There wasn’t a sound or movement to indicate how upset Garjah was at Lenveval’s statement, but just like he always knew when I needed him, I knew he needed me. Sloval shouted when Bouncer leapt on the table and then off on to our side. We both pressed against Garjah from either side. Bouncer put his head on Garjah’s lap, and I put one hand on his head, then used another to squeeze the rigid muscles holding Garjah’s frozen body in place.
Gently, I turned cupped his cheek on the far side. He resisted for a moment, then reluctantly turned his head to meet my gaze. Fear dominated those eyes, flaring nostrils, and nearly invisible lips pressed so hard together they were colorless.
I hated seeing it on him just as much as he hated seeing it on me. I’d had thoughts of going back, to the what ifs of working for the Institute like I’d always planned, to… stars swallow it. That life was gone, and I didn’t really regret it. Not if it got me this being by my side. I stroked Bouncer. Both of them.
“You know that’s not what I want.” If it was, I wouldn’t have been such a mess worrying about them breaking our bond.
“Before you thought they might kill you or not let you leave. He just said you could go back to your life.”
“Did you forget I study biology? Advanced as you are, I don’t think this is something that can be fixed.” I waggled my fourth hand I’d had resting on my thigh. I wasn’t quite sure how I could make all four hands do independent tasks. Huh. I’d never thought about that before. Humans struggled with that, but since I’d woken up with four arms, I didn’t seem to have the same limitation.
Something to take notes on would really be handy. I sighed. “If you guys trust me now, can I get a device I can access data on and use for notes? I keep thinking of new things I want to research.”
“That’s it?” Mereval asked. “A simple no thank you to changing you back and going home, and can you have access to ways to research?” She exchanged a look with her fellow Kardoval. “What about your family? Humans live in close groups.”
“I didn’t say no thank you. I just don’t see how it’s possible. And I don’t want that, even if it was.” I shrugged one shoulder. “My parents are busy people. They expected me to go out and live my life. That’s what I’m doing.” I smiled at Garjah.
Sloval, his upper arms crossed over his chest and lower arms gripping the table, was staring at Bouncer. “You’re not mad at Garjah?”
“He could have judged you safe before you were injured. He did not.” Sloval didn’t blink often enough, and the twist to his lips made his stare antagonistic. Bouncer looked up and lifted his own lip, showing off sharp fangs. Sloval paled. “What’s he doing?”
“Right now he’s comforting Garjah because he felt how upset he was, just like I did. But when you stare at him like that, it upsets him. Maybe knock it off.” I broke off when Garjah placed one hand on my thigh, pressing down.
Yeah, yeah, leaders of their people, should be respectful. They hadn’t seemed very leader-like since we’d come in and Sloval could benefit from a lesson in manners himself. “I believed my exosuit was unbreachable as well. I’d have died if I’d touched that plant while I was on my own.” Besides…. “Could have is not what is. We face what is. We move on.” A lesson I’d learned early from my parents.
Maybe they had taught me more than I knew. I’d always planned to be a biologist, and I’d thought that first contact didn’t interest me, but between them and Bouncer, I had all sorts of research to do.
“One day, I hope to help introduce Four Arms to the rest of the galactic, anyway. I’ll be famous.”
“Four Arms?” Lenveval’s face was doing unbecoming things. All the Kardoval stared at me. Garjah sighed. He knew what was coming.
“It’s pretty descriptive, don’t you think?” I waved all four arms, wiggling my fingers around. “And handy, too.”
He slumped in his chair.
“What?” I said.
“I’ve told you before, we call ourselves—”
“Meh, that’s boring. Mine is better.” Okay, I totally knew their racial name was Neejah’al… and interesting. Neechay’al, Kardoval, Mereval… al, all? And what place did jah have in there? Or did it mean anything since it wasn’t at the end? These guys had racial memories, locking them into a role.
I turned to Garjah. “You said they needed to be sure I was safe and test our bond.” It was sounding more and more like that had been the barest hint of the truth.
“They can see the bond, just as they can see how all Neejah’al connect to the whole. They can understand the path a youth will take, if they do not know it. That is how they guide our society.”
“But I’m a break in the system. A divergent path in the normal connections.” I cocked my head. “Has no one really ever experienced what Garjah and I have before?”
“No one,” Mereval said. “But we think it may have something to do with the planet where you met. It was new to us, just as it was to you since you were the first in your sector to approach it. We have never encountered an alien race there before.”
“But what could it be? Timok ran tests.”
“I might have sneezed on Garjah. In his face.” My face heated at the memory.
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