Thursday, June 29, 2017

December 25

I woke after an awful night. The little bit of sleep I’d managed had been filled with nightmares. Most of them had consisted of me searching for Clan Seot everywhere and not being able to find them. It doesn’t take a psychologist to figure any of that out.

That’s when it hit me, as I sat with Anrel while she had breakfast. Yes, Betra knew me better than anyone besides maybe my mom…but there was another person who knew me almost as well. Best of all, Dr. Feru was actually trained to analyze a confused person’s issues.

“Anrel!” I said excitedly to my once-again sweet-natured baby. “Mommy has an idea that doesn’t suck! Feru is a man, but he isn’t a former lover. And he’s a real psychological expert. The guys can’t object to me talking to him about my problems. It’s honest-to-God therapy!”

She laughed at me from her booster seat at the table, her adorable face smeared with cereal. For that matter, all of her and the table top were smeared with cereal. She was a one-girl food fight. She jabbered with as much enthusiasm as I felt.

“I agree,” I said, grabbing my com. “Feru’s the man for the job yet again. I just wish I didn’t have to wait four days to get an answer.”

I recorded my message to Feru, detailing how I’d found the perfect clan. “But because I’m not the perfect woman, I’m mucking it up,” I told him. “And I don’t know why.”

I went over everything I’d done to sabotage my relationship with Clan Seot. While I was at it, I recorded for his amusement my messy Anrel happily flinging her food. He needed payment for fixing another Shalia emergency. I figured a good laugh at cereal-covered kid might cover the bill.

No sooner had I sent off the message than my intended clan commed me. I answered the vid transmission with, “Great, I haven’t fixed my hair or put on any makeup yet. How am I supposed to convince you to stick with me looking like this?”

They chuckled, though their hearts didn’t seem to be in the attempted merriment. “You know you’re always beautiful to us,” Cifa rebuked me. His eyes were swollen and red. Next to him, Larten looked grim.

“We wanted to make sure you were all right,” Seot added. He tried to smile but couldn’t quite pull it off.

“No. Not even a little bit,” I said. “I miss you too much to be okay.”

“We feel the same way. You look like you’ve been crying.”

“Oceans. I’m better than I was though.” The weight returning to my heart made that statement a lie. “I’m sorry. I really, really am. I’m going to make it up to you though.” That part was the truth.

“Don’t worry about us,” Seot insisted. “But if you need anything at all, including us rushing home early, don’t hesitate to say so.”

“I will. Especially if I get my act together sooner rather than later.” Come on, Feru.

Was there ever a more uncomfortable conversation? I doubt it. Even as stilted and awkward as the next hour was, we couldn’t seem to end the com. Anrel squealed with delight when she realized her daddies-to-be were on the vid projection. Cifa and I both developed leaky eyes over how obviously she wanted to be around them.

Issues or no, I will clan with them. For Anrel, I will make it work, even if the truth of what’s screwing me up continues to elude me.

When we were at last able to say goodbye, Seot told me, “We’ll leave you alone to do what you have to. It’s up to you to make the next move, my love. Com us when you’re ready.”

“I will. I love you.”

I finally got real smiles out of them. They chorused, “I love you,” back, and I started to cry. I clicked off before I could go full-tilt distraught on the poor things. They do not need any more of my ridiculous drama. Come to think of it, I’ve had enough of it myself.

Monday, June 26, 2017

December 24, part 3

I led the guys to our quarters. I still felt the need the cry, but not the ability. That was just as well. This was going to be hard enough without blubbering incoherently at them.

“Maybe you should sit down,” I said as the men stood there, their worried faces breaking my heart all the more.

Seot held his hands up. “Shalia, if you’re about to do what I think you’re going to do, please don’t. We can make this right between us. I know you’re the Matara for my clan.”

The pain in my chest got worse. My strong, proud Seot was begging me not to cut them out? No, that man should never have to beg for anything. That I would drive him to it made me more ashamed than ever.

“You’re right. I am the Matara for your clan. You’re the men I want for myself and for my daughter. I love you.” As their stunned expressions brightened into joyous realization, I hurried to add, “But I’m not ready to accept your offer of clanship yet.”

They froze, caught between wonderment, elation, and concern. Seot was the first to regain his ability to speak. “All right. What’s holding you back? Is it that we have issues with you sharing private matters with former lovers?”

“No, Seot. You were right about that. I think I knew I shouldn’t discuss what was happening with Betra. Maybe that was what kept me from sending him that message.” I exhaled heavily. “There’s something still not right about this. Not with you, though. Something with me, I think.”

“What?” Cifa asked, coming close to take my hands. “Tell me so I can find a way to fix it. So I can call you my Matara and love you until the end of everything.”

The need to cry grew, but the inability continued to dog me. Nevertheless, my voice was choked as I said, “I don’t know what it is. I just know that something keeps me from accepting that I love you and want to be clanned to you. Whatever it is, I’m afraid it will continue to make me push you away when things seem to be their best…and that’s no way for us to be together.”

Cifa said nothing. He looked worried and sad. Seot seemed to understand, his expression also downcast but clear. Larten looked confused as hell, and for some reason, it made me laugh a little.

“It’s emotional shit, Nobek,” I said to him. “All the stupid feeling garbage that we other breeds insist on having.”

“Oh, that,” he said, his lips twitching with a slight smile. “You should consider not bothering with that sentimental mess. At the moment, it’s fucking with my happy future as your clanmate.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I wish I could jettison the whole nonsense. I really do.”

“Tell us what you need to get the answers,” Seot said, coming close. “Name it. It’s yours.”

“I need to go back to the Matara Complex. I need to get away so I can figure out what’s making me ruin things between us.”

“You’re not ruining this!” Cifa cried out, his tone distressed. “We just have to be patient while you work things out. You should stay with us so we can support you.”

“You mean so I can bite your head off every few seconds. So I can find ways to subconsciously derail what should be a wonderful time,” I told him gently. “Cifa, I’m not going away for good. I’m going to say yes to being your Matara. But I need to clear my head first, to find out why I keep pushing you away.”

“Do you really think leaving will be the best way?” Larten asked.

“Honestly? I don’t know. Maybe I’m full of shit on this. But I feel like I have a better chance of figuring myself out if I’m not dealing with the guilt of another episode of mistreating you three.”

“You’re not mistreating us,” Cifa insisted.

I barely heard him. For a moment, I’d felt on the verge of an epiphany, as if I’d caught a glimpse of whatever it was that made me so afraid of commitment. But the moment passed, and I was as clueless as ever.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I hate doing this. It’s killing me to ask you to give me time.”

“Then we won’t ask you to reconsider,” Seot said, giving Cifa a significant look.

My cutie-pie Imdiko wasn’t quite ready to give up, even with our Dramok’s overpowering tone and gaze. “How long will we be separated? What if you don’t discover what’s holding you back in a few days? Or a week?”

He had a point. Now that we were this close to being a clan, I didn’t want to be apart from them for long either. “If a couple weeks goes by and I’m no closer to an answer, then we’ll get together and discuss what should happen next.”

“Twenty days?” Cifa groaned. Inside, I groaned too. I’d forgotten a Kalquorian week was ten days long. Hopefully I wasn’t so dense that I wouldn’t figure out what my problem was before then.

“Cifa,” Seot said in his mild but warning voice. “She says she’s going to be our Matara. Don’t make her feel worse than she already does because you’re impatient.”

That straightened out our caregiver in a hurry. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think.” He hugged me close. “Don’t feel bad because I want you right here, right now.”

“Why should I feel bad that you aren’t giving up on such a pain in the ass?” I asked, returning the hug, squeezing him as hard as I could. “Start thinking about what kind of clanning ceremony we can have.”

Cifa’s sharp intake of breath let me know I’d said the right thing. “Oh. Oh. Which ship? Wait, that depends on the guest list. Start putting yours together, love. And there are so many wonderful locations, but it will depend on the time of year. Menus – Kalquorian and Earther food. What other race, Seot? You’ve got so many friends on different worlds because of where you do business.”

No one was really, truly happy that I was going – I reminded myself that was a good thing – but Cifa’s moment of distracted excitement helped us relax and even smile.

There was no shortage of heavy hearts as I packed to leave though. I could hardly believe I was doing it either. I was engaged to be clanned. I was in love. I would spend my life with the three men who made my heart beat faster, who made me feel safe, who saw the best in me even though I’d quite often shown them the worst.

We should have been celebrating. Instead, I was heading out to get my stupid head on straight. I had found happiness and was literally walking away from it. It didn’t matter that the separation was only temporary. It felt like someone was dying.

Probably the saddest part of all was saying goodbye at the shuttle terminal near the port where we were supposed to be vacationing and having the time of our lives. Funny enough, it was Larten who clung to me and Anrel, as if he wouldn’t let us board our transport. “Are you sure you have to go?” he asked me. “Isn’t there some way other than this?”

The brutal need to wail in grief was a solid weight not just in my chest by then, but in my stomach and throat. It made my head ache viciously. Yet not one damned tear or sob would leave my body and ease the pressure. “We’ll be together again soon,” I promised my Nobek in a thick voice. “And then you’ll never get rid of me.”

Even with my reassurance, it took a direct order from Seot before Larten would let us go. By then, the shuttle attendant was gesturing frantically at me to get on board.

I almost didn’t. I’m still not sure where the strength came from that got me on the shuttle and in my seat. I’m not sure how I didn’t scream to be let off when the shuttle lifted into the air.

It was then that Anrel began to cry. She was fed, she was dry, and there was no real reason for her to be upset…except that we’d left those we loved behind. She cried until she fell asleep in my arms. When we landed, she woke and started crying again.

I managed to wait until I got into my rooms at the Matara Complex. Then the stone I’d been carrying in my chest loosened, broke apart, and exploded in braying grief. Anrel and I sat in the middle of our greeting room floor, crying and crying and crying until we were too tired and empty to cry anymore.

Merry fucking Christmas.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

December 24, part 2

Larten looked at me for a long moment. He opened his mouth and shut it, looking away for an instant. Then he stared me in the eyes. “I heard you in there. I hadn’t intended to. I was just waiting. But I heard some of what you said to your friend Betra. I take it you were sending him a message?”

I froze. I felt like a kid getting caught stealing candy in the grocery store and made by my mother to apologize for it.

“I didn’t send it,” I told him. “I was venting, that’s all. I’ve always been able to talk to him.”

“What about talking to us, since we’re the ones you’re having a problem with?” Larten folded his arms over his chest, anger sparking in his eyes. “Why wouldn’t you come to us so we can try to work any issues out? Betra can’t solve anything for you. He’s out there and you’re here. We’re here,” he continued, sweeping his arm towards his clanmates who were now staring at us.

“Like I said, I was venting. Trying to figure a few things out.” My voice was small.

“What’s going on?” Seot asked, climbing off the sleeping mat. His gaze riveted on Larten.

The Nobek turned to him. “Shalia was recording a message to Betra. She was picking us apart to him, rather than discussing our shortcomings with us.”

“No!” I was aghast that he’d taken what he’d heard that way. “I think you’re all wonderful. But I’m trying to make an important decision, one that has me freaking out all over the place. I was recording, not actually talking with him.”

“But you planned to send the message?” Seot asked, frowning.

“I don’t know.” I figured the situation was already fucked up. The truth wasn’t going to un-fuck it. “Betra knows me so well, maybe better than I know myself. I’ve used him as a sounding board when it comes to things in my life that confuse me. All I wanted was his objective take on the matter.”

“Shalia, I’m not comfortable with you bringing another man into the relationship we’re trying to build here,” Seot said.

“It’s not like that. He’s my friend.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Cifa said, carrying Anrel over to join in. “This is our clan. If you’re to be part of it, you have to be willing to talk to us. Not your former lover.”

“Absolutely,” Larten said, his expression less angry but still stern. “I’ve met Betra, and he’s a fine man. He’s still not welcome in our personal matters.”

“Hey, he was around before you were,” I said, my own anger flaring. “I’m not having sex with him. I’m talking.”

“About matters that are not his concern,” Seot said. His brows drew low. “This is between us, no one else. That’s how a relationship works, Shalia. You keep your friends close, but not in the middle of your clan.”

Anrel burbled and held her arms out to me. I took her from Cifa. “You’re reading too much into this. I’m not putting Betra in the middle of anything. I’m asking for his advice.”

“Before consulting with us about your concerns,” Larten said. “It’s not acceptable. A clan is four people at the most. And those four people talk to one another, not behind their clanmates’ backs.”

“You’re not my clanmates,” I shot back, furious they weren’t trying to understand. “And if you think I’m cutting my dearest friends out of my life, the ones who saved my life countless times, then you need to find another woman.”

With a look of anguish, Cifa asked me, “Why do you keep doing this? Every time things seem to be going well for us, you find something to push us away.”

Was he kidding? I’d been ready to join his clan only minutes ago. I’d had to talk myself out of it, remind myself of all the good reasons I shouldn’t!

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I just know that you’re all ganging up on me, not listening to a word I say. So I don’t want to talk at all now.”

“Don’t walk out,” Seot said, putting his hand on my arm to stop me from doing just that.

“Anrel needs her breakfast,” I said. “And right now, I’ve got nothing left to say to you.”

He let me go, and I went out. My stomach felt like lead. How had it gone bad so quickly?

Candy was snuggling so hard with Stidmun, I didn’t have the heart to bother her with this latest drama. However, Joelle was all over Anrel the moment I brought her out on deck. She got one look at my face and suggested brightly, “Why don’t we eat in a quiet spot?”

The deck on the bow was always a good place to retire, because everyone had a habit of gathering on the larger aft deck. Plus that was where the breakfast buffet was set out, and the guys were never far from where the food was. With no appetite, I snagged Anrel’s meal and a cup of coffee for myself and followed Joelle to the bow.

“Trouble in paradise again?” she asked as she settled on a seat cushion with Anrel in her lap.

“I don’t understand,” I moaned, covering my face with my hands. “I know something’s wrong with this picture, but I can’t figure it out. When I reach out to the one person who might be able to tell me what I’m missing, Seot, Larten and Cifa lose their minds.”

“Start from the beginning,” Joelle suggested, spooning mush into Anrel’s mouth.

I did. I told my stepmom everything as best I could.

“On the surface, it sounds like you’re making mountains out of molehills. I’m not discounting your fears though, Shalia,” Joelle assured me. “If something feels off, then it’s there most of the time. But other than feeling like Clan Seot might be too good to be true, you can’t pin down what’s bothering you about them.”

“I’m not even sure it’s them,” I said, fantasizing about pounding my head against the ship’s metal railing until it cracked open and the secret spilled out. “I think they are every bit as amazing as they seem. But I know better than to trust that. And I promised Clan Aslada another shot. But now I know it will feel like I’m cheating on Clan Seot if I keep my promise.”

“Let me ask you this,” Joelle said thoughtfully. “Does it feel like you’re being immoral by sleeping with Clan Seot? Like you’re cheating on Clan Aslada?”

“No. Not really,” I admitted. “Isn’t that weird?”

Joelle crooked a brow at me. “It sounds like you made your decision, Shalia. I think you’re hopelessly in love with Clan Seot.”

My stomach lurched. “It’s too soon! And like I said, I promised—”

“You promised Clan Aslada you’d return, but that was when you didn’t realize you would be head over heels for Clan Seot within a few weeks.”

“Clan Aslada has done so much for me though. I owe them.”

“Shalia, that is no basis for a relationship. Even with my limited experience, that’s one thing I’m pretty sure of.” Joelle was adamant.

“It could be just blind infatuation,” I muttered. “And there is Anrel to consider yet. I need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Seot, Cifa, and Larten are right as her fathers.”

Joelle shook her head. “You won’t ever get that, sweetheart, because the best parents make mistakes. If you’re looking to find fault with someone, even their slightest misstep will look like the end of the world.”

“You’d think it would be different if I was that far gone over the guys. That I’d excuse them for a lot more than I think I might. And if I’m so in love, why do I feel sick at my stomach when I start thinking about committing to them?”

Joelle pointed a finger at me, signaling this was a significant point. “Now we’re at the basis of the issue. Something is scaring the crap out of you about clanning with them. You love them, but that very feeling keeps touching off a panicked reaction. Whatever it is, it’s making you push them away.”

That was the invisible problem I couldn’t put my finger on. “This is why we keep having issues. Me ignoring Cifa’s wishes for the promo vid. Worrying over Seot’s ability to direct with a look. Messaging Betra when I knew there was a good chance of that sensitive Kalquorian hearing picking up on it.”

“Don’t forget contacting Clan Aslada for their address,” Joelle reminded me. “And wasn’t there some hesitating you did when you were supposed to swim at that reef with Cifa? I remember feeling like I had to practically force you to go with him.”

“I’m running away from them,” I said. “But why? Joelle, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why.”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that one for you,” she said with an apologetic smile. “While I agree with Clan Seot that you shouldn’t be airing your relationship’s dirty laundry to Betra, I can understand you wishing to talk to someone who knows you best. Someone who can shed light on why you’re rejecting the one thing we all wish for – people who love us unconditionally.”

“Do you think they do? Love me?” My heart was hammering.

“I do. Better still, they respect you. As for the last important question, Clan Seot would do anything for this precious little girl.” She kissed the top of Anrel’s head. “If you don’t know that by now, you’ve let whatever issue you have make you completely blind.”

I laughed, though the hurt in my chest made me want to cry. “I know they do. And do you want to know something completely nuts? I think I’ve loved them from the first moment I set eyes on their profile. Before I even spoke to them on the com.”

Joelle grinned. “That’s how I felt the first time I saw Nayun and then the rest of your fathers. I swear, my heart stopped in my chest, like I’d been waiting for that very instant my entire life.”

I thought I’d start crying then, but the tears wouldn’t come. I needed to bawl my eyes out, but I couldn’t. “Then why can’t I do this? Why can’t I say, ‘Yes, I’ll spend my life with you. Anrel is your daughter.’ Why can’t I get that out?”

It was a rhetorical question. Joelle had already said she couldn’t help me on that front. She did have one more suggestion though, one I didn’t see coming.

“Why don’t you go home to the Matara Complex, Shalia? Get away from Clan Seot, get some quiet? Maybe then the answer will come to you.”

I stared at her in shock. “Wait. Isn’t not running away from them what I’m supposed to be working on?”

“Not if it’s going to drive a wedge between you. How are you going to get to the point where you can say yes to their clan if you don’t figure out what’s holding you back?” Joelle shrugged. “Unless you’re enjoying the whole approach-and-avoidance thing you’ve been doing since we left?”

“No,” I mumbled. “That’s not working out at all. But shouldn’t I wait and take a break at the end of the cruise?”

“Do you think this is a matter that can wait? Can you see yourself enjoying the rest of the trip the way things are right now?”

Well, that was a big, resounding no. But there was one other consideration. “They’ll be hurt if I leave.”

“They’re hurting now. And so are you. It’ll stay that way until you understand what’s going on.” Joelle put Anrel’s empty bowl aside. “Is that tummy full, little sweetie? Let me rub it and see if it’s tight as a drum. Oh, so full!”

The ship’s horn went off, interrupting her silly chatter and Anrel’s happy squeals. I looked around to see us approaching land. Our next port of call, and it was a short stop. I’d be able to get on a shuttle for home if I talked to Seot, Cifa, and Larten now. Yet the thought of leaving them hurt as much as conceding that I wanted to join their clan. I was being wrenched apart.

“I guess I have to make a decision fast,” I said. I still wanted to cry. I still couldn’t. “Why isn’t this easy? Shouldn’t love be easy?”

“Shalia, based on all you’ve told me about the adventures you’ve had with the men you’ve loved, that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard you say,” Joelle laughed.

I had to laugh with her. Maybe love was a simple thing for others. But I’m Shalia Monroe. I don’t do easy, damn it.

“What do I tell them? How do I make them know I want to be with them when I’m walking out on them?” I asked when the brief spate of humor had passed.

“Tell them the truth. Tell them you love them, and you’re doing this so you can be together.”

I sighed. I didn’t want to do this. I thought Joelle might be right, though. Sticking around and fucking things up wasn’t doing any of us any favors.

“Please tell me you’re going to enjoy the rest of the cruise,” I said. “Don’t you go home too. I couldn’t live with the guilt of ruining your fun.”

Joelle grinned. “I’ll stay. Someone needs to stick around and reassure your fiancĂ©es that all is not lost.”

I threw my arms around her, squashing Anrel between us. “You’d do that for me? Make sure they know I really do want to end up with them? You are the best stepmom ever.”

She laughed and hugged back as Anrel squealed cheerfully in our ears. “I want to see you happy, Shalia. After everything you’ve been through, you deserve it. Now go on and tell them you’re going. Don’t allow any time to talk yourself out of it.”

I hurried off, knowing she was right yet again. But when I saw the three of them on the main deck, sitting quietly to one side as everyone else chattered and laughed around them, I almost chickened out.

I was in love. I wanted to spend my life with Clan Seot. I was running off instead. The lunacy of it made me want to jump over the rail and drown myself rather than confront them with this ridiculous plan.

But as they all looked at me, I squared my shoulders and motioned for them to join me below deck. They immediately stood and headed my way.