“So, be honest – what do you girls think of Maya?”
It was late morning and he and his nieces were having breakfast. He’d come in from his early morning run to find all three of them in the kitchen, eating. Grabbing a plate, he’d joined them.
“She seems very quiet. Is she shy?” Stephanie took a bite of her sandwich and chewed, looking at him in question.
“Not particularly, I think she just wants you girls to like her.” I want you girls to like her.
“She’s nice. She has a nice voice.” This came from Emma, who’d hardly let Maya get a word in edgewise the day before.
“She does, doesn’t she?” He beamed at his youngest niece.
“Do you love her?” Steph asked, rising out of her seat.
“Yes. A lot. She’s my mate.”
“Don’t worry Uncle Dre, we like her.”
He smiled at her. Interestingly, Stephanie had dressed nicely this morning. He suddenly understood this early activity. Today was Wednesday and Alistair would be there soon. She was more of a glitzy/rocker type and the soft pink sundress with the dark teal sweater was definitely not her style.
Dre was always fascinated by the pull Al had with the girls. They were drawn to him in a way that bordered obsessive. That kind of adoration could get to a man’s head but so far, his nephew seemed to handle it well. But what did he know, the only person who ever adored him…well, there wasn’t anyone that he knew of. He hoped he could persuade one person though.
Maya awoke to bright light streaming in from the large windows in the room. She lay in bed for a while, thinking of all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. She’d found him.
Now what? Asked a small voice in her head.
Now she went in search of some food. She was starving.
Making her way to the kitchen, she came face-to-face with Gracie. “Good morning Grace.” The little girl just stared at her, hair half concealing her young face. “Today you’re going to the museum, right?”
Grace nodded but didn’t speak.
Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day. As she made her way further into the kitchen, she could feel the girl’s eyes on her. She was just turning around to place the milk back into the fridge after pouring some on her cereal when the girl said, “Can I ask you something?”
“Of course, Grace.” Maya placed the milk back on the counter, which gave her a chance to quiet her beating heart. Was this the beginning of the But you died questions? She needed to ask Dre how exactly they were explaining her reappearance.
Turning back towards Grace, she smiled. The child had a way of seeming to look right in and through you. It didn’t help that her hair covered half her face and that she never smiled, either.
“What’s it like, being a woman, I mean?”
Frowning, Maya shook her head, “It’s like…sort of like…I don’t know, it’s like being a girl except…taller.” Wow, that was terrible!
Grace frowned, or it looked like maybe she frowned, Maya couldn’t tell with all that hair. Reaching into the left pocket of her shorts, Grace pulled out a series of note cards and handed one to her. It read, “I was born a boy, but I’m really a girl.”
Maya blinked. Then blink again. Oh. “I see,” she said. She turned the card over and found some Questions and Answers.
Q. My body feels weird, like I have the wrong parts. What do I do?
A. Sometimes, we are born with the wrong parts. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable. You should talk to someone you feel safe with about how you feel.
Q. I feel more comfortable in dresses and make-up but I’m a boy. Is this normal?
A. Playing dress-up is a normal activity for growing boys and girls. Talking to your parents or someone you trust about your choices is a good first step.
There were other questions on the back, some were very serious concerns that a child Grace’s age should probably not be dealing with, but the one about dresses and make-up gave her pause. Grace – for the 24 hours that Maya had observed – looked like any other pre-teen child. She wore jeans and t-shirts and didn’t particularly care about her appearance in general. But maybe that wasn’t true. From what Andrei had told her, Grace and Emma had two dads, so no female intervention. Maybe she was reaching out now?
Maya tucked the card away and smiled down at the little girl. “If I remember correctly, museums are pretty fancy places, right?”
Grace smiled. Lord, when she smiled, the world seemed to light up. Maya made a mental note to try and get her to do it more often. “Yes, Kieran is coming.”
Maya held her hand out. “Well, I don’t know about you but when I’m going out on the town, I like to look my best. What’s say we rummage around and look for something suitable? Maybe try a different hairstyle today, hmm?”
Grace hesitated before placing her small, soft hand in Maya’s. “Okay,” she said softly.
Maya’s heart swelled. “Okay.”
An hour later, freshly scrubbed and dressed, Gracie stood staring at her reflection in the mirror. Maya came to stand next to the girl and they both watched each other through the glass.
“What do you think?” She asked.
Gracie smiled and nodded, eyes shiny with unshed tears.
“Now don’t go crying or we’ll mess up our make-up!”
The little girl laughed and placed a hand in Maya’s. It was cold and clammy.
Maya bent down, so she could be eye-to-eye with Gracie. “Gracie, you look beautiful. You’re the prettiest girl I’ve seen yet!”
“Pretty as Emma?”
“Pretty as Emma and Stephanie both!”
“I look like a real girl now,” Grace whispered, a slight trembling in her voice.
Maya pulled her into a hug and said, “Well duh, that’s because you are a girl. Don’t let anyone tell you any different!”
Maya stood at the top of the stairs leading down into the foyer and watched as a young man stood, waiting by the door. He was late. She studied him and thought, he has kind eyes. Just then, Gracie walked by her with a smile, eagerness and a little worry etched on her face.
She walked down the stairs slowly and they both watched Alistair’s face as he recognized his cousin. Gracie finally got to the bottom and hesitated, unsure of her welcome in her new clothes and for a second, Maya worried that he would let them down. But then he threw open his arms and smiled and the little girl ran into them, burying her face in his shoulder.
Maya had the absurd urge to clap at the scene. Alistair drew back and whispered something in Grace’s ear and she nodded, and then turned around to look up at Maya.
Alistair glanced up and smiled at her. She grinned back at him.
Then with a wave from both of them, they were out the door and off to whatever adventure they had planned. Watching them leave, Maya felt a slight ache in her chest; she missed her brothers, her sister, and her parents.
She was sitting in the living room, reading, when Stephanie walked in, looking a bit distressed. “Has Al come yet? I fell asleep.”
Maya glanced up, “Oh, he already left with Gracie.”
Stephanie made a face before she could stop herself and then her expression became blank. “I see. Did he…did he ask about me?” She smoothed down her dress, looking at her hands.
Maya paused, Oh… “They were running late, all I got was a slight wave, myself.”
The teen glanced at her quickly before carefully shrugging and then she sat down next to Maya on the couch. When she didn’t say anything after that, Maya went back to her reading.
Except she found herself thinking about Alistair. Maybe he wasn’t as great as she’d started to think. She was startled out of her thoughts by Steph asking, “What are you reading?”
“Nothing too exciting, I’m afraid.”
Maya placed the book on the coffee table and turned to the girl. “Do you have any siblings besides Alistair?”
She shook her head. “No, mom and dad can’t have any more kids and my birth mother didn’t have any others.”
Maya frowned. “Are you adopted, you look just like –”
“I look just like Al. No, we have the same dad, different moms.” Steph shrugged. “It’s just me and him…”
She sounded sad and as if she didn’t quite believe the words she was saying. And Maya could understand. It wasn’t just the two of them, it was them and Grace. But where did Emma fit into this little family melodrama?
“I have three siblings, myself. Two brothers and a sister. I had a devil of a time growing up with them. My brother, Kraig, is like a force of nature. Everyone wanted to be him or be around him. Even me and I’m the oldest!” Maya laughed a little. Some people just had that spark in them, she supposed.
“Anyway, sometimes it was really hard to share him with others because to me, he was mine. Why should I share, you know?” She glanced at Stephanie to see if the girl was listening. She was…good. “There was this one incident. My little sister fell off a horse one day, broke her leg in three different places. Couldn’t get up for weeks while she healed. My brother spent all his free time with her. It made me so jealous.”
“I was very childish and very selfish back then, let me tell you!” Maya laughed at herself. “But then I got sick, really sick and my brother was there for me. He moved in and took me to the doctor and cooked and cleaned and when I was too weak to do it myself, he would help me shower and change and carry me wherever I wanted to go.”
She paused for a second, reliving that year. The ache for her family grew bigger. “I realized then that for the people he showed extra attention to, sometimes it was all they had. My brother was that bit of sunshine in their lives when they needed it the most. I love him and I am grateful that he was there because he saw me at my worst and he still loved me. It can be difficult to feel loved by anyone when you’re sick or hurt or unhappy. Now, when I think of Kraig, who sometimes seemed like he didn’t have time for me because he was focused on someone else, I try to remember what it’s like to be sick or scared or sad and I’m happy that there is at least my brother there in their lives. I know that he loves me and will be there when I need him. Does that make sense?”
Stephanie frowned a bit, “Yes, sort of. I guess.”
Maya sighed. She didn’t know these girls well but she was learning. She could only hope that Stephanie would remember her words the next time Alistair stopped by but didn’t say hello.
Alistair brought Gracie back in time for dinner, which was a boisterous affair. He sat at the end of the table, with Grace on his right and Stephanie on his left. Emma sat next to her sister and Maya sat across from her, on the other side of Dre. The last few meals had mostly been eaten in silence, with Dre doing much of the talking but this…it was chaotic.
Stephanie was talking a mile a minute, telling Alistair all about her week and her shopping trip. Emma kept asking him questions that made very little sense to Maya, things about science and telepathy and emotional currents. Gracie, for the most part, sat quietly eating her dinner, with a few giggles aimed at Alistair, who was doing his best to drag her into his conversations, and with her sister, who was trying to steal her food.
Maya did notice, however, that Stephanie would glance at Gracie now and then and open her mouth as if to say something before seeming to decide against. it There was still a lot of work to do there.
After dinner, the girls went upstairs to change for bed and Alistair went into the TV room. Maya followed him and sat beside him, watching him play a sports game.
“You know,” she began, “I’d heard a lot about you when you were a child.”
Al glanced at her and smiled warmly, “I’ve heard a lot about you too, Maya.”
She was taken aback by this. “So you know?”
He nodded. “Well, yeah. We’ve been waiting for you to return for two years.”
“Oh. Two years?” She squeaked out.
“That’s when Siobhan did the spell. I’m glad you finally made it back.”
“Me too.” They smiled at each other.
“Oh.” She’d momentarily forgotten why she’d followed him here. “Alistair, I don’t know if you’ve noticed…”
“That my sister is jealous of Gracie? Oh, I’ve noticed but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Again, Maya was nonplussed. “But if you know, then why not try a bit harder?”
He sighed and paused the game, turning to her. “Gracie is going through a rough time in her life right now and she needs me, I can’t help the way Steph feels.” He held up a hand to stop her interruption, “I said I can’t do anything to help how she feels, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of it. Stephanie has had me for about eleven years now; I think she knows that I love her. Now it’s Gracie’s turn.”
Maya sat and shook her head. “It doesn’t work that way. Take it from someone with three younger siblings; they don’t take turns demanding your attention. They want all of it, all the time. It won’t hurt to show Steph some attention, a gentle touch while you’re speaking to someone else goes a long way to making her feel included, letting her know you’re aware of her presence even if you’re not giving her your full attention.”
She patted him on the knee. “Same thing with Emma. Those three girls adore you, nonstop, make them feel adored too.”
Maya walked into Dre’s bedroom – their bedroom? – and had just finished zipping up her new nightgown – she missed the red jersey already – when the door to the bathroom opened. Dre walked out, a towel wrapped around his waist and a billow of steam following behind him before dissipating into the cooler air of the bedroom.
She watched as he slid a hand through his wet hair, he hadn’t noticed her yet. And she wondered, is this what life was going to be like from now on? Her always on the sides, watching while he lived this life he’d built, without her? She must have made some noise because he looked up then.
She stood there and stared at him. Twelve years. He’d waited for her for twelve years. Dre had stopped too. She studied him as she walked over to where he waited. Reaching a tentative hand to his chest, she touched him, lightly, and felt him tremble. She looked up at him, into his glowing citrine eyes, full of tenderness, and she exhaled. With that kind of love, she could believe that he’d waited. That they could build a new life together.
“Hi,” she said, flexing her hand against him. Her skin was humming and the pads of her fingers seemed to want to fuse with his skin. This happened every time they touched. Perhaps his soul, trapped in her body, recognized its former home or perhaps she just really liked touching him. Either one works for me, she thought.
“Hey.” His own hands reached out and wrapped themselves around her waist, dragging her closer. He was still damp from his shower but she didn’t care. They’d barely talked today, much less touched. A little water wasn’t going to stop her now that she had him to herself.
“Girls are exhausting,” she mumbled as he wrapped her in his arms and her head met his shoulder. She yawned as if to prove her words.
He laughed and she felt the rumbling in his chest. “They like you, though, I asked.”
“I did. You’re good with them. Gracie looked amazing today. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen her in a dress and looking like a real girl.”
Maya smacked him on the chest, “She is a real girl!”
He rubbed at the spot and pulled her in tighter. “You are absolutely right, she is. What I meant to say was that she always seemed to be so unsure of herself. She looked happy today, more so than usual.”
Maya smiled a little. “A little make-up and a fresh haircut always lifts my spirits.”
Dre raised his hands until they were framing her face, tilting her head towards his. “You always look beautiful.” He bent his head down and kissed her, softly.
Maya closed her eyes and sank into him. She’d been craving this kiss since she saw him at the café two nights ago. It was amazing. And there was that feeling again, of melting into him; her skin just pouring into his, as if his body was home and her entire being was trying crawl into his.
Pulling away slightly, he smiled down shyly at her, “I don’t want to pressure you and if it’s too soon I completely understand. But do you think we could…”
He didn’t finish his sentence but she knew what he wanted. She nodded as best she could – his hands were still holding her head up. “Yes, I’d like that. I’ve missed you.” I love you, I love you, I love you. She found herself chanting the words, wishing he could read her thoughts.
He brushed his lips lightly against hers. “I don’t think…I can’t…Maya, the first time won’t be gentle – or last very long. It’s been a while and I…”
“It’s okay, you won’t hurt me.” You can’t hurt me because I’m yours, I belong to you. She knew this as fact. Rain, taxes, and Dre. Her absolutes in this world. I love you.
“I wanted to wait, until we were mated. To give you some time to settle.” He gave her a self-deprecating smile. “I lasted two whole days before I started making demands.” Resting his head against her forehead, he sighed. “I’m sorry Maya.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s okay.”
“I love you Maya.”
Her breath hitched and the tears came then. He brushed them away as they fell and leaned in to kiss her again. “S-say that again. Please.”
“I love you more than anything in the world. I would give up my life for you.” And he sort of had, he’d given her his human soul. He would have no children and now he wouldn’t even get another chance to be born again after he died. He’d traded it for her. If this was the only lifetime they had, she was going to make sure it counted for something!
“I love you too.” And then the litany of words that were in her head rushed out her mouth. I love you. I belong to you. “I love you. You’re mine. You belong to me, forever.”