Anne looked shocked, and was starting to get angry.
I spared a glance to Danny, and he was staring at Anne and me, clearly wanting to be anywhere else. When my eyes crossed his, he looked away from us, staring at Ali instead.
Ali stared at Anne and me with something like irritation for a moment, then his expression loosened up a bit. “Oh, you didn’t know.” He then leaned back in his chair and raised his hands in mock surrender. “I don’t understand the anger. Talk to me.”
He has been pretending to be eight, or younger, for the last couple hundred years.
Anne was thinking furiously, still with an angry expression on her face. I reached my right arm out across her back to her right shoulder and touched her lightly to make sure I didn’t startle her. She reacted by looking in my direction, moving hip to hip with me, and then leaning into my side. When she had shifted positions, I firmly gave her a one-armed hug with my right arm across her shoulder, and left the arm there. Anne was normally not one to seek physical protection from nonphysical threats; she was reacting badly to this.
I ignored Ali for a moment, and used my left hand to touch Anne’s chin, carefully pulling her gaze away from Ali and towards me. “He’s been pretending to be juvenile for a couple hundred years, Anne. I’m certain he didn’t think ahead about all the possibilities for misunderstanding that he just left open. Think of him as an idiot savant child, or a very young tinker with even less social skills than normal.”
Then I turned to Ali. “You want to know why we are angry, Ali? You just claimed to cure my wife of cancer with a snap of your fingers. She was not aware that she had cancer.” I paused, staring at Ali.
I continued, “The fact that you can cure cancer with a snap of your fingers carries the implicit threat that you can bestow cancer with a snap of your fingers. Add to that the fact that Anne and I are getting to the age where various more common cancers are becoming far more likely, and you just pushed a very scary button for us.”
“A gift misunderstood as a threat. My father will not be happy with me for failing to consider this.” Ali’s expression turned a little sour.
Anne spoke. “If practitioners have aversion wards to help them avoid danger, I’m guessing they also have wards or methods to help them monitor their health, correct?”
Ali nodded again, and considered his words for a moment. “Yes, Mrs. Collins, almost all practitioners monitor their health with magical wards, though there are other ways to do it. Wards are very handy for passive monitoring and notification.”
“So a practitioner’s ward tells them they have cancer, they wriggle their fingers, and it’s gone?”
Ali looked at all three of us, obviously thinking. “For crude physical things, like, say shin splints or arterial blockages, a practitioner can spend a couple minutes to deal with it, yes. For cancer and other problems related to bodily chemical reactions or genetic issues, very few practitioners will trust themselves to handle it. Most will consult with a magical being and pay a price or do a favor to have the condition treated.” He paused. “Very powerful, highly learned practitioners can handle such things themselves, but it typically takes a week or more of preparation. They will frequently turn to a magical being to save themselves the time and effort.” Another pause. “The oldest and most powerful practitioners typically perform such health rituals yearly as a precaution, without a magical being to assist them, using a homunculus created from samples of their healthy bodily tissues as a ritual focus. Their health wards are typically constantly indicating issues after they get to be more than a few hundred years old, so they mostly ignore them and just do regular restorative rituals.”
Danny spoke up cautiously, with a little bit of anger in his voice. “So, again, you failed to consider us as non-practitioners. You must expend a great deal of energy covering up mistakes when you are being fostered with a human family.”
Crap, Danny, don’t piss him off.
I was happy to see that Ali’s shoulders slumped a little, rather than his body language indicating he might be getting angry. “Danny, and you too Mr. and Mrs. Collins, I ask you to please understand. Right now, I’m not pretending to be a human boy, but as Mr. Collins says, I’ve spent the last couple hundred years doing just that. Mentally, I am as adult as you are, but I’ve been method acting as a juvenile human of between four and eight years old for the last couple hundred years. Human method actors frequently have mental issues differentiating themselves from their roles in a span of just a few months or years. I’ve been doing it for centuries.” He paused. “I’ve conditioned myself to be juvenile, irrational, and prone to do and say things without considering their deeper implications. Instead of several hundred years of gradual shifting to more and more complex human interaction, I’m dropped in your lap with the learned habits of an eight-year-old, and expectations to interact as an adult.”
I thought so.
Anne spoke up. “So, we can sum this up, and just say ‘It’s not fair.’ Right?”
Ali started laughing. “Caught again, meandering around in the mental habits of an eight-year-old! Exactly, Mrs. Collins, it’s not fair. I suppose that really applies to all of us, but for me I have to deal with the ingrained mentality of an eight-year-old.”
“We also have to deal with those habits, Ali. That’s part of the problem here.” I added.
“Well, it seems as if I owe your whole family a favor now, for the confusion and anger I just caused due to not considering how you might react to my prior gift. I will not offer an unasked for gift again, not until I trust myself a little better. You will have to ask for it, and you will all have to agree.”
Do we actually want anything?
Anne spoke up. “Those health and aversion wards seem awful handy, and you said you could put the aversion wards on others without their consent. Can you put both types of wards on non-practitioners?”
That does seem like a good idea.
Ali perked up a little. “Yes, I could do that. They would not be powered by your personal magic, because you don’t have any, but I could design them to be powered by ambient magic. It would be a lot more complex, but doable. You might occasionally lose the benefit of the wards in areas with very low ambient magic.”
“Like cellphone signals.” Danny supplied.
“Almost exactly like that, but magical fields are a lot more organic.” Ali agreed.
There was a problem that I could see. “Wait a second. Anne, Danny. I like the idea of the health ward, but the danger ward has problems. Remember what Ali said about practitioner reactions to his presence around me? Ali is going to be around me a lot. I’d rather that you two not have to deal with the metaphysical brick in the face that Ali described every time he is around. That would certainly cause problems. Ali, can you tune the aversion wards to ignore yourself?”
“I can, Mr. Collins. I can also tune them to avoid giving your family warnings about your presence as well. You, even in your human form, will create aversion ward reactions with your family unless I key the ward to ignore you.”
“Will the wards actually tell us what is wrong or dangerous?” Danny asked.
“Health and aversion wards of the most basic type simply start to be irritating like an itch you can’t scratch when there is something wrong with your body, or if you are taking a course of action that will bring you into danger. Most practitioners put these two wards on their forearms, the aversion ward on the left, and the health ward on the right.”
What’s a threat?
What’s a health issue?
I asked Ali, “So if I decide to go to a fast food restaurant and eat a giant, greasy hamburger with lots of salt and pepper breaded steak fries, is the aversion ward going to go off? After I eat it, will the health ward go off as I get heartburn?”
Ali laughed. “No, not unless the food is poisoned, or the heartburn is a symptom of something that is a real threat to your health. You might get a tiny jingle in either case, but there is danger and injury in every facet of life.” Ali shrugged. “If a mugger is around a corner and you want to walk past that corner, the aversion ward will spike when you think about walking around the corner. If you choose to hail a cab instead, or walk across the street, the ward will stop spiking. If you experience an injury that is not minor, develop cancer, or a disease that is dangerous, the health ward will spike. Otherwise it will simply irritate you now and then.”
“So I could go jogging outdoors again, and the aversion ward would guide me if there was a threat?” Danny asked, his eagerness definitely expressing what he thought about the wards.
Anne looked at me, and then at Ali. “Can we ask for the option to have the wards removed at a later time? Since we’re not practitioners, we can’t magically fix ourselves. Eventually, hopefully many years down the road, our bodies are going to be slowly falling apart, and the wards are going to be a constant reminder of that.”
“Yes, Mrs. Collins, I can agree to that. Remember also that you cannot protect or re-establish the wards if removed. They are hard to detect, but since they will be drawing from ambient magic, they will be detectable, even by a human practitioner, if they look hard enough. Others might find and remove them, though the aversion ward will try to protect itself and the health ward, making it difficult for a lesser practitioner or lesser magical being to put you into a position where they can work to unravel the wards. If they are removed for whatever reason, I will not put them back on you without obligation or payment.”
Anne muttered “So mercenary.”
“Mrs. Collins. Believe me when I say it’s for humanity’s good that magical beings are all very mercenary when it comes to doing favors for humans. Jinn and Jiniri are one of a few types of magical beings that interact closely and regularly with humans, and we are closely watched by others. Most powerful practitioners have bargained away significant parts of themselves for the wealth to establish themselves in such a way that they can distance themselves from the world. A winning lottery ticket or some other unearned source of vast wealth generally costs literally either an arm or a leg for a Grey Lodge member. For a White Lodge member, they generally must devote themselves regularly to public service, for centuries. This typically is a devotion to opposing the Black Lodge. Black Lodge members generally make others pay for what they want, through sacrifice of various types.”
“You have offered two boons in a period of just a few minutes though.” Danny said out loud. “Since this seems to be common…”
Ah, shit. No.
“Danny. Stop. You’re bordering on insulting Ali. Remember, no matter what he looks like, that he’s an adult mentality that has been method acting as a child for centuries. Until he sheds more of that child mental structure he’s built up, it would be best, I think, for us all to be careful about what we say and how we say it.” I nodded to Ali. “This also is a suggestion for you as well, Ali, though I imagine you are already trying to do so. How long do you think it will take you to make a transition to a consistently adult way of looking at things?”
“No more than a couple decades, I’d say.” Ali replied.
We all just stared at him.
“What did I say?”
“Never mind. Remember everyone, a little extra caution in what we say and how we say it.”
Ali spoke into uncomfortable silence. “In answer to your intended question before, Danny, yes. For the next couple decades, I’m probably going to be sharing out lots of little boons to people who know what I am when they offer me correction, or if I act inappropriately. Most of these little boons will be for your father, your mother, and you.”
“Powers that be won’t have an issue with you granting us boons like that?” I asked.
“No, it is rare, but every now and then a magical being finds itself in need of instruction by humans, and when that occurs, we are expected, even required, to make payment. It’s almost unheard of for that to be non-practitioner humans, but there is precedent. That’s why I specifically mentioned the old TV show I Dream of Jiniri. That show is similar in a way to what you might expect to happen to your family, except I’m a Jinn that appears to be male and eight years old, not a Jiniri that appears to be female and twenty-ish. I’m going to be smarter about things than the show character was, and there’s definitely going to be no sexual overtones here between me and anyone else.”
He paused a moment, obviously carefully thinking through what he was going to say.
“My sister wanted to do this job. My father thought it would be a very bad idea. We discussed it in depth and he decided that your family would better deal with, in his words,” Ali cleared his throat, and spoke in sonorous adult tones, “a smartass eight-year-old boy mentality, than a sexually active and attractive young woman mentality. Especially considering that both of the Collins men would be prime targets for sexual teasing, even if no actual sexual acts occurred. Mrs. Collins would most certainly not approve.”
Anne looked at me and put her hand on my knee, squeezing as she looked back at Ali. “I appreciate your father’s wisdom, Ali. I’m afraid that you are right that I wouldn’t approve, and I doubt Danny’s girlfriend would approve either.”
Danny winced. “That would be bad.”
Ali continued, “That being said, when she has the opportunity to do so, she might pop in from time to time to make trouble for me, because she wanted this opportunity for growth. She has had her limits explained to her by my father in no uncertain terms. They basically boil down to not being able to take actions that harm your family. She will likely simply pop by every now and then, be rude, and leave. She might hang around and tell you stories about embarrassing things I’ve done. She might even decide to be pleasant and helpful, but that probably won’t happen if I’m around.”
“Isn’t she supposed to be pretending to be a human still?” I asked.
Ali turned to look to his left, and up. “She is, but the restrictions on our activities get looser as we master pretending to be older. Adult humans all have their little secrets, and a good way to model that is by actually having real secrets. That being said, even as young as I am, I can use my magic while I am being fostered in the right scenarios. Typically when my family is being threatened by a magical being, or if it is time for me to ‘die’ or ‘run away’ and move on to a new family. If the family I am in falls on hard times, I am allowed to help them survive.
It was very clear that Ali was not looking at us as he said this, still looking up and to his left. Danny and Anne and I all looked at him, then something clicked.
“Whoever Ali is looking at, show yourself, or leave this home.” I commanded.
A tall, well-built but slender young woman appeared, standing next to Ali’s chair. She was wearing loose, faded blue jeans with a tight, white T-shirt, clearly with no bra. Dark coffee-skinned, she had the hint of an oriental tilt to her eyes that might have just been makeup around her eyes. Her hair was striking, a thin cornrow wave curving back and to her right, with a braid of all her hair starting behind her right ear, and extending over the front of her shoulder and hanging over her right breast. A little pink bow was at the end of the braid.
“You weren’t supposed to tell them if I showed up.” She complained to Ali.
“I didn’t tell them. You’ve never been as good as you should be about parsing your requests.”
“Ali, is this your sister?” I asked.
“Yes, Mr. Collins. This is Matty, my youngest sister.”
I tried to remember how to phrase a threshold statement. “Provided that you do not intend harm, direct or indirect, to me and mine, Matty, sister of Ali, you are welcome as a guest in this home for one hour. Do you have any guest requests to ask of us?”
Ali looked around. “A few more threshold-enhancing statements like that, and it’s going to get really uncomfortable even for benevolent magical beings to enter this place unannounced.” He looked sharply at his sister.
She sighed and reached down, ruffling Ali’s hair. “Thank you for your offer of hospitality, Mr. Collins. I have no requests, and apologize for intruding unasked.” She looked down at Ali. “The threshold was so weak, and I really wanted to see you screw up, Ali. I wasn’t disappointed.” She grinned at me and Anne. “I would, indeed, have been rather unwelcome here judging from the reactions I can see. Father was right. My unintended social mistakes would be a lot more hurtful to this family than yours will be.” She paused, thinking. “Maybe in sixty or so years we might switch off, Ali? He’s not going to get any older.”
Not only no, but Hell No.
Ali’s eyes seemed to glitter as he looked at Anne and me to see our reactions to that. “After that comment, good luck trying to convince Mr. Collins to work with you closely, ever.”
Anne started speaking before I could, “Matty, sister of Ali, after offering an insult to this house, your guest status is revoked. You no longer have permission to be in this home. Leave now.”
“Wait.” On that single word of defiance, Matty reacted as if she had been physically punched in the gut, her face displaying a great deal of pain as she looked up from being bent over slightly. Every word she uttered after that obviously created a great deal of pain for her. “Intended. No. Harm.”
I took up where Anne left off. “All the same, you created harm by insinuating that eventually my family would die and you could have me as a partner, with sexual undertones.” I paused, and looked at Anne.
No need to make a real enemy here, but I have to be forceful.
“Since you are clearly in pain, I’ll try be brief.”
But not too brief, because I think being in pain might help you remember what you did.
“Ali has shown that he’s a combination of adult and child, mentally. I’ll assume you are a combination of adult and young woman, with an unfortunate tendency to allow your mouth to get ahead of your brain. I understand what just happened, and I forgive you, but we still require that you leave this home. We are under too much stress right now to deal with two Jinn.”
Ali was watching me, and winced. I remembered what he said about his sister and calling her a Jinn.
“Apologies, a Jinn and a Jiniri.”
Ali relaxed and nodded. All I could see on Matty’s face was pain, and concentration as she stood there looking at me, doubled over a bit, with both arms crossed across her gut.
“If you want Anne’s forgiveness, you will have to work for it. If she does not forgive you, and tell me so, I will never work with you willingly. I can see that you are in pain, and you are remaining here to try to reconcile with us despite that pain. Reconciliation is not possible today, but it may be possible. Leave now to save yourself pain. I do not wish you to suffer when we aren’t going to be able to deal fairly with you due to our emotional states.”
Matty seemed to relax a little and nodded before disappearing without another word.
Ali whooped. “You showed her!” and thrust a victory fist into the air.
Danny, Anne, and I just stared at him.
Ali calmed down, lowering his fist. “She’s my big sister. Give me a break. I’m supposed to celebrate when someone knocks her down a peg, as long as it doesn’t really hurt her.”
Anne spoke slowly. “She looked hurt.”
Ali shook his head. “Her seeming was in pain, but not her real self. She, herself, was just extremely uncomfortable. That discomfort was expressing itself in her seeming, and looked like pain. Ejection from a threshold can’t actually hurt a Jinn or Jiniri like it can hurt some beings of darker magic. Still, she was in the wrong, technically, from the very beginning of her visit for being present within your threshold without permission. If it had been almost anyone or anything else, I would have kicked their ass out. Even as weak as it is, your threshold is strong enough that my being invited and her not would easily allow me to trounce her, despite her normally being a lot stronger than me.”
Not really wanting the answer, but knowing that I needed to ask it anyway, I asked, “So, what is your sister’s reaction to this going to be?”
He just looked at me. “Eh, she’ll try to convince Anne to forgive her, not just mentally adjust Anne, which was pretty clever on your part.”
It was? I wasn’t even thinking about her messing with Anne’s mind.
Anne was watching me and didn’t miss the expression of confusion on my face. She smiled.
Ali failed to notice, or chose not to indicate he saw, and just continued to talk, “Anne, if you want to entertain the idea of forgiving my sister, I would be willing to help you decide a few small boons you might ask for, which would not be insulting, onerous, or impossible.” He paused. “I’m coming to grips with the fact that you aren’t practitioners. My sister almost certainly hasn’t really given it thought, and might get irritated if you request boons that she cannot or will not do.”
“Let’s talk about the aversion and health wards first, Ali, one thing at a time.” Anne said.
Danny commented “Running causes small injuries on a fairly regular basis. Am I going to be irritated all the time by one ward complaining about a bruise I have, and the other complaining about the bruise I am going to give myself on mile three of the run I plan for tomorrow?”
Ali started to answer, and the conversation droned on into discussions about how the wards worked. Turns out that the wards responded in magnitudes, similar to the Richter scale for measuring earthquakes. Every day wear and tear on the body, or the expectation of everyday wear and tear on the body would generate feedback that would barely be noticeable. If you could feel the reaction, it was something serious. If it hurt, it was something potentially deadly. After it was apparent that the wards were a good idea, I trusted Anne and Danny to settle up how they would work with Ali. I needed to frame the big picture.
Remembering that I had to agree for Ali to act, I tendered my agreement first. “Anne, if you and Danny agree that it is a good idea, I agree with you also. I’ve got some other things to think about, and will let you two hash out the boon with Ali, provided that it remains about aversion and health wards. I’ll be at the kitchen table. If you need me, call.”
Anne nodded and said “OK, Zeke.”
I stood up and went to the kitchen table, and sat at one of the chairs, pulling the message notepad and it’s pen nearer to me.
I need a problem list first.
I spent a few minutes writing and reviewing lists, going through half a dozen scratch sheets before I managed a clean list, reading it to myself to clarify where things stood.
Anne and Danny uprooted to protect them.
Gorgon wants me as a trainer for his goons.
I am now one of the Enclave’s final solutions for out of control, killer supers.
In some way, I am linked to a powerful magical artifact that can create gods.
I own an international company, and have been recorded killing in cold blood. This will probably happen again. Perhaps many times.
Danny is in a serious long-term relationship with Miss Perfect, an important employee of mine.
Miss Perfect is the biological daughter of Gorgon.
Miss Perfect as a potential tinker daughter-in-law. Tinker. Daughter-in-law. Supervillain daughter.
Gorgon wants to take control of my company.
Jinn and Jiniri sibling shenanigans. Centuries-old intelligences trapped in method acting.
Potential for magical beings and practitioners to try to use me to make themselves into gods, or whatever.
Danny wants to attend college, and run for a scholarship, but doesn’t realize yet how impossible that might be.
Anne will insist on helping me. If I let her, she will be more at risk. If I refuse, it will hurt her.
Anne and Danny are going to age, while I, apparently, am not.
I knuckled my forehead as I reviewed the list. Most of these things carried obligations and expectations. All of them were going to be damn painful and annoying to resolve. Some of them would likely require me to fight and maybe kill people.
Has anyone cursed me with ‘May you live in interesting times,’ recently?
Magic is real, I know now. Maybe curses are too?
Why can’t I just have a normal life?
So many expectations.
I didn’t even notice myself drifting to sleep in the kitchen chair.