I could hear laughter from the Grey Lodge attendees. As large as I was, it was possible they had been able to read my body language from well over a hundred feet away, provided they knew what Ahmed had sprung on me.
“Ahmed, I, ah, know nothing about the care and feeding of preadolescent magical beings. I hope you weren’t serious about me taking care of Ali here.”
Please tell me you aren’t serious.
“Oh, you won’t really need to take care of him much. He’s moderately intelligent and hasn’t had a tantrum in thirty years or so.” Ahmed looked at Ali, who looked back up at him. “When I say to help him, I mean to help him perfect his ability to act as if he were a human around eight years old. In fifty years or so, he’ll start needing to be taught how to act like a nine-year-old human.”
Fifty years of taking care of an eight-year-old?
Anne and I were ready to be empty nesters.
“Permission to speak out of character, father?” Ali asked.
“Granted.” Ahmed answered.
Ali turned to me. “What you see is a seeming of an eight-year-old human. Because I am practicing mimicry, I will do my best to act as I currently look. That means I will not be following you around like some sidekick as you fight crime.” He grinned at me. “As fun as that might be.”
“My family knows less about magical things than I do, Ali. I’m not sure exactly how they are going to react to me bringing home a new member of the family. I will abide by the agreement, but I am not sure how much help I will be in training you to act as an eight-year-old.”
“I’m sure your wife and son will be able to help me. I can be very useful for them.”
Ali obviously was able to read my reaction to that. “I am supposed to be acting and reacting like an eight-year-old, Mr. Collins, and learning by exposure to humans. I can’t do that very well by interfering with their minds to any great degree.”
Something like brood parasitism?
“I’m going to guess that the normal way your kind learns to act human is by hiding amongst humans and moving from family to family in something like a foster care system. You adjust the memories of family and friends as needed to make them accept the new child, and when it’s time to move on, you either fake a death or just re-arrange memories again.”
Except to learn, not to be fed.
I didn’t have much choice about the agreement, but I might be able to fight the fostering agreement. “I will honor the terms of the agreement, but I ask for you not to inflict the fostering masquerade on my family. You are going to have to be around me for years, decades. You are not going to tie my family’s mind in knots to make them believe you are only eight years old for that long.”
Ali looked up at his father and shrugged. “I was right, father. He understands enough to recognize the potential problems. At least some of them.”
They discussed this, and still tried to mess with my family like that?
Ahmed was watching me, and didn’t miss the body language I thought I was hiding. “Don’t get belligerent, Mr. Collins. No harm was intended. My son needed to learn about you and I let him follow you and your family around for the last couple weeks as the Grey Lodge made arrangements.”
That didn’t help much.
Ahmed looked at his son and back to me. “Mr. Collins, you are correct that we typically do exactly what you say, and foster our young with unknowing humans for a few years at a time. This is different though. Ali is going to be tied to you for…” He looked at me carefully. “Perhaps centuries.”
Extended lifetime confirmed.
Why am I not happy?
“If I understand correctly, Ahmed, Ali is only practicing deception that will work against humans. Is there any reason why he cannot delay this learning, anything that will impact his growth negatively?”
Ahmed tilted his head, looking up at me. “Jinn and Jiniri have a natural understanding of magic, nature, and other beings of magic. We do not have a natural understanding of humans, which makes you absolutely fascinating to us. At the same time, we do not like to interfere too blatantly in the lives of humans. Not in concrete, measurable ways that can be attributed to our kind. Not without figuratively, and sometimes literally, covering our tracks.”
“If possible, I would prefer that my family be aware of Ali, have some understanding of what he is, and his purpose. I imagine that Anne and Danny might even be willing to help Ali with his learning now and then by taking him places where he could act like an eight-year old around others his age, pretending that he’s a visiting extended family member. Things like Little League baseball, Cub Scouts, school, and slumber parties with others who appear to be his age. It wouldn’t be quite the same as learning about home life, but he’d still get in some learning, by collaborating with my family, rather than messing with their minds.”
Please agree with me on this.
“I’ll let you and Ali sort this out with your family, Mr. Collins. As you say, it isn’t a survival issue for Ali to learn to understand humans of all ages well enough to mimic them. I will leave you two to discuss this. Ali may find it difficult to separate himself from the last two hundred years of acting like a human child.”
“I won’t say that I understand, because I probably don’t, but I do appreciate the opportunity to keep this as open as possible with my family.”
Ahmed nodded before turning his gaze to Ali. “You need not obey Mr. Collins as you would me, Ali, but I want you to consider carefully when he disagrees with you. He has a mature adult male human perspective on the world, which you have not learned yet. Remember how aberrant humans can get when their minds are damaged. Part of what you will need to deal with, aside from the obvious part of keeping him alive if you can, is preserving Mr. Collins’ sanity. If you can keep him alive and sane, this could be be the longest contractual arrangement with a non-practitioner human that any Jinn or Jiniri has ever had, and the growth you can potentially realize in the arrangement is well worth the troubles I can imagine you encountering.”
I’m being discussed here like I’m a goldfish.
I’m not sure if I should be angry or grateful.
Ahmed looked distracted for a moment. “The ones calling me are getting insistent, and I’d rather not break those bindings.”
Ali spoke up, “Go ahead, father, you can come back and speak to Mr. Collins later, after you deal with whatever requests the others have for you.”
Ahmed bowed to me. “Farewell, for now, Mr. Collins.” He turned to his son next. “Ali, we will discuss your mimicry education after your business with Mr. Collins is complete, in a few years. You need not pretend to be human to any extent more than is necessary to avoid drawing undue attention to yourself.”
“Farewell, Ahmed.” I replied automatically.
I turned to Ali. I wasn’t sure I wanted to expose myself to him in my normal form, where he might alter my mind, but I didn’t have much choice. I’d have to do it eventually unless I decided to give up my humanity and live in the shadow shape, which would also make it impossible for me to have a meaningful connection to family. No real choice there.
I changed back into human shape. “Well, Ali, let’s go speak to my family about this. Can you follow me if I use the teleporter?”
Ali looked at me strangely, then raised his right hand and snapped his fingers. “Non-practitioner. Right. If you want to use the teleporter, that’s fine, but there’s no need for it. I have a contractual relationship with you. I will always know where you are, if you are not being masked by a very powerful individual, prepared circle, or ritual event.”
I was barely paying attention to Ali at that point, as I realized we were now standing in front of the Enclave apartment where Anne and Danny now lived. “Ali, how did you know where this place was?”
“I looked it up in Enclave records. I didn’t need to read it from your mind if that’s why you are worried. That takes the fun out of it.” He was staring at the door. “That’s a very weak threshold.”
“It’s just a door. A decently well-built apartment door, but it’s not meant for more than privacy and deterrence.” I explained, more being puzzled aloud than expecting to tell Ali anything he didn’t know.
Ali paused a moment before speaking. “I think dealing with you and your family as non-practitioners, without trying to pretend to be a human, is going to be challenging to me on a different level.”
Ali’s face appeared to be a little pensive and amused.
Do not trust facial expressions.
Four hundred years old.
“I apologize in advance for my family’s ignorance, Ali. I hope it is more amusing than irritating to you. Can you explain what I don’t know this time?” I hoped I was striking the right balance of between conciliatory, apologetic, and willingness to learn.
Ali just stood motionless for a moment before replying. “Every home has a threshold. It’s a passive defense against intrusion by others. It is defined by natural ebb and flow of life energies.” He shook his head. “It would be easier to explain this once, and let your family ask questions too.”
“OK, so like some of the fantasy books I have read. We have to invite you in. Otherwise, you either cannot enter at all, your power is restricted, or some other detrimental effect, right?”
I looked both ways in the hallway. No people watching. Standing in the hallway talking about this stuff was irritating.
Then stop talking about it and get inside.
“The effects vary, based on the threshold and the being. Jinn like myself can enter with minimal negative effects, if we want to, because we have made ourselves somewhat symbiotic with humans. Other beings of darker nature are far more strongly affected. This threshold is weak, it would not give much pause to any magical being or practitioner who enters with intent to harm your family.”
“If that’s so, can we just go in and talk about it inside, with my family, after I introduce you?”
“No. This is an opportunity for you to enhance your threshold by reinforcing it. I will teach you a modernized version of one of the old, simple phrases for allowing a magical being across the threshold of a family’s residence.” He cleared his throat. “If you intend no harm or mischief involving my family, my home, or what we hold dear, I invite you to enter as a guest.”
I repeated it to myself in my head a couple times, examining it, before turning to Ali and saying the phrase back at him. “If you intend no harm or mischief involving my family, my home, or what we hold dear, I invite you to enter as a guest, today.”
Ali smirked. “Caution. A limit. I like that.”
Smells like foxes and henhouses here.
What choice do I have, really?
Ali looked at the door again. “That’s better. Claiming the threshold ritually, even as a non-practitioner, just substantially improved its strength. It’s still terribly weak, but much stronger than it was. Let’s go in and speak with your family.” Ali looked at me expectantly. I started knocking slowly on the door. If nobody answered it by the time I got to five knocks, I would unlock the door and enter. The same thing as at the house, before Anne and Danny were uprooted.
Should I be curious or terrified?
“You knock to allow yourself in, like a stranger?”
“You said you followed me and watched me and my family? It’s my power, Ali, I do not want it to trigger accidentally because my family startles me. We all knocked before entering the old house, we should do the same here, I think.”
“None of you discussed why you did it when I was watching. It was maddening. I wanted to stop one of you and ask you why so many times. I thought I understood why you were doing it, because I could see the shape of the intent, but hearing it from you verifies it. It makes a lot of sense, provided that the intent is to protect your family from harm. With that in mind, it should improve the threshold over time.” Ali nodded.
On the third knock, I heard Anne’s voice accompanied by the sounds of footsteps approaching the door. “One moment.”
A couple seconds later, I saw the telltale darkening of the little peephole. A second later, I heard the sound of the door’s locks being opened before it swung open. “Zeke, that didn’t take long. Is everything…”
Anne had seen Ali, who was looking up at her, grinning a very impish grin. “Oh. Ah. Good day to you, young man. It seems as if you found my husband and brought him back to me, thank you. What is your name?” She looked at me with confusion. “Do we need to call for help finding his family, Zeke?”
Ali responded. “Ma’am, my name is Ali. My family knows where I am.”
“Ali is here with his father’s blessing, Anne. It’s complicated. Can we talk about it inside?”
“Yes, of course.” Anne responded, and she swung the door open all the way to allow us in. I heard her mutter “Ali” and a few other words under her breath in a puzzled tone as she looked down at the slender boy with a very Irish appearance.
I could hear rhythmic thumping coming from Danny’s room. Footsteps, not music. Danny was running in place or had acquired a treadmill.
Offer food, drink.
“Please seat yourself in the living room, Ali, I’ll see what we have to offer for food and drink.”
“Thank you, Mr. Collins, but I don’t need food or drink right now. Feel free to eat and drink if you wish.”
Anne was alternating between looking at Ali and I as she watched me go to the refrigerator as Ali headed into the living room, looking at the furniture.
As I opened the refrigerator, I could tell that more shopping had been done by someone. It had only been an hour or so since I was teleported out, so I doubted Anne or Danny had done it. The fridge was full of foods, drinks, and condiments. Mostly foods that were typical for our family. A few brands we didn’t normally buy, but very normal-seeming. I grabbed an apple, one of the leftover cold cut half sandwiches, and some ice water. I was probably still dehydrated after the alcohol from last night, the morning run, and then the fire.
“I see someone did some shopping for us, Anne, is it just a welcoming gesture, or something they offer as a service?”
“It’s a service. They charge for the food and delivery, but it’s a fair price. They did a pretty good job of finding what Danny and I asked for. If we hadn’t been able to pay for it, we could have worked it off doing things for the community.” She shrugged. “I’d rather shop for us. The bottle of orange juice they brought today has an expiration date that’s sooner than the one that was in the fridge when we arrived. Danny noticed it and said he’d take care of it.”
As if on cue, Danny stuck his head out of his bedroom door. The thumping had stopped.
The siren call of the fridge opening.
Maybe he heard my voice.
Right. It was the fridge.
“Danny, we need to have another family meeting on short notice. Sorry about there being no warning. Can you shower if you worked up a sweat? Casual house clothes are fine.”
“Sure, Dad. Ten minutes for a shower and to throw on some sweats. I stink.”
“OK, Danny. It’s important.”
“Faster then.” Danny closed his door and I heard his shower start up about thirty seconds later.
Ali had apparently decided to sit cross-legged on the floor rather than using any of the adult-sized furniture. Anne looked at Ali and back to me, with a frown. Sitting on the floor in the living room was something we had always actively kept Danny and his friends from doing as he was growing up.
As I was walking towards the small couch that Anne and I had sat in the other night, I carefully spoke. “Ali, please sit in a seat, or explain why you prefer not to.”
“I will, if you like, Mr. Collins. Where do guests typically sit? I do not want to take a seat someone else is expecting to claim.”
Anne started to smile again. She pointed to the chair across from the one Danny had sat in the other night. “We’ve only been in this apartment since last night, Ali, but nobody has used that chair yet. Feel free to sit there.”
“OK, thank you, Mrs. Collins.” He stood with the boneless ease of a child and hopped while turning around so that he fell into the chair, with his back at the back of the chair. Since his legs were too short for his knees to allow his lower legs to fall naturally in front of the chair, his feet stuck almost straight out. It brought back memories of Danny as a child.
“I would like to wait until Danny joins us, so we don’t have to tell it twice, OK Anne?”
Anne looked at me. “Sure.” Then she took a sip of my ice water, and tore off a little bit of my sandwich half, looking at me a bit mischievously. I hadn’t asked her if she wanted food or drink, only Ali, and she was making a point. Fortunately, it didn’t seem to be a ‘you sleep on the couch tonight’ point, just an ‘I didn’t miss that and want to make sure you know it’ point.
I poked her in the nose as she popped the sandwich corner in her mouth, and said “Sorry. You want anything more, Anne?”
“No, I only ate an hour or so ago with you and Danny, before we were interrupted. Danny ate light though, since he hadn’t done his morning run yet. He’ll probably raid the fridge on his way to us, since you’re eating.”
Danny managed to shower and throw on some sweat pants and a shirt in a little more than five minutes before he opened his room’s door and walked into the living room.
I was taking a bite of the sandwich half as he entered the room. Danny looked at me, saw me eating, and immediately turned to his right into the dining area, walking towards the kitchen. “Be right there. I need food.” There was the brief sound of cellophane being moved around as sandwich halves were moved from the fridge to Danny’s plate, and a pouring noise accompanied by the sound of ice.
As Danny walked into the living room with half a dozen half-sandwiches on his plate, he complained. “This stuff is way off my diet. My running is going to be off for days.”
Danny walked into the living room, looking at Anne and me with obvious questions on his face as he approached the same chair he had sat in the other night. After setting down his plate of sandwiches and glass of orange juice on an end table next to the chair, he started to turn around to sit.
Ali took that moment to speak. “Hey, big brother!”
I spewed water in a spray in front of me.
If we keep spraying drinks all over, it’s going to be a mess in here.
Danny spun around like he had been shocked, to face the voice of the person he hadn’t noticed sitting in the chair. After a second of staring at Ali, he looked at me, strangely.
Damn, Ali, I thought we agreed you wouldn’t do this.
Later, I would realize that Danny had been faster on the uptake than me.
I felt Anne move a little away from me on the couch, and looked towards her. There was definitely something wrong. When Anne spoke, I realized that I needed to do some explaining very quickly.
“So Ali is Danny’s brother, Zeke? I imagine I would remember something like that. Care to explain?”