comments or being generally depressed more often than usual.
But, if he decided to move back, Loren decided she wouldn't be mad at him. Sad at his departure, since they were friends and all, but not mad. If he was going to move, he was going to be with his family, to be some uncle that would spoil his little niece or nephew. She'd miss him, of course, if he wanted to be closer for his new niece or nephew, but there were worse reasons to uproot one's self. Hadn't she changed her life in order to have a better chance at the elusive concept of family? Loren hoped Anna fared better. He probably would, because at least the other half of the equation would have be willing.
With his normal visit to the other side of the world, part of her was preparing for him to decide never to come back. Maybe that's why she had been so eager to drop him off. "Promise to call me when you land. Each time," Loren added, recalling her own trip.
Anna gave her a nod and tight smile, already anxiously checking the times of departure and making sure he had everything he could possibly need. It was odd to see him with a very heavy winter coat. "I will."
"Buy me something pretty?"
That momentarily got his attention. "Like what?"
Loren shrugged, smiling. "Something pretty. And possibly expensive, knowing my tastes."
"And say hi to everyone for me, give them all a hug."
"Not hugging anyone."
"You'll hug your mom," she countered.
"She hug me. Difference." He tilted his head to the side, listening to the announcement. "I have to go."
"I know." She hugged him, and despite his claim not to hug anyone, he hugged back. "Have a little bit of fun, okay?"
She sighed, rolling her eyes, and pulled back to look at his face. "See you in a few days?"
"Da." Again the announcement made him turn head and listen, even though it was saying the exact same thing as before. "Promise not to starve."
"It'll be more like a crash diet, I promise."
He laughed quietly. "Bye." He moved to kiss her cheek, but she hadn't expected it and turned to look at a yelling couple, so his lips fell on the corner of her mouth, his facial hair tickling the sensitive skin there. The result startled both of them, but Anna smiled, blushing slightly, and repeated, "Bye," before disentangling and going towards check-in.
Loren smiled and waved, and she stayed in the airport until his plane was in the air and out of sight.
Like he had before she had ever met him, Anna came back a week later. She had waved happily when she had seen him coming out of the plane tunnel, and even though he looked bedraggled, he smiled and let her hug him with very minimal complaint before he pushed her away. "I need shower."
"Trust me, you've been worse," she laughed and hugged him again while making a face.
"Thank you," he said sarcastically.
Separating again, Loren met his gaze cheekily, and she was struck that his eyes were the oddest she had ever seen. She had heard of people with having different color eyes, but she had never seen someone who had two colors in each eye. Maybe it was the light, but she'd swear on her life each blue eye had parts of green.
"Do you still want to go shopping?" she asked, in search of another topic. "Even though you're barely presentable."
"Da. I need food. If you don't mind."
"Don't worry about it. I did almost go shopping for you, but well, I didn't." Shopping for food for Anna was very difficult, especially with regards to produce and bakery goods. It hadn't been terrible when he was a short-term guest, because really he was just being picky about her food. It wasn't the same when it was his food.
"Da, you are very busy." He picked up with bag and nodded. "Shopping. Stores half empty now. Good fruit gone, too, but I need to eat."
"Heaven forbid you have to eat, gasp, instant potatoes."
Two hours later, they finished. Perhaps if they had gone in the morning, it would have been less, but Anna spent quite a bit of time testing produce. "I have a question," Loren said, laden with grocery bags and waiting for Anna to open his apartment door.
"How can you afford anything else if you spend this much on food each week?"
Door open, he gave her an amused look over his shoulder. "I never spend so much before when I had to feed a bad cook and her dog."
Loren gasped. "Oh, ha. We do not eat this much. And I don't think I eat anything with this much fruit. Seriously, apples, oranges, bananas, grapes, strawberries, and a pineapple. If I bought all this at once, most of it would end up rotting."
"Because you hide it in frig. Leave out in the open where you can grab it for snack. Go get rest of bags, I'll put these away."
She made a face to his back but went back to her car and started retrieving the other ten bags, thinking she had to get a bigger car if she was going to take Anna grocery shopping again. Maybe something like those moving vans would work.
The sun was set when everything was brought inside and Anna was sure he had all his supplies, and part of Loren thought he must be half-magician to have gotten everything put away so neatly. He looked around the kitchen, satisfied, and grinned at her, before his face changed. "Oh, I forget. I got you something pretty."
He moved quickly to his bag on the sofa and dug into his travel bag before turning and presenting her with a box. Eagerly she reached for it, but Anna drew back. "Careful. Heavy," he warned before carefully handing it to her.
It was a good thing he warned her. For such a small box, only about six inches long, it weighed a bit more than she expected, and Loren, grinning at him, carefully opened it. Brushing aside the tissue paper, her eyes widened seeing the decorative egg tucked inside, delicate flowers twisting around it. "Oh, Anna."
"It's beautiful," she said, removing it from the box to exam it. The paint was glossed, reflecting and catching the light.
"It cheap imitation of real thing," he dismissed.
"Cheap?" she repeated, not believing him. There was no way this fit under any definition of cheap.
"I can't accept this, it's too much."
He held up his hands and backed away. "You wanted pretty. And expensive. It's for you. Keep it. Please."
Loren shifted her look between the egg and Anna. She wanted it, but she didn't want to accept it. "If it's mine, I can do whatever I want with it, right?"
"Da. Even drop it from window. But please don't."
"I won't." She moved to his bookshelf and set it down. "There, I think it's perfect right there."
"You said I could do whatever I wanted it," she reminded.
"I got it for you," he pouted.
"This way I'll have an excuse to visit."
"Can't have too many." She brushed the egg. "Don't worry, it's so pretty I'll probably take it soon, but I need to figure out where to put it. Somewhere Auburn won't be able to break it."
"Somewhere not on the floor."
"You shouldn't have gotten something so expensive."
He shrugged. "Not that expensive. Don't worry so much. You get wrinkles."
"You should talk." She looked at him and smiled. "I think I'll head home. Your flight and shopping must have killed you."
Anna nodded but shrugged. "No more than normal. Come tomorrow?"
"If you want." He guided her to the door, most likely preparing to walk down with her, and Loren faced him. "I really did miss you."
They hugged, and then, this time Loren was surprised when his lips met hers in a way that was not accidental. She pulled back, surprise and curious, which grew even more when it seemed he hadn't planned to make the motion, his cheeks coloring. It struck her and, almost as boldly, this time she kissed him, letting her lips linger.
The third kiss they met somewhere in the middle, and while it started out as timid as the first two, it quickly escalated. Loren felt herself pushed back until she was between Anna and the door, and she pulled him closer, arms around him.
Whose hands were the ones the first slipped under clothes or below the waist? It didn't really matter, but they were. One of them knocked the light switch, and the sudden darkness startled Anna into drawing back. Loren, who spent years in darkness, flawlessly got his attention back. He groaned low in his throat and she shivered at the sound and pressure as he pushed against her.
There were probably teenagers with better control than them at that particular moment. There was fumbling with buttons and zippers, hands where they shouldn't be, and when Anna lifted her, she instinctively wrapped her legs around him. She felt in control, kissing him from this higher height, and it made her bolder.
The actual act was over quickly, not that it had been a disappointment. Legs still around him, her head was back and Anna was gasping against her neck, whiskers scratching her skin. "I think it's safe to say, we missed each other," Loren murmured.
"Da." His lips felt like butterflies on her skin.
"Though this is a bit of a surprise."
He froze a little.
"Not that it wasn't a good one. Just a surprise."
Warm breath on her neck, he agreed. "We should …"
Even though he trailed off, it was understood what they should do. Loren gingerly stood up on her own and they separated, Loren catching the light.
Anna was, aside from a very quick glance she didn't miss, avoiding looking at her, rebuttoning his shirt and holding it in such a way it covered the important bits. His face was red, and so was a mark starting to appear just where his neck met shoulder.
It was only because he looked so uncomfortable that Loren fixed her clothing, pulling the shirt back down and bra back up. Years of blindness had inured her to several kinds of embarrassment.
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, looking down.
"You didn't see me putting up much of a fight," Loren pointed out, coming over to him. He still refused to look at her, and she made him sit down at the couch. She made sure to sit, while not far away, not too close.
"I didn't … we shouldn't have … I'm sorry." He buried his face into his hands.
Loren rubbed his back. "Anna, it's not your fault. Jeez, I was probably goading you more than the other way around." Well, not really. There had been some mind-stealing tongue movements and finger twitches on his part. "It was just because of some … high emotions. It doesn't have to mean anything."
He flinched away and gave her a hurt look.
"I didn't mean it like that," she said reproachfully. "I do like you, Anna. I do. Maybe enough for it to be love, though who even knows what that feels like anymore?" She paused. "How do you feel?"
"I … I don't know." He must have thought about his words, because he looked at her, panicked. "I mean … I like you too. I do. I just …."
Loren smiled and patted his bare knee. "It's okay."
"This isn't how my life supposed to be."
"What do you mean?"
He looked like he wanted to cry. "I should be the brother married, the one with a baby coming. I should have that life."
She looked at him and felt pity. "Sometimes life is like that. My life isn't exactly how I planned either, and it sucks."
Anna gave a choked laugh and covered his face. "Da, it does."
"At least your family deals with you. My son forgot about me, or hates me so much he wants nothing to do with me."
"My fiancée leave me for another man a month before our wedding date. We were going to make do with small ceremony instead and we'd live with my parents until everything was better, then return to here. It'd been just for a little while." He sighed with self-reproach. "I was too selfish."
"No, no. She was. Or scared." Loren bit her lip. "You don't know, but she got a divorce."
He turned his head and looked at her. "I know that. I'm not stupid."
Loren blinked at him and sat straighter. "What? All your friends think you don't know. I was threatened with bodily harm if I told you."
"I see how that makes you be quiet." There was a faint smile. "My friends care, but they are idiots. We met after, she easily figure out how to contact me because she's smart. I didn't love a dumb woman. Lina suggested we get together again, but I was stupid and angry and hurt and said no. I was so stupid."
Loren wrapped her arms around him. "She betrayed your trust, Anna. And that doesn't mean she wouldn't have done it again."
"I didn't even give her a chance. Maybe …"
"Maybe if my husband hadn't died, I'd have never been in an accident, my son wouldn't have gone to my sister-in-law and her husband. Life sucks with a lot of maybes. Everything could have happened perfectly and I could still be stuck where I am now, which … would really suck. Except for the part about meeting you."
"Your eyes are very weird, by the way. Do you know they're both two colors?"
Anna gave her an incredulous look. "Da. I see myself in a mirror. Papa is the same. Misha has one eye."
"Really? I didn't notice."
"You don't look."
"No reason for me to get so close to examine before," she countered, smiling, and enjoyed his faint blush. "So what are we doing to do about it?"
She laughed lightly. "No. This. What we did."
Anna shrugged and looked away. "What do you want?"
"I don't know." Loren exhaled. "We either can pretend it didn't happen, pretend it was a fluke, or take it as a sign there's something there." She paused. "Anna?"
He looked at her.
"I don't want this to influence your decision, but I'm telling you now, fair warning, I don't think I'm up for moving around the planet." His eyes widened. "I'm not saying I'll forever turn the option down, but if you'd ask me tomorrow, I wouldn't move. I can't."
There was a momentary pain across his face, but then he nodded. "I understand." Their reasons for moving and staying stemmed from the same source.
"What do we do?"
"What do you want to do?"
He ran his hands down his face and sighed. "Go to bed." The words caught with his brain. "I mean … to sleep. Not to … maybe …." Anna trailed off, red again, and it made her giggle. She had never seen him blush so much in one night. Still, she gave him credit for adding, "You could stay. If you like."
Loren thought about it for a long while. "We're both semi-mature adults. And we have shared a bed before." She gave him a look. "Which means you'll be pushing me off by morning."
"I will not!"
They smiled at each other because Anna cleared his throat. "We should get ready for bed."
"Yeah, I need to clean up a bit," she admitted ruefully as she carefully stood up. Again, she caught Anna sneak a glance before looking away, and she wondered if he looked when she went towards the bathroom.
She spent a few minutes in the bathroom, tidying herself up and twisting off her bra before sneaking out. On the ground by the door were her clothes, haphazardly folded, and she shook her head with amusement. Anna was already in bed with the covers up to his chin, giving her a wary look.
"Is that side okay?"
"I'll live." Slipping under, she spent a few seconds getting cozy before signaling to Anna he could turn off the light. Darkness surrounded them, and Loren could hear his fast, deep breathing and literally feel the foot of space between them. She rolled onto her side to face him. "When do you go back to work?"
"Day after tomorrow."
"Okay. Just curious. Good night, Anna."
Despite the words, Loren knew she hadn't fallen asleep, and she could hear Anne still awake. He'd shift and then freeze, as if terrified of waking her. She tried not to do that same thing. If she was uncomfortable, she moved, though it was true she tried not to do it too much. After all, it was hard to sleep if someone kept shifting, but all the same, despite all the movements, the one thing she was so very, very aware of was the space between them and the heat that seemed to be radiating from him to her skin. When the numbers on the clock rounded off over an hour, Loren sat up.
"What wrong?" he asked, concerned, instantly betraying he also hadn't slept because he was far too awake.
A better person might have just admitted this wasn't working and left or went to sleep on the couch, ignored what was passing between them tonight or didn't push an advantage. But being a better person sucked. "I just realized something. I never gave you a kiss good night."
"Do you want one?" she asked, letting the ball into his court.
"… It's up to you."
Loren moved closer to him, until she was over him. There were shadows of his face and she traced his cheek before bending down to his lips. Stopping just a hair's breath away, she waited until his lips opened and he met her, gave consent and interest, for another soft and gentle kiss that neither ended as it started.
She slid on top of him, and his hands slid under her shirt and onto her breasts before pulling the cloth off while she picked at his own buttons.
The man, the gentleman, had put shorts on, and when her hands touched them, motioned to move them down, she asked, "What do you want, Anna?" Her hand ghosted over him
"Don't call me that," he pleaded. "Not Anna."
The request surprised her. "What do you want me to call you? Tolya? Anatoliy?"
"Da," he agreed, hands roaming over her thighs and backside and chest. "Da."
That didn't answer her question, not precisely, but it was close. "Anatoliy," she tried, wrapping her tongue around the foreign name she never used, and was surprised when he moaned under her. "Anatoliy," she repeated, hands moving.
He gripped her hips and she smiled, teasing him, before allowing him to guide them both into what they wanted. It was a slower coupling than before, and Loren milked it with gentle rocking while Anna—Anatoliy writhed and kissed her, murmuring phrases of mixed languages that had her name in them. One of his sneaky hands made her finally start to lose control as the passion built, and both were moaning and yelping with the pain and pleasure of it.
At the end of it, she lay on his sweat-slick chest, gasping, while his hands kept going up and down her back, and then he took her face and kissed her in the dark.
Morning came with rain and a sort of awkwardness that had started last night. While it wasn't only the rain that made Loren rather not leave, the fact was she had a dog that had to be fed and let out. Anna made a huge breakfast, and she felt smugly responsible for the smile that was peeking out.
She even felt pleased when Anna answered the phone in a rather chirper manner, though she will admit his expression when he realized who was on the other end gave her amusement. "Mama!" There had been a momentary panic when he looked at her, but then Anna turned away, listening and answering in his language. Loren had a feeling he was apologizing, possibly for not calling to let his mother know he landed all right.
He might have stepped out to take the call privately, but he was still cooking. Perhaps she should have been charitable and took over, but she wasn't always nice.
However, she did give him a look when Anna said her name, and then held the phone out. "She wants to talk to you. Please." Whether he was pleading for her to let him finish cooking or to not say anything too indiscrete, Loren wasn't sure, but she took it.
"Hello, Mariya," she smiled.
"Loren," Anna's mother said, following it up with a term Loren knew to be a term of endearment, though the exact meaning escaped her. "You with Tolya?"
"Yeah. He got in late and I drove him to his apartment. He really wanted to get to bed, and since it was so late, I spent the night." She smiled at Anna's look.
"That good. I was worried he didn't call yet."
Loren felt guilty. "I'm sorry. I think I distracted him. He's a very polite host, focusing on the guest's pleasure and all that." She had to hold back her giggle at his expression, and murmured politely when his mother said she did raise her children right. "How's Ilsa?"
It was a good conversation, because the soon-to-be grandma was pleased to carry it and leave little for Loren to have to say. She even offered for Loren to visit again, after the baby was born. "We'll have to see. Maybe by then An—Tolya will want nothing to do with me. Oh, I think he wants to talk again. Nice to hear from you. Say hi to everyone for me."
Once his mother said her own good-bye, she handed the phone back to Anna, who, with a last look, took it. They spoke for a few minutes before hanging up, and Anna said, "I should not feed you."
"I was nice and polite, and I didn't lie," Loren shrugged. "It's not my fault you took everything differently than your mother. Now, food."
He rolled his eyes but did make her a plate of breakfast, setting it in front of her before helping himself.
"You tried to push me off the bed again," she pointed out once he sat down across from her.
"Nyet I didn't."
"Yes, yes, you did."
"Your own fault. You obviously have a huge zone-thing."
"Zone-thing," she teased.
He nodded. "Not my fault. I just want to …"
"Cuddle," she supplied when he seemed to search for a word.
"I think you really are just pushing me off."
"Why? Better if you on the bed too."
"Ah ha, yes." She nudged his leg. "And it'd be better if you remember it."
It was a quiet meal, filled with small glances and smiles, and afterwards Loren accepted Anna's offer to drive her home, even if it meant she'd eventually have to drive him back. By then it wouldn't be raining, hopefully. She ignored it when he purposefully took the gift with.
By the way Auburn acted, they got to her house just in time. Loren apologized to the dog for leaving him alone.
"So what do you want to do today?" she asked while watching to make sure her dog stayed in the yard.
He shrugged. "Sit and be lazy. Trips are exhausting. Sides, raining. Nothing to do."
"That's why I got cable. Though, with my luck, three hundred channels and nothing will be on."
"True." He fidgeted for a moment, then said, "Could go to bed."
Loren turned her head and laughed. "If that's your plan, you're running to get condoms."
Anna blinked at her, not understanding, before becoming confused. "Last night …?"
"I wasn't thinking. Neither of us were, I believe." She moved to let Auburn through the door.
"Nyet," he agreed quietly before following her inside, thinking about something. Loren let him, playing with Auburn and giving him his breakfast. When Anna spoke, he was leaning against the wall watching them. "We need them?"
She wasn't sure if she should be insulted or not. "Well, according to my last lady doctor appointment, I'm fine," she started.
"Me, too. I could prove it," he added quickly.
Perhaps it wasn't the safest practice, but she trusted him. "I believe you, Anna. Mostly, it's just that, well, I'm not that interested in having a kid at my age." Not after the massive screw up with her last one.
Someone would have had to be blind and deaf to miss his disappointment. He looked down and kicked his feet. Loren almost asked why before remembering what he said last night. I should be the brother married, the one with a baby coming. I should have that life. What's what he wanted. If she was less charitable, Loren might have accused him of using her as a means to an end, but Anna wasn't like that. He honestly cared for her. Last night might have been the culmination of realizing his life wasn't anything he imagined, especially after being confronted by his much younger brother living such a life, but it hadn't been malicious.
While to her knowledge he hadn't done much to try and achieve his desired life after his failed almost-marriage, Loren understood the need to hold on to dreams like that. And the disappointment that follows when reality crashes in after making a small attempt and seeing all the great possibilities. Apparently they both had empty houses.
"I'm sorry," she said, feeling like it wasn't enough.
He looked up and smiled, though she could tell it wasn't completely honest. "It's okay." Pausing a second, he added, "I could go to store now …?"
There was something very sweet and touching about his eagerness and shyness. She walked over to him and kissed his lips. "If you want. Or tomorrow after work. I think," she added, when he was either going to pout or protest, "we can take a few risks, every once in a while. I'll kill you if you say it, but I know I'm no spring chicken."
"I wouldn't – but what if …."
It touched her that he remembered her own concerns, took them into account. "If something happens, something happens. In God's hands, that sort of thing. Okay?"
He looked at her, as if trying to find some answer. "But … if …."
Faced with his anxious face, she didn't understand right away. And then it clicked. "I'm don't think, if I got pregnant, I'd get an abortion, Anna."
Relief was fast on his face before worry again replaced it. "Are you sure?"
She wouldn't lie to him. "I would rather not get pregnant. Who knows how this will all end for us?"
"We'll be friends, still."
"And if you decide to move back with your parents?" she asked, just to point it out.
The guilt said enough. "I don't –"
"Anna, I don't want to be a reason you aren't happy. If the only reason you haven't moved is because of me, I'm not worth it."
The guilt was replaced by anger. "That not true! Don't say it. Just because your son is a stupid, greedy child does not mean you are not important."
"Don't talk about him that way!" Loren yelled, stepping away from him.
"It's true! He is jerk for ignoring you, hurting you."
"It's my fault! I left him. It's my fault." She felt the tears and the sob caught in her throat. "Of course he doesn't want to be here. It's my fault."
Anna wrapped his arms around her and let her cry, while she ignored his protests to the contrary. They ended up on the couch, with Anna rubbing her back.
"I don't like your son," Anna admitted quietly once she settled. "I'm sorry, but he makes you sad."
"Kids do that, and you still want one?"
"Ever since I met you, you try to make a life for him. He never even comes, and you pretend it does not hurt you."
"I don't blame him. I'm a rotten mom."
"Nyet. Doing what best for child doesn't make you rotten."
She half laughed, half sobbed. "Anna, giving him up wasn't hard. I didn't even remember him. I still don't. There's no … he's just a concept."
"Still, you try."
"Now. Not before."
"How were you supposed to?" he demanded, quiet and calm. "They didn't keep in contact."
"I could have tried. Somehow. I wasn't helpless, there were ways. I could have."
"You thought he had better life with them. It's not your fault you were wrong." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Your son is a stupid coward. I read the books and magazines. Everyone says it's big, grand love gesture, going off because the girl died. It's stupid, it doesn't do anything."
"You would know."
"I did not push people away," he said, voice hard. "I work hard, da, and focus on things, but I did not ignore my life, my friends and family because Lina left me. Because I did not have people who would let me."
"So it is my fault."
"It is everyone's fault, but mostly his. The others, they abandoned him because they think that's what he wants. It's not what he needs. The girl, she goes and saves forests. The boy, he does TV and is annoying. And the leader, well, he needs therapy."
Loren couldn't help it, she gave a little laugh. "Jake had it hard. He was too young to lead. His brother died, he ordered Rachel to die."
"They abandoned him as well, then."
"Maybe if Rachel hadn't died …," she sighed.
"If Rachel hadn't died, they would not have lasted."
She looked up at him. "What?"
"Not without much changing," he added. "Teenage love, it rarely lasts. And like with Jake and the girl. In normal life, no battles against aliens, they make their own about little things. Maybe when they break up, he'd do same thing. Probably would. Escape reality."
Sometimes she wanted to hit him, but only because he was voicing her own unspoken thoughts. Her son, in everything, was described as a dreamer. That was the nice, poetic way to call someone recluse. But even though she secretly believed it, Loren had to defend her son. "He wouldn't have done that, Anna, you're just being … mean!"
He shrugged, not upset at her scold or really acknowledging it. "Okay. Maybe they would have stayed together. And maybe he would not have been as much of jerk to you. That would have been nice. But it didn't. And now he is a bird avoiding everything and one. I can't admire him for it, this great war hero." His face twisted with disgust that he quickly dispelled for her sake, but she saw it anyway.
"If you met him, you'd like him, I know it," Loren murmured. He didn't answer her.
"You should not wait for him to come, Loren. He's stupid and you'd be waiting forever. You should tell him he hurts you."
"Maybe this is karma."
"Nyet, this is him being typical self-centered teenager who has an excuse to avoid life. Trust me, I remember being a teenager. This is how they act. They don't think about the grief they put parents through."
"Now that sounds like some fun stories waiting to be told." It was hard to imagine Anna as any kind of troublemaker.
"If not, I'll call your mom. She'll give me all the dirt."
"That she knows of. You should visit him."
Loren buried her face. "I don't even know where he is."
She shrugged. "There's a website, but it's probably wrong. I don't know if anyone knows. He's a bird, he could go anywhere. So you see, he really wants nothing to do with me," she said, picking at his shirt.
"Then it is his loss."
"And you said you think him like a concept. Sounds like he is on the one doing that." He sighed and tightened his hold. "Let's find a movie. Something with lots of explosions."
Loren couldn't help herself, giggling against his chest. "Okay."
Anna flipped through the channels while she lay resting against him. He finally found something happening in space and settled back.
"How long does the self-centered teenager phase last?" she asked quietly.
"But then he might come and visit soon. Maybe."
"Yes. I hope so." It was one of the few times Loren verbalized the wish out loud, and also to another person. She found that voicing it didn't make it any more true or hurt more, but that might have only been because it would have been impossible for it to be so.
It wasn't her first time being stalked by dangerous people, although Loren doubted her life was in danger like it had been with the Yeerks. Still, spies, reporters, and gossip mongers had nothing on Anna's friends. Loren had always known they took an active interest in his life. Anna was no different to them, except perhaps that he was subtle, for he was quite willing to tell her everything she had no interest in knowing. The whole group of them was this large, interfering mass of support and trouble. She had been relieved when she first met them, because they were very friendly to someone who was two times removed to them, but Loren still wanted a certain amount of freedom and privacy in her life.
Ever since she met them through Anna, they invited themselves into her life. At first, she thought it was just because of her connection to the war. She then realized that she was sort of Anna's girlfriend, which led to many groans of the parts of the stalkers when nothing happened between them for so long. Looking back, Loren could recognize all the pushing and hints, and she was rather impressed his friends hadn't attempted to lock them in a closet. However, eventually they took to being her friend as well and invited her to tag along.
Still, the fact was they were a little spy network, and that they were everywhere. Anna and she had very innocently, and chastely, kissed in front of a pet store, and by the time Loren made it home, she had five messages demanding details. She didn't bother calling them back, which meant that in two days she had a group of uninvited ladies over for brunch.
She remained vague and polite, because it wasn't any of their business, instead highlighting the friendship and showing off the pretty egg Anna had gotten her. Which turned out to be a minor mistake, because there had been looks.
If she had been under a light at police headquarters, Loren wouldn't have been so jittery.
The inquisition lessened when someone, she couldn't remember who, imitated Anna's accent with the classic line, "We have ways of making you talk."
Loren had deadpanned back, "And I have ways of ripping your head off."
She wasn't quite sure how much grief Anna put up with or how long it lasted in his case. Probably not long, because the amusement would have died after a few days. Anna had that sort of glare.
It wasn't to say she didn't like his friends. She did. They were great, close, and obviously cared about him, and they were decent enough to not give her threats about breaking his heart or anything like that. And it was nice that he had so many of them, because when it started becoming obvious they tended to have sleepovers – and not all of them had the pair of them in one bedroom – Loren offered Anna a chance to move in and to sub-let his apartment. He took two weeks to make the choice, and she always wondered if he made a list of pros and cons, and if he had, what had been in each column. All his friends had been quite willing to come over for barbeque after bringing over Anna's belongings, and some of her neighbors had happily crashed.
With Anna formally moved in, there were a few differences than before. While at the beginning there had been the same level of separation, it quickly dispelled, especially since they sometimes ended up making out (or more) in different locations. The main bathroom suddenly had shaving cream, razors, and completely different brands of toothpaste and shampoo in a little shower shelf, and now doing laundry was a bit more work than before. It was a bit surprising to see touches of another person, especially a masculine one, around the house.
Anna had claimed a room upstairs for his work, setting up a computer system. He must have taken things out of storage, because Loren was sure half of his stuff would never have fit in his dinky apartment, and Loren was sort of surprised at how full her house had become. She had movies and music now – all very meticulously organized, while before she had just put them wherever there had been a space – and while Loren had started putting up personal pictures, her walls were now covered. True, Anna kept a few in "his" room, but the majority were scattered around the main areas, not to mention most of the paintings by the infamous Lina.
She wasn't quite sure how she felt about that. There were six paintings total, including the landscape Anna preferred. They were all lovely paintings, well-done, and if she didn't know the history of them, there wouldn't have been any reason to feel concerned. It was silly to feel upset about them, just because of who the painter was, and Loren doubted Anna had any real lingering emotion to his ex-fiancée. Once she had thought it was how he had been remaining loyal to her, but in learning the real history, not to mention how he turned down their getting back together, she couldn't claim they were anything more to Anna then pretty pictures he liked done by someone he once knew. If she said – lied – she didn't like them, he'd probably get rid of them, or at least take them down, but she couldn't bring herself to be so petty. And if she didn't force herself to remember the painter and the shared history, they were really nice paintings at added a touch of elegance to her house.
One of the nicer surprises, aside from now the regular visitors of Anna's friends – not including the poker night – was the phone calls from his mother. Anna had done all the necessary forwarding, and Loren was surprised to have his mother call once a week, which Anna said was not very unusual. (And he would pay for the phone bill, he promised, after her near heart attack that first time the bill came. They'd had to switch carriers.) She usually called late in the evenings, and Loren would talk with her until Anna was around or available. Sometimes she thought he was relieved she was there to wear his mother down. The woman could talk, and sometimes she forgot Loren only knew English.
Sometimes, Anna taught her small phrases and tried not to laugh at her poor imitations or mistakes. If anyone asked her how to count to ten or how the weather was, provided it was nice and sunny, she could tell them, and give vaguely appropriate greetings and good-byes. Still, sometimes she understood a few words when Anna muttered to himself, which had to be a sort of victory.
And it wasn't like she couldn't teach him things. There were the tricks she had learned as a blind person, the folding of bills to denote denomination or placing things a certain way. She had several of her favorite books in Braille and had seen Anna flipping through them with the vague confusion until she explained them. He was very impressed, because as a novice, his fingers weren't trained to be able to separate the dots like hers were. Sometimes she'd read aloud to him in the dark, at first just to prove it was possible but later because it was something to do together.
It wasn't all primroses and rainbows. They, unsurprisingly, fought more, usually about trivial things that they never would have before. Loren liked small meals or munchies, nothing that could honestly be called a meal, and resented Anna's insistence on full sit-down meals, while he complained about her lack of shared cooking responsibility – she considered making peanut butter sandwiches and TV dinners a reasonable participation. There were certain shows the other hated to watch, and there were just the general annoyances being with another person all the time presented, how easy it was to get snippy and just get plain annoyed.
Still, they did get along well-enough. Despite common gossip by his friends, more often than not they slept in separate bedrooms, and did not live like a couple of minxes. Yes, sometimes there were a bit of fun evenings – mornings, afternoons, some part of the day – but nothing like out of a romance novel where the couple couldn't keep their hands off each other. She wasn't sure what that said about them; were they not in love enough (and neither of them admitted to it) or were they just too old for that sort of behavior? But they did have fun a few nights, and, depending on the location, condoms were used. If they were in either of the bedrooms (and weren't too far in passion), the protection was used. It was the majority of the time. The times things started in other rooms, there may be an initial attempt to get to the bedroom, but neither pressed the issue. She rather enjoyed the quiet moments on the couch, and even if Anna complained about sanitary issues, he tended to do the opposite of complaining when the kitchen was used in ways not originally intended.
During their activities and a bit prior, they tended to switch names. It might have acted like a cue that meant they were both interested, or maybe it was something all couples did. Loren called Anna by his real name because he had asked that first night, and it was a name very few people actually called him. It was fun to roll off the tongue. Anna called her Loruchka, an affectionate form of her name. Actually, she was pretty sure there were several, but he started with that one.
And despite the name, she knew there wasn't going to be any fun encounter, for Anna would have pretended to sneak up behind her and whispered in her ear, not stood at the door. (And if he would have tried, she would have slapped him away.) He also used the name when he wanted something she probably wouldn't agree with, which made Loren look up from folding laundry. "Yes, Anna."
"I've been invited to wedding. Small ceremony. Jenny from work. She gave me Auburn."
Loren grinned, interested. "She did? I have to thank her. You want me to go with, right? Or are you trying to say you got another date?"
"Nyet, nyet, you can come. Jenny is nice, marrying nice boy. But …." He trailed off.
"She's not very liked."
"Why not?" Anna wasn't in the habit of being friends with terrible people.
"She's young, only just eighteen. She just does simple tasks. Stock stuff."
That was a curious answer. "So?"
He gave her a slow look before sighing and saying, "She was in the Sharing. Full member." A pause. "Willingly."
Oh. Loren focused on the clothes again. Former hosts, especially the willing ones, were not looked on favorably. In fact, many people made it a point to show how much they didn't like the human traitors. There were still a few humans that risked being hosts, but the violence was very real, especially in this area.
"She is nice," Anna repeated, sounding nervous. "And she good kid. Hard worker."
"It is just … no one is going to their wedding. Her fiancé, he also was like her. I like them. They made mistake. Stupid kids," he continued.
"What's his name?"
"Erek." He came closer and started to help her with the laundry. "Everyone is mean to them. Jenny never will advance, Erek never get job he deserves. I have to stop people from picking on her. One person almost hit her! And Erek gets beat up, I know. It's not right."
"No, it isn't."
"You don't have to come. But I'm going. Just so you know. And I don't want to fight about it. Not like at work."
They were quiet, finishing the basket.
"I'll take the chicken," she said, taking her stack.
The relief was palatable. "Thank you, Loruchka."
She looked at him over her shoulder. "Don't thank me. I just think people need second chances, because it's all we got left in this world."
Compared to Misha's wedding, the only definition for this wedding was small and, while certainly cheery, subdued. There weren't even a hundred people there. Anna introduced her to Jenny's parents Sophia and Clark and chatted with them like they were old friends. (Knowing Anna and his connections, they very well might have been.) They talked about Auburn, how he was getting along, and Loren was relieved there was some conversation she could participate in. While less familiar with the groom's side of the family, Anna still offered his congratulations.
The service was pleasant, but Loren felt a niggle at her memory when she saw the groom. He looked familiar, and that name ….
During the reception, it clicked. He knew the kids. He helped the kids, she was almost positive. He had been part of that mass underground thing with the good Yeerks. Loren remembered there had been a huge falling about between the kids and Erek, though she didn't know the details. Part of her could believe they had wronged the boy, uncharitable as it was.
It took her a while to gain her courage and lose Anna. She didn't want him around for the conversation, and thankfully he seemed perfectly willing to attempt to make happy memories for the couples' reception, dancing with the few people brave enough to go out on the big empty dance floor. Currently, he was making Jenny laugh as he twirled her like a young child.
"Hey, Erek. Been a long time since the Valley," she said once he was reasonably alone by the drink counter.
He smiled at her, and Loren could see a fading bruise on his cheek. "Loren. I thought that was you. Are you enjoying yourself?"
"Not as much as some people," she replied with a glance towards the dance floor. "Then again, I'm pretty sure I could give him a cardboard box and he'd amuse himself for weeks. And smart choice in not having an open bar. I've seen Anna at weddings where the booze flows. It's not pretty."
Erek laughed. "Jenny and I are happy he came. Anna's a good man."
"Yes, he is. So you didn't invite any of the kids, I guess."
"No. And even if we wanted to, they are too busy to come."
And who knew what the address was for a tree? "I'm sorry you guys fought. But what I don't get is why, with all the help I know you gave that helped them actually win, Anna reports you're getting beat up in back alleys. Without your help, they wouldn't have won."
Erek gave her a hard look, as if analyzing her intentions. "We decided it would be best if our efforts were kept quiet."
"Because the kids don't get enough cheers and praise." Had they forced him to be quiet? She'd have never thought it of them, but Loren could admit she could see a few of them doing it if Erek's methods didn't match some standard. "Erek, I'm serious, it isn't right, especially not if people are treating you like crap. And Jenny. You could get killed."
He was amused with her. "We'll be fine. All things in time will pass."
"Yeah, they tell you that in therapy. I remember that. It'll become easier, soon you'll be able to do everything without any help. It's crap that ends up becoming true because it does. That doesn't mean it's right." Then again, nothing was ever really right in the world. "And it's not going to keep you out of a hospital if things like that keep happening to you."
The groom shrugged at her, giving a faint smile. "We'll survive, one way or another. Have you known Anna long?"
Loren recognized when someone was changing the conversation on her. While she would rather point of how dangerous they were living if they didn't admit they hadn't been completely with the enemy – though by admitting they were for Earth wouldn't necessarily endear them to some people either – she allowed herself to be directed. It was unlikely she was going to win the argument. They had wanted to put guards on her, once upon a time, but that would have been a waste and she turned it down. (And look, she had been right. No terrorists trying to kill her.) "Depending on how you judge it, around two years, I guess. He did some hook-up thing at my house and we met again a few months later at a bookstore. Jenny works with him, I guess."
"Yes, for about the same time. He's been a great support for her."
"That'd be Anna," she said, a smile escaping. "Chronically looking for hopeless cases."
"You're not hopeless, Loren."
She laughed. "I didn't mean me." She probably did. "Have you met the rest of his friends?" Whistling, she made a small circle at the side of her head. "The whole lot of them. And I'm not even sure Anna's entirely there. Very obsessed with cooking."
"We all have our little quirks," Erek agreed. "We're glad you came with him. Given the history, Anna wasn't sure you would."
Loren wouldn't do him the disservice of denying it. "I almost didn't. So maybe I'm not better than the rest of world."
"But you came."
"He asked and supported you. Don't get me wrong, Anna would support his friends to his dying day, even if they were completely wrong. He does, in fact." She shrugged. "So I guess he has a bit more Christian charity than me."
"I'd rather not be a charity case, actually," Erek pointed out.
Loren remembered how that felt and agreed. Instead, she asked, "You don't have to tell me, if you don't want to, but what happened between you and the kids?"
There was the briefest flash of a shadow. "We had a difference in opinion on how the final battle should have been conducted."
"It was a very big difference. You know we used to be allies, of a fashion. Now we avoid all contact."
She barked a laugh. "It does seem to be their MO for dealing with things they don't want to, isn't it?"
He understood, which was surprising in a way that wasn't. While most people knew about her connection to them, it was more of an afterthought. Oh, her, she's the mother of the one that's a hawk. Yet, there were times that definition escaped them, because she really wasn't like how they imagined a parent of them. "They all took Rachel's death hard."
"Yes. Yes, they did. And I can accept that, because I'm a mature adult and they are stupid, immature teenagers. What I don't accept is everything else, because even stupid, immature teenagers have to grow up sometime."
"They lived through difficult times. Maybe they have grown up."
"And now you defend them, Mr. King?" she asked, amused. "I'm not asking for much, not anymore. That hope was crushed a time ago. But I don't understand no contact and living in seclusion. Heck, I can even understand not contacting me. Lord knows I'm no mother and a complete stranger. But everything else, no, I don't understand. Or I understand, but I don't accept."
She realized she must have said too much, because Erek was giving her a pitying look. "They blame me for Rachel's death."
Loren gave him a sharp look. "It wasn't your fault. They want to blame someone besides Rachel. The girl would have killed herself one way or another, during the war or after it." People did that, searched for danger when there was none. Rachel would have. She would have been like Jake, unable to cope with this new life, but while he wallowed, she would have pushed. "I didn't like her much, if that makes me a terrible person. And now that she'd dead, she's some martyr. Trust me, she wasn't some glowing princess."
Erek chuckled to himself. "Yes, I did know Rachel as well. She did have her good points."
"Few as they were." Loren knew she was being uncharitable, but now all she could remember was a girl who her son wanted to spend time with instead of with his long-lost mother, who made her son focus on the war, who selfishly made her son so dependent on one person that when she died he fled reality. The love was selfish on both sides, as young teenage love is. Loren did not doubt Rachel loved her son, because how could she not? But he was also a tie to Rachel's slight grip on humanity, and he was safe, because there was no way Tobias was ever going to become completely human and leave the war. They could both fight and be in love, and Rachel would never have to leave that part of herself that she not-so-secretly enjoyed. And her son, he just wanted love and attention, but he'd never have risked himself by turning human for her (for anybody) and risk rejection. Better to be the one keeping everything at a distance, so he could remain in control and safe. Loren recognized that tactic. Keep everyone at arms' length and go off alone, pretending it was your choice and it was how you liked it. She had done it – lived it – those first few years of her remembered life, and she could admit she still did it, but it was an awful life to choose.
"Well, if I can grow up and get married, perhaps there is hope for the Animorphs. Except for Marco."
"I wasn't aware those were mutually exclusive. This isn't a shotgun wedding, is it?"
He smiled. "We don't like guns in this family."
"Why are you not dancing?" Anna demanded, appearing with a smiling, exhausted Jenny on his arm. "This is supposed to be a party."
"Save me, please," Jenny mock-whispered, moving to clutch Erek's arm in a desperate manner.
Anna ignored her and their laughter. "Here, I get you screwdriver to celebrate. You need it. Big toast."
The couple stared at him with surprise – and was that panic – but Loren smiled. "Anna, they're 19 and under-aged. You'll get in trouble for giving them alcohol."
"Bah. What's a wedding without alcohol? And it's mostly orange juice. And vodka isn't alcohol. It is water. All okay." He attempted to flag down the person behind the counter. "Besides, it's breakfast drink."
"Hair of the dog, I see," Loren said sarcastically, but by then Anna was ordering. However, apparently he did have the sense to order two of them as virgin screwdrivers, which would have been easier to just say orange juice.
"A toast," he said, once they all had a glass.
"Oh, god." She remembered the never-ending toasts and drinking.
"Hush. As we celebrate your first marriage – and hopefully last – I remember what my mama says: the wife is the heart, the husband, the head. We hope you suffer no heart attacks and headaches, and have long life and happiness. May it find you when you need it, whether or not you want it! Za molodykh!"
Laughing, they clinked glasses and drank.
"Don't let him order again, he'll say something else," Loren warned. "It's like this law."
"Breaks up the drinking," he supplied, grinning. "Drink fast, the music is going."
She gave Erek a look. "And you see why I hesitated in coming."
The couple laughed. "Well, we're glad you did! You can distract him away from the other vic – guests," Jenny said.
"It's good to be needed."
They finished their drinks, and the young couple went off to dance on the floor at Anna's insistence. Loren shook her head at him. "You're terrible."
"What? They have fun! Young couple take any excuse to grope each other."
He flashed a grin. "We have to dance."
"You're not groping me." Not with a photographer snapping pictures.
"I will be very unromantic. Promise. But if you want to be romantic on me, that is okay."
She threw the swivel stick she had been chew on at him. It bounced off his shoulder, and he grabbed her hand to guide her to the dance floor. It was a rather energetic dance she didn't know the proper steps for, but Anna led her around easily even with the handicap. "Where the heck do you get all this energy?"
"I'm young. You're old. Way life is."
"Yes, eight months, you're so much younger than me."
"I must be. You will probably go to bed early, like old people do. Drink Metamucil. Things like that."
"Well, whatever I'm doing, I'm definitely doing it alone tonight." She smirked at his expression. "Or maybe with some other old fogie."
When the song ended, Loren pleaded for a rest, and they sat down. "Thanks for making me come."
"I don't make you do anything," he dismissed, pouring a glass of water for both of them.
"Right." She could think of several things he made her do, out of pure stubbornness or curiosity. "Do you think they'll be happy?"
"I hope so, too. They deserve it."
"Everyone deserves happiness, even the worst villains."
She looked at him. "So they shouldn't be in prison or anything?"
"They can be happy in prison. I didn't say they shouldn't be punished, but there is no reason they should be tortured."
"I don't think you can be happy in prison. Content, maybe, but not happy."
"Then if you only content, then are you already in prison?" Anna shook his head. "Happy is state of mind. People can be happy with what they got, even if it's not what they want."
"Sometimes you can't be happy with what you got," she pointed out, then waved her hands. "We're at a wedding. We're only allowed fun talk."
He laughed at her and leaned back in the chair, looking around at the few people. "It is sad more people didn't come."
"At least they know who likes them."
"Only who could make it," he corrected with a charity Loren was entirely sure wasn't real. "You should bring Auburn to work so Jenny can see how big he is. He was her favorite, she said."
She gave a noise, not committing either way, though pretty sure Anna would hound her with the idea until she gave in out of sheer desperation. He had very decided opinions on certain things, and if it made him drop it about anything from health insurance to proper cookware, Loren gave in. She rarely cared one way or another, and if it meant her entire supply of cooking materials ended up being donated away (and that was only after she refused to let him merely throw them away, because they were still good despite his opinion), so be it. It wasn't like he made her change furniture, shoes, or fabric softeners.
Her priorities, while different than Anna's, were no less important. That fabric softener got her through a lot of tough times in her life. She also refused to change shampoos, air fresheners, and any other scent-related item, and won't unless Anna developed a life-threatening allergy. And even then, she might just make him move out or carry around Epipens.
"Did you meet George and Bella?" he asked, and pointed out a couple sitting alone when she was confused.
"I introduce you. Just don't mention anything dealing with –" he made a vague sign that, if Loren ever bothered or even cared to learn the secrets of code, she'd have understood, "—to either of them. Therapy."
"You know that theory, that you're six people away from knowing everyone in the world?" Loren sighed as he pulled her up. "You like knock out the need for three of them."
The first time Loren morphed in a very, very long time, she only did it to stop the bleeding. Certain persons that were prone to over-reacting and panic would have said she did it to keep from dying – and how was that for over-reacting? – but at the time, Loren had been more worried about helping the other people.
German shepherds, while being wonderful guide dogs, were thought of as police dogs for a specific reason. And that was, like everything else, they were good at it.
Following Anna's idea, she had picked up Jenny for a lunch, much to the surprise of the rest of the office. Loren hadn't let it bother her, at least visibly, how much Jenny was ostracized, and privately wondered if Anna had planned for something more than just giving the girl another friend. It wouldn't have surprised her, if it was true, except she figured Anna would have looked at his plan as her being a very nice person who was willing to be friends with an ex-Controller, not someone who fought against Controllers.
It wasn't exactly clear if Auburn remembered Jenny, because the dog went nuts if anyone gave him attention, but the reunion was happy enough. There had been a quiet discussion about where to eat lunch, and Loren had pushed a park that was one of her favorites. Jenny had been leery, and at the green landscape, it was clear why. It wasn't pro-Yeerk or pro-Sharing, but it wasn't anti-either. There were small branches of Yeerk supporters, those willing to be hosts in a symbiotic manner. A man name Tidwell had started the group, and Jenny quietly admitted she knew him. Both of them.
Refusing to leave the park, Loren insisted they stay. It was a big area, and even with the protesters, it wasn't that disruptive. So it was possible the whole thing was her fault, but Loren put blame where blame was due – shooting into a crowd of people was wrong.
Still, doing nothing to stop it would have been even more wrong.
The exact details weren't important, nor how it had happened. It did end with her sitting at the hospital with Jenny, who had a deep bruise on her face from the panic, and picking at the scrubs she had been forced into, since her clothes were covered in blood, not to mention torn.
"So … you're not really from around here, are you?" she said conversationally, petting Auburn.
Jenny smiled, still holding the ice to her face. "You could tell. I thought it might be possible. I'm a Chee, as is Erek."
"A Chee." The word was vaguely familiar, but only because it was a simple sound that made up any number of other words. "And what is that?"
"We are a race of androids."
Loren laughed. "If Anna knew, he'd die. Androids. He freaked when he met Andalites, once."
"Yes, I remember."
"And how long have you been around?"
"We lived on Earth when pharaohs were gods."
"You should teach history, not make sure everyone has toilet paper and toner," Loren said.
Jenny shrugged, bringing down the ice pack. "This is just one life."
She couldn't argue with the logic. "So you hid from the Yeerks in plain sight."
"Yes. We believe in nonviolence, but some of us tried to stop them in ways we could."
Such as helping the kids. "I guess I see now why you don't tell everyone the truth, then. If people freak about Andalites and Hork-Bajir, they aren't going to take androids any better."
They spoke quietly for a little while, until Auburn lifted his head and barked a warning just before Erek and Anna appeared, both looking frantic. Loren was relieved she had the sense to have Erek tell Anna, because she had barely gotten out she was fine before he was checking her over, the android couple doing their own similar actions.
"Anna, Anna, stop that, I'm fine, two arms, two legs, one head, fine," she said, pushing away his hands.
"Where are your clothes?" he demanded. "Hospital clothes mean sick!"
"They got covered in blood. I didn't even have to come by ambulance, Jenny was the one who got hurt, I just rode with."
"Loren, you were shot," Jenny reminded, and the android smiled under Loren's deadly glare while Anna repeated the news, demanded answers, and was searching for the wound.
"I'm fine," she repeated, lifting her shirt to show the area she was pretty sure had been where she got struck. "See, no holes. Morphing has one benefit. Stop it, that tickles." She kicked him away and put down her shirt. "And don't let the doctors hear, they don't know, and I don't want to explain it."
"How do you not?" Anna demanded. "You covered with blood!"
"I may be stupid, but I can field dress wounds," she snipped, "and a lot of other people were hurt too."
"Loren stopped one of the shooters, too," Jenny continued, and Loren wondered if it was possible to kill an android, or at least short-circuit one.
Okay, he didn't have to sound so surprised! She wasn't helpless. "I pretended to be one of the police dogs," she said primly.
Anna blinked at her, confused, while Erek laughed quietly. "I suppose some things run in the family. Are you sure you want to remain anonymous for your heroics?"
"Do I want reporters hounding me? Tough call."
"You almost died," Anna said.
She doubted it. Where there had been a lot of blood and certainly pain, Loren didn't think it had been a mortal wound. Then again, who knows? "I've had worse."
"Worse?" he repeated, incredulous.
"I'd rather be shot again than blind."
"No, it's not," she said, voice cold and firm. "So can we go home now?"
"I'll go get a nurse," Erek said, excusing himself after giving Auburn a pat.
Anna sulked and scowled on the other side of the small room, not saying a word, while Loren and Jenny played with Auburn. It took Erek a good quarter of hour to get them discharge papers, and Jenny got a prescription for some pain medication if she'd need it at a later time. (Loren doubted it.)
Since her car was still by the park (possibly ticketed and would end up towed), Erek gave them a ride to her house, promising he'd have someone get her car despite her protests that she was perfectly capable of driving a car. It was his way of thanking her for saving his wife. Riiiight.
Anna was still sulking, arms crossed over his chest, and it was only once they were home Loren asked if he was going back to work. He looked shocked at the idea, opened his mouth, and then snapped it closed before stomping to the kitchen to terrorize the canned goods. She went and showered, removing the last bits of blood from her person and slipping into real clothes. It was true she did spend a few minutes checking out her stomach, making sure there wasn't a hole, and she poked at herself tentatively, wondering if the bullet was still in there. That would be hard to explain later, if it was.
It was too late to be called lunch and too early to be considered supper or dinner, but a look at Anna's face waylaid her protests when he pulled out her chair and served her, of all the things, soup. She wasn't an invalid. However, since it was Anna's recipe, it wasn't completely bland, and she filled it with cheese and crackers and other things Anna thought could soup could be topped with and still be considered soup. Loren could have eaten her soup with a fork, if she wanted.
Once filled, Anna sent her from the kitchen so he could clean up alone. While normally she took responsibility for clean up, Loren didn't argue, happily setting on the couch with Auburn on her lap to watch TV. She heard him speak on the phone before disappearing upstairs, probably to work, and within the hour Erek had returned with a friend and her car. Anna, uncharacteristically, did not come down to chat with the visitors, and while Erek and his friend Paul didn't mind and soon left, it bothered her. It just wasn't like Anna.
"You were rude," she scolded, stepping into his work room. Still typing, he apologized around the pencil. Rolling her eyes, she went over and removed the utensil from his mouth. "That's a disgusting habit."
Anna gave her a look before going back to his typing.
"What's wrong with you?" she asked, frowning.
"Nothing. I fine."
"No you're not."
He was going to argue, but midway he changed his mind and slammed his hands down. "You right. I'm not!" he snapped, standing up. "You almost die and you call Erek to tell me!"
"I didn't almost die! And this is exactly why I called Erek instead, because I knew you'd over-react."
"It's not over-reacting when people you love end up in hospital! I worried and then you don't even care! You act like is just a big game."
"You got shot! That happened!"
Loren struggled to keep her temper, because she could see why Anna was upset. It wasn't a good day. "Look, I'm sorry you were worried, but look, I'm okay. I'm fine."
"That's not the point."
"Then what is?" she asked, frustrated. "You'd rather I still be shot?"
Standing taut, he didn't answer her, instead saying possibly the most cutting thing he could have. "Sometimes you can be as terrible as your son."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Given Anna's low opinion of her son, Loren doubted very much he had given her a backhanded compliment. And if he had, it was by accident.
"I don't know," he snapped, before making to leave. "I go back to work! Not like I get anything done here."
"For two hours?" She grabbed his arm. "Give me a break."
Anna pulled himself free. "I make up hours. Some people have to work at real job."
Another commented designed to hurt. "So you're just going to leave, is that it?"
"I don't have to be where I'm not wanted."
Her protests followed him as he left the room and went down the steps, and her temper was rising. "So what are you going to do, walk to work?" she asked, noticing he did not take the car keys.
"I take the bus," he snapped before slamming the door, which made Auburn yip and bounce around.
It was through a lot of restraint that she didn't chase after him. Instead, Loren watched him walk in the direction of the bus stop, her anger conflicting with some unnamed emotion.
The first time the phone rang that evening, Loren raced for the phone ready to give Anna the largest scolding she could. She had left over ten voicemail messages and he hadn't had the decency to reply once, and he still wasn't back. However, a look at the caller ID showed it was not Anna on the phone and Loren controlled her flash of disappointment.
"Mariya, hi, it's Loren. Is something wrong?" Normally she only called on the weekends.
"Oh, Loren, nyet, all is okay here, but is Tolya there? Is he all right?"
She was perplexed at the worry and apologized. "I'm sorry, he's not. He went to work and hasn't got back yet. But he's fine."
"You sure? I read about the attack at the park and Tolya always at least writes e-mail to say he's okay, but I don't have one and are you sure he okay?"
"He's fine, Mariya, I promise you. He was at work at the time the attack happened." She decided not to mention she had been in the park and had been injured, and felt guilty that Anna probably forgotten to write because of their fight. "It's just been so hectic today I'm sure he just forgot."
The older woman gave a little laugh. "Fedya say that, say I was just worrying, but I need to make sure."
"Hey, he's your son. And he needs all the baby-sitting he can get."
"I wish he was not so far away sometimes, that he would come home. You can't know how much I worry for him, all alone there." Anna was far from alone here, but Loren did not argue her ability to worry about someone. "I think sometimes I must tell him to come back for my heart, he makes me worry so much. It is so violent there, with the gangs. And then the aliens, those Yeerks and fights. Aliens do not land here, only meteors."
"That's not much more reassuring," she replied.
The woman laughed quietly. "Da. But still, it so dangerous there. Not like home."
Loren felt her stomach do a dangerous flip. "I'll keep my eye on him, don't worry, Mariya."
"I know you will, Lorka. Please, tell him call me back. I feel better once I hear him."
"Of course, Mariya."
They hung up after a few more comments and Loren sat with the phone before dumbly calling Anna again, even though she promised herself she wouldn't. Six rings and again she was sent to his voicemail. She was starting to hope he just had his phone off, not that he was avoiding her calls, and dutifully told him his mother had called and to call her back because she was worried about him. Loren refrained from saying she felt the same.
The phone back in its cradle, she rested bonelessly against the sofa. Across the room the dog was in the chair, staring at her, and when their gazes met, his tail thumped. "Where do you think that idiot is, Auburn?"
By his silence, Auburn also didn't know.
It wasn't that she was worried about him. Anna was an adult and could do whatever he wanted, but it was only considerate to tell her he would be back late or not at all. If this was his twisted version of payback, she did not approve, because it was completely different.
And the conversation she had just had made her very uncomfortable, because if his mother asked him, Loren had no reason to believe Anna wouldn't pack up and leave for her sake. And to find out she worried about him so much, that Anna probably wrote to her after every earthquake, flooding, or issue to say he was okay was something she felt so desperately jealous of she wanted to cry.
She stretched out under the blanket again and looked at the clock before the TV. She'd just stay up for this movie and then go bed. She wasn't going to wait up for that inconsiderate jerk.
Anna had the grace to apologize when he reappeared before supper the next day, though it was stiff and he didn't offer any information as to where he had been, where he had slept, or anything else Loren desperately wanted to know but refused to ask after. About the only other thing he had said was that he had called his mother and they had spoken for some time. What they had spoken about Anna also kept to himself.
He didn't make supper, instead eating the pizza she had put in the oven before disappearing upstairs to retire early. Loren had watched his back, frowning, before feeding the remainder of the pizza to Auburn, her appetite gone.
She remained calm for a good ten minutes before her temper reared and Loren stomped up the steps. Without even knocking, she entered Anna's room – because it was Anna's now, not her son's – and said, "We've got to talk."
He, caught by surprise, slammed the drawer of the dresser he had been going through closed and turned to look at her. "What?"
"Talk," she repeated, sitting on his bed with her arms crossed and not-very-subtly indicating she was not leaving.
"Why?" he asked sharply.
"It's a common courtesy to tell your roommate you're not coming back so they don't call the cops to start looking for your dead body." Or end up falling asleep on the couch. Her back complained about the treatment for most of the morning.
There was a quick flash of emotion on his face before he nodded sharply. "Da. Again, I apologize. Thank you for not calling cops."
"Where did you go last night?"
"You do not care. You just want to know." Loren opened her mouth to protest, but he continued. "I think … da, I should move out. This is not …."
She jumped up. "What? One fight and you're going to just high-tail it?"
He looked at her. "It is not just the fight."
"Then what?" Her mind was reeling, trying to understand.
"We want different things with … this." He waved his hands.
Anna's face was sad and pitying. "All I am is roommate, company. That's all I will ever be, isn't it?" While her silence wasn't an answer, more an inability to say anything or even think, he nodded and continued, looking away. "I thought you ask me to live here because you wanted to make step. That is my fault."
"Anna," she started, but then couldn't think of anything else to say. Part of her wanted to deny it, but words weren't coming.
He looked back at her. "You are just like your son, you know. Brave da, but also you keep everyone at arm's distance, so you don't get hurt. You rather live in a big house all alone trapped and not do anything to try and fix things or move on. You rather imagine how things could have been and don't think about anyone but yourself."
"That's not true," she sputtered. "Just because I didn't call you when I was at the hospital, you think that? You would have stolen someone's car to get there and killed yourself."
"Is that why?" His lips quirked before he shook his head. "Yesterday just made me see. You want people around, but you don't want them to care about you."
"That is the dumbest thing you have ever said. Of course I want people to care about me! I didn't want you hovering! Which you were."
"If they care, they can stop caring," he continued. "Like your son. He cared to rescue you, then he leaves you. Better you be the one in control."
Loren hadn't been in control of her life in a very long time, and she could barely see through the rage she was feeling at Anna and all his assumptions.
"I love you. I thought, if I wait long enough, you would tell me first, so you won't get scared when I say it. I just had to wait."
Her reaction was uncontrollable. Her eyes widened and she took a step back and almost fell into the bed. Anna didn't miss it and his smile wasn't really one.
"You would never say it, would you, Loruchka? Too much risk. Better to be safe, like your son. I thought maybe that would have been okay, I could accept what you offer and be happy, but I can't."
She wasn't crying. She wasn't.
"I'm sorry," Anna said after a long pause.
"It's okay, I'm sorry," she replied, looking at the ground. "I'll let you get to bed."
"Loruchka," he said, moving his arm to touch her, but Loren wove out of his reach and made it to his door. A quick glance over her shoulder showed Anna hadn't moved from his position and was giving her the saddest look, because he had been right.
She made it to her room before shutting the door and covering her mouth, sliding down to the ground and trying desperately not to let the sobs escape.
The next morning there was a note and a box on the table from Anna. He had left last night, she had heard him through the door. Part of her desperately wanted to run out and beg him to stay, but she had sat frozen. Maybe she had just imagined things, but Loren thought she had heard him pause at her door and begged him to knock, to say good bye, to do something. But he didn't, instead leaving.
She picked it up shakily and read his words.
I was going to give you this eventually with different circumstances. There is no reason you should not have it, despite changes.
Please be happy, Loruchka.
S uvazheniem, Anatoliy Fyodorovich Shcherbakov
PS: I will call you with information where I can be reached later today. I do not want you to call the police. AFS
With shaking hands, Loren picked up the small velvet box and opened it. Inside was a small, understated ring with a simple diamond flanked by two smaller stones. A choked laugh came up her throat before she stopped it, and she snapped the box closed and pushed it away.
"Oh, God," she prayed, hoping for some clarity, but nothing came. The night hadn't been well, Anna's words repeating themselves in her head. In the beginning, she denied everything he said, blamed him for the changes, for leaving like everyone else. But Loren didn't live in a world of delusion too long, at least once it was pointed out she was living in that sort of world.
Did she keep people away? She hadn't ever thought so, only that she did not have many friends because it was just how she was. It was hard to meet people if she didn't really go out. That didn't mean pushing others away, though, only that she didn't really try to meet new people.
So she wasn't as open as his other friends, or even Anna himself? That just meant she was different, private, and really, they had just met. That is, met recently. Or well …. Some people took a while to warm up to others, and she couldn't help it if she was one of them, could she?
After a while, it became harder to explain away her personality, to make excuses. Perhaps those traits were okay, but that's not what Anna accused her of, ultimately. He said she'd never love him, not enough. She had no problem admitting she liked Anna, cared for him as a friend and lover, but actual true love, with all the commitments and risks with that? She had cowardly balked when Anna said the words, when really, there was a certain expectation that they might come to that eventually. Everyone else thought so, at least, but she had ignored the signs because … because yes, it was safer.
Things were okay, now. She didn't like change.
She kept a bedroom for someone who never came, never visited, despite the niggling hope that maybe he might, just because he had once. But then, that was safe. She wasn't risking changing her life by approaching him, she made her son the bad guy by doing nothing. It was safe, because while it hurt, it wouldn't hurt more if he turned her away, or when she failed even more than before at being a mother.
Was she always like this? Loren couldn't remember her life prior to the accident, and her friends and family from that life left, abandoned her, after the few token visits. She had learned that sometimes other people couldn't be trusted. But she had survived and carved out a simple little life of routine. But still, had she always been like that? She knew her father had left her, that her husband had died. Had she already been trying to protect herself, because a person can only take so much hurt?
Loren drew a deep, shuddering breath. Her old life wasn't the point, now, was it? However she had been, could she accept being as she was now? She couldn't remember her parents, her husband, even her son. Some people would think of that like a second chance, where she wasn't bogged down by the ghosts, but Loren felt she always would be. The forgotten parents who had raised her with ideals that she had to unknowingly live by, a disappearing husband she felt she would always love no matter what, the elusive son she wanted to care for and raise. Things like that couldn't be forgotten, could they, not completely.
After all, she remembered aliens and the safety of blue.
Her son always said he was going to explain something to her, something about her life before, why she had dreamed and remembered aliens. But he never had, and she had never gotten the chance, for the war was building. The children played soldiers and made the adults sit on the sideline, a choice she both resented and was relieved they made for her.
But there had been, and still was, a sort of deep disappointment that she never truly understood that part of her past. Loren had always felt it had been important, something that had shaped her life. But maybe she was just trying to make her life mean something, because if it had been important, whatever he would have told her, it would have been written in those tell-all books by one of the kids.
Anna thought she was like her son, at least, even if he did not find it a flattering likeness. Loren brushed her eyes and held her hands in front of her, not praying but thinking.
She couldn't focus on Anna, not now, despite how much she wanted to. She needed time to sort out her own feelings, her own thoughts. And she had to do one thing first, because otherwise she'd just be using Anna as a crutch.
It took her five minutes to find her phone book.
It was the first time since the Valley she had seen Cassie in person. Loren smiled at her, though she was really just surprised how much the girl had changed in three years. It wasn't just in appearance, but also in bearing and manner.
"Loren, hi, how are you?" the girl said in surprise, once she went through a very obvious attempt to remember her name.
"Fine, fine. I see you're keeping busy."
Cassie nodded, giving her a careful look. "We're trying to find a new colony site for the Hork-Bajir. How did you find me?"
"I've got friends in low places," Loren said, because she promised Jenny she wouldn't tell. "I thought I'd stop by and chat." A lie, but it would have been rude to simply speak why she came.
The girl – woman didn't quite believe her, but instead of calling it out, she led Loren to a camp and they sat. There were a few minutes of catch-up, and a nice young man named Ronnie came over and hovered protectively. The beau amused Loren more than he should, because he reminded her of Anna.
Once the man disappeared, Loren decided to get to the meat of the matter. "Do you know where my son is?" Cassie was the only one who was likely to know.
Cassie started. "Eh … what?"
Loren repeated the question. "I want to see him. I want him to live with me. I have this nice house I got after everything and I was waiting for him to appear, I didn't want pressure him, but … well … I'm sick of waiting."
When Cassie's face twisted, Loren felt her stomach plummet. "Oh, Loren …."
He was dead. He died as a bird and she never knew. They didn't even think to tell her, she didn't even think to try and find out.
"Loren, he's gone."
Cassie quickly took her hands. "No, no." She told a story as if she thought it would make everything better.
It didn't. Her own son left the planet without even telling her.
If that wasn't evidence, nothing was. For three years, all she thought about was her son. He hadn't thought of her at all.
"Loren, Ax was Tobias' shorm."
That made it worse, but Loren forced a smile. "I understand. Well, I'm glad I found out. Even if it was this way."
"I'm sorry, Loren. It never occurred to me, to us …."
She stood up. "I suppose that is the problem, isn't it? I probably brought it on myself, anyway. It's okay. I hope Jake and Marco told their parents, at least. I'm glad we could talk."
Cassie ran after her for a few steps, but Loren rushed away. She would not cry in front of that girl.
"Where have you been?" Anna demanded, rushing down the sidewalk of her house. "Can't you leave a note?"
Despite the anger on his face and the continued scolding, Loren laughed. Laughed so hard she started to cry, and then she was just crying loud sobs.
"Shush, hush, I didn't mean to yell that much," he said, and she felt his arms around her, but she kept sobbing into his chest. "Come in, you're making everyone look."
He helped her inside and made her sit down. By then, she got herself down to sniffles and she looked at him suspiciously. "What are you doing here?"
"My things are here. And you didn't return my calls or any of your friends. You're supposed to take cell phone with you! And then I come here and you're not here!"
"You thought I did something melodramatic, didn't you?"
"You are melodramatic." He handed her a handkerchief, as he was one of the few persons in the world to still use them. Loren avoided using his when the pollen count was up. "You've been gone four days."
She wiped her face and mumbled, "So?"
"So if Nina didn't tell me you left, I'd have called the cops, that's so." She gave a small laugh and struggled not to start crying again. "Where did you go?"
"What do you care?"
Anna sighed, as if calling for some reserve of patience. "It did not make you happy."
There was no reason to lie. "I went to see Cassie."
"Ah." Even though it was clear he was desperately curious, he didn't ask.
They sat in silence for a long time before Loren said, in a quiet, low voice, "He's gone."
"My son. He's gone."
"Oh, Loruchka, I'm sorry," Anna said, setting a hand on her.
Loren shook her head wildly. "No, no, he's not dead, he's gone. He's not on Earth. He's off rescuing that Andalite with Jake and Marco. He left … and he didn't even think to tell me." Tears fell down her face. "He just. Left."
Anna hugged and gently rocked her while she cried quietly against him. He murmured quietly words she didn't understand, steady.
"I was too late. I should have listened to you. My fault. Oh, God, why?"
"He is young and stupid and doesn't realize the good he has because he only sees what he lost. He'll come back."
She couldn't accept the platitude. "He won't. He'll die out in space." Sniffing, she told him what she understood of Cassie's story, and afterwards she pushed herself up and away, turning to wipe her eyes. "Look at me, pathetic. I barely know him and I'm bawling."
"Mamas do that."
"Not much of one, Anna. We both know it. He didn't tell me because I'm not one."
"Then neither are other Animorphs. It's in paper Jake and Marco are missing. Not real papers. Tabloids. But with things from parents."
Anna nodded. "They may come back. They save the planet. Who knows what they can do?"
She knew precisely what they couldn't do, and she knew what she couldn't do. "I can't hope for that, Anna. Not anymore. It's done. Over."
"Don't say that."
"Why not?" she demanded. "You think I should hope for years that he'll live, come back, and maybe then he'll decide to at least visit me? I can't do that."
"But you will," he said quietly, "part of you always will."
"Hope springs eternal?"
"Da." He rubbed her back. "He loves you, Loruchka. All sons do. He just doesn't know how to show it."
"Like mother, like son, then." She clutched her head. "I thought I'd finally got my second chance, and I blew it."
"You both did," Anna pointed out, not unkindly. "But we get third chances and, if we're lucky, fourth chances, in life and love and everything in middle. They just look different. A chance can't be the exact same, because then that is a redo."
Loren turned her head to look at him. "And how will this look different this alleged third time?" Damn it, she didn't want to cry anymore. "Maybe he'll be a giant space spider instead of a bird? Yeah, that'll be better."
"Spiders easier to catch than birds."
"Maybe not space spiders."
He tenderly took the crumpled cloth from her hand and wiped her face. "Still, it gives you chance. All it matters on what you want your next chance to be."
"You are completely full of it, you know that, don't you?"
She hugged him, trying to brush the damn wetness on her face on his shirt. "I'm glad you were here."
Rubbing her back, he murmured, "I always come back."
"You'd think you'd learn."
He didn't respond, and both were content to sit like that.
"Do you mean it?" she asked.
"Do you promise to always come back?"
She buried her face against him, trying to remember the phrase she had seen in the books. "Ya tyebya lyublyu, Anatoliy."
He froze around her before saying, "You mess up pronouncing."
"That's all you can say?"
"Nyet. Ti viydesh zamuzh za menya?"
Loren lifted her head up and answered, even though she only had an inkling of what the question was, "Yes." And he kissed her, soft and gentle for a total of two seconds before it was hard and passionate.
"I suppose second chances do happen sometimes," she murmured as Anna brushed her cheeks with his thumbs.
"Maybe this is third or fourth chance," he countered, serious, as his lips grazed hers. Thinking about her alleged life, Loren could agree. "Promise to hope, too."
"I would like to meet my son. Someday."
"You said you didn't like him," Loren reminded.
"There's hope." He kissed her again, seeing the chance.
Notes: I never approved of Tobias' complete escape. Aside from being dumb, it was selfish and hurt more people than helped. It was nearly an attempt at suicide, and no one tried to fix it. I always loved -- and still do -- Tobias as a character, but as I said to a friend, I just want to slap him for this.
The story didn't quite end up how I wanted, but then again, it did. The execution of the the act was the issue. One point had Loren asking Cassie because she wanted to invite Tobias to the wedding, another had her attending Cassie/Ronnie wedding and looking for a "flash of red" and being told then, and another had her at her own wedding/engagement party being told after searching the sky for a hint of red. One of the reasons I went with this verison because I wanted it rather close to when J/M/T left Earth and it wasn't common knowledge they were off-planet on a rescue mission.
And because I am a sucker for happy endings, I did think about making this AU, but eventually decided to go this route.
And I will admit, if one **squints** and **pretends** this can be considered an E/L story. I did purposefully pick things for the double-meanings, because we just never know with those crazy Ellimists.