Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Academy Post #12


Notes:  Oh my god, this is long.  LONG.  Over four thousand words, and everyone gets a say.  I hope you guys like it, I’m setting up a bunch of stuff in my head.

Title: The Academy

Part Twelve: Picking and Choosing




                Ten had always been a goal-oriented person.  Admittedly, hir goals had never quite been what hir guardian had hoped for: for example, instead of getting straight As as a child, ze tried to find the most expedient way to chemically desiccate a corpse.  Ten had gone through a taxidermist phase when ze was eight, mostly preserving rewels and round-eyed newts, but it turned out that no one ze knew was interested in getting Ten’s carefully-posed bodies as presents, so ze stopped soon after.  Ze had never killed the animals hirself, but there were only so many affronted looks an eight year old could take before it just became easier to not give people presents at all.

                The point was, Ten liked to accomplish things.  When ze set a goal for hirself, it was never with the thought that ze might not complete it.  Now Ten had a major goal, figuring out a cure for naturalism, and a minor goal, getting a stupid buddy to bring to Grennson’s stupid club.  At least the Admiral had made it a for-credit endeavor, otherwise Ten would never have wasted hir time on something so pointless.  But now that ze had a reason to do it, the best way ze could think of to combine hir goals was to find someone in the pre-med department, convince them to be hir friend, and bring them along to the club so Ten would have something productive to do while everyone else was learning about culture.  God. 

                Ten had morning classes in biochemistry which were mostly boring for hir at this point, but which ze knew the pre-med people had to take in order to get anywhere in medicine.  This, then, would be hir hunting ground.  Ze sat at hir table in the back, tuned out the lecturer and focused on the students around hir.  Surely someone here had to be a good candidate.

                Let’s see…that one was still wetting the bed, judging by the faint pattern of stains—had she never heard of autocleaners?  Probably too embarrassed not to wash them by hand.  Clearly not a good judge of temporal economy, no go.  That one looked to be failing, if the frown lines on his forehead were any indication.  He was far too young, especially with Regen, to be sporting frown lines unless he had reason to be unhappy with himself far too often.  That one was using dust on the sly, that one seemed nice enough but had a terrible sense of fashion—Ten already had to put up with that from Cody, ze wasn’t about to introduce another source of eye strain into hir life.  That one was clearly a wallflower, and a religious one too, if the woven band around his head meant anything at all, so—

                But wait.  Ten racked hir brain for a moment, remembering back to the beginning of the semester when the lecturer, much more touchy-feely back then, had asked everyone what they were planning on doing with their lives.  Ten had spouted off something about “whatever I want” and tried to ignore the rest, but ze distinctly remembered this one’s answer, because he’d been so hard to hear.  He’d had to say it three times before the lecturer deemed it loud enough, and his answer had been, “Evolutionary genetics.”

                This, then, was the perfect person to befriend.  Anyone studying genetics would have access to chemicals and compounds Ten just couldn’t get on hir own, and was also probably smart enough that Ten could stand to be around him without wanting to pull hir hair out.  What was the kid’s name, though?  Something with a B, Ben, Blake, Bart…Bartholomew, that was it!  Bartholomew Leviticus Josiah Applegate, one of those horribly long Friend names.  That was it, he was part of the Friends of the Universe sect of weirdos.  They didn’t proselytize, that sort of thing was highly discouraged by the Federation, but they had been carrying forward their mash-up of ancient religions since the first Earth Exodus in, oh, what was it…2483?  Something like that, whatever, Ten wasn’t a historian.

                Now Ten just had to wait for the stupid lecture to be over.  Ze played with gene combinations on hir tablet, pushing different mutations onto the tiny organisms loaded into the program and watching them respond by thriving or dying.  Mostly dying.  Ten frowned.  Clearly ze had a lot to learn about genes.

                The chime finally sounded, and Ten jumped up and ran over to Bartholomew before he could run away.  “Hi,” ze said, sitting on his desk and looking at him.

                “Um…hi?”  Bartholomew looked confused.  He was a heavyset young man, not much taller than Ten but probably twice hir weight, and his dark skin should have made him immune to tells like blushing, but Ten knew that he was by the sudden change in his pattern of sweating.  Sweat…hmm, he was kind of sweaty.  Whatever, Ten couldn’t afford to be choosy.

                “I have a proposition for you.”

                “Um.”  That, that was definitely a blush.  “Um, thank you, I’m very flattered, but I’m not interested in casual sex.”

                “What?” Ten sputtered.  “Oh hell no, I’m not asking for…what, sex?  Really?  That’s all that sprang to your mind, are you an idiot?”


                “Good, because I have to tolerate enough idiots in my life as it is, I don’t want to waste time on any more of them.  Sex.  Honestly.  No.”

                “Okay.  Then…what are you talking about?”

                “It’s a learning proposition.  An exchange,” Ten clarified.  “I want to learn more about genetics from you, and in exchange I’ll help you with your biochemistry work.”

                “Ah, I’m actually scoring near the top of the class in biochemistry already.”

                Ten scowled for a moment, then brightened.  “I’ll also get you into a club that will wipe out your cultural exchange requirement.  All you have to do is hang out with a group of us in my quad for an hour or two every Saturday and let people ask you questions about your culture.”

                “Really?”  Bartholomew actually looked excited at that prospect.  “You would really want to know?”

                “Well, I wouldn’t, I’m in it for the genetics information, but the other people would.  They’re very polite, it’s a failing.”

                “I can see why you would think so,” Bartholomew said diplomatically.  “Aren’t you in a quad with the Perel?”

                “Yes.  It was his idea.”

                “Oh, wow.  Um.  Okay.  It’s a deal.”  Bartholomew looked up at Ten hopefully.  “What kind of information about genetics do you need?”

                Ten smiled, teeth sharp and bright.  “Oh, only everything.




                Grennson had been surprised to learn that there was, actually, a small population of humans with genetically-inherited skills at empathy and telepathy.  It was a rare ability that for a time was deliberately bred into a certain percentage of the population by older, more totalitarian governments, and now resided in a select few communities who tended to isolate themselves on distant planets for the sake of harmony.  Grennson had been introduced to a girl like this in his Human Psychology class, and while she had been friendly, they had never had a reason to come together before.  Now, however, with his mind turned to finding someone who would be an interesting addition to their club, he thought about her again.  And she heard him.

                “Hello!”  She sat down next to him at the beginning of class, a smile wide on her face.  She was unremarkable for a human, with none of the dyes or bright colors or specific additions to her uniform that would mark her as part of any particular community.  She was short, with brownish-blonde hair cut in a bob around her head, light tan skin, and brown eyes.  Very average, the sort of person you wouldn’t look at twice if you didn’t know better.  “I understand you want to talk to me.”

                “You are very good,” Grennson congratulated her.  “I didn’t think I was projecting my intent so broadly.”

                “Oh, you weren’t,” she assured him.  “I just usually know when a person is thinking about me.  It doesn’t happen all that often.”

                “Even though people know you’re a psychic?”

                “Very few people know that,” she said.  “It’s not really safe.  I think you were told because they hoped it would make you feel more welcome if you knew you had an ability in common with someone else.”

                “But I’m not a psychic,” Grennson pointed out.  “Just an empath.  Feelings aren’t as specific as thoughts.”

                “But they’re a far better gauge of a person’s course of action, at times,” she replied.  “People think all kinds of ridiculous things, but they very rarely act on all of them.”

                “Your skill is that specific?”

                “Not really.  I get pictures more than anything else.  I’ve learned to close my mind off to most people’s thoughts, otherwise I might go mad.”

                “I understand that,” Grennson said wholeheartedly.  She laughed and held out a hand. 

                “I’m Pamela Wu-Barclay, but you can call me Pam.  And I’d love to come to your club.”

                She seemed genuinely happy at the prospect.  In fact, that was all he could sense from her, happiness.  It felt almost strange, after all the strife and pain of the past few days with his quad mates.  Grennson shook her hand, and said, “I am Grennson Kim Howards, and I would love for you to come.”

                “Lovely!  Well, that’s all worked out, then.”  The lecturer called the class to order, and as they settled in to listen, Grennson felt accomplished.  That had gone much more smoothly than he’d imagined.




                Darrel wished, for the tenth time that week, that he didn’t have to do this.  He didn’t want to find someone to bring back to the quad to take part in Grennson’s club; he got depressed every time he remembered it.  His last pick for a friend—although pick wasn’t really the right word, she’d kind of done the picking—had been a total disaster.  Valero and he still had classes together, but she wouldn’t even meet his eyes.  She wasn’t mean to him, she was just…disengaged.  She didn’t talk to anyone that he saw, and once class was done she was the first one out the door.  Obviously a change had been wrought in her, a hard one, and Darrel felt bad about it.

                And, fuck, there was no way he could bring that up to anyone in the quad.  Grennson would be compassionate, but Darrel knew he thought Valero had gotten what she’d deserved.  Cody had no reason to like her, not after she’d led to his secret getting out, and Ten was probably ready to disembowel the next person who even considered mentioning Valero’s name.  So, Valero was a bust.  And there was no chance he could invite another Legacy, either.

                Darrel didn’t have an answer, so he pushed the problem to the back of his mind and went on with his days.  Classes, paraball practice, studying Perel with Grennson.  If Grennson could tell that Darrel was conflicted, he didn’t bring it up.  Darrel appreciated that.

                The answer to his problem fell on him out of the sky.  Literally: at the last practice of the week, with the anti-gravity in place to give them a more genuine experience before their first game next week, Darrel had the ball and was trying to line up his shot for the goal.  He jumped into the air, letting the anti-grav help him twist into a better position, and just as he was getting ready to release—

                Wham!  The blow came from behind and above, powering Darrel back down to the ground and squashing him into the field.

                “Mohr!” he heard the coach call out.  “What was that?”

                “Legal tackle, Coach!” the person—girl—called back.  “He was in the air, it’s allowed.”

                “It’s only legal when you avoid the head, Mohr!  You do a tackle like that in a real game and the ref will have you on the sidelines so fast that it’s your head spinning. Get off of him.”

                The weight lifted, and Darrel rolled over onto his back to look at his opposition, who frowned down at him like he’d done the illegal move, not her.

                “You all right, Parrish?” the coach asked, jogging over from the sideline.  The other players had backed off a bit.

                “Fine, Coach,” Darrel replied.  There was a sharp twinge in his neck, but he could already feel it going away.  Regen was an amazing thing.

                “Good.  Five minute break, everyone, while we again go over what constituted a legal tackle!” he yelled.  “Mohr, help him to the sideline to get some water.”

                Mohr frowned but gave Darrel a hand up and walked with him over to the side of the field.  “I was a legal tackle,” she muttered.  “I avoided your head completely.”

                “Kind of fucked up my neck and shoulder, though.”  Darrel held up his hands when she glared at him.  “I’m just saying.”

                “If you can’t take hard play, you shouldn’t be on the field,” she said hotly.

                “I agree.”

                “Oh.”  That quelled the fire in her a bit, and she settled down enough to say, “I’m Xenia.”


                “Yeah, I know.”  She rolled her eyes when Darrel looked questioning.  “You think I don’t know every single Legacy that’s on this team?  You guys always get first dibs, even if you don’t have the skill for it.  I got into the Academy on a sports scholarship, being good at this is what’s gonna keep me here.  I have to know who the weak points are.”

                Someone who didn’t fawn over Legacies.  Darrel could see Xenia getting along stupidly well with Ten.  “Am I a weak point, then?”

                Xenia shrugged.  “Not really.  You’re pretty good, but you don’t play with any heart.  You aren’t hungry for it.”

                “And you are?”

                “I’ll do anything to keep from being sent back to the mines,” she said dryly.  “You done taking a breather?  Because Coach will yell if we’re late.”

                “Do you have anything to do Saturday afternoon?” Darrel blurted.  Xenia looked close to shutting him down, and he hastened to explain.  “My roommate is a Perel, and he was allowed to start a culture club, for credit.  We all have to bring someone along who has something to contribute, and if you know a lot about sports, well, you’d be the only one, really.  He’s trying to learn as much as he can about humans, and it’ll look good on your transcript.”

                “Yeah?”  She actually looked interested, which was encouraging.  “And I don’t have to write any papers or anything?”

                “Not that I know of.”

                “And I get to meet your quad mates?  Because you guys are kinda legendary at this point.”

                “Oh, I fucking know,” Darrel muttered, and Xenia chuckled.

                “Fine.  Get me the details later.  Right now I’ve gotta pretend this team has real players on it and not a bunch of babies.”

                “I’ll show you a baby,” Darrel said, but he felt lighter as he headed back out onto the field.




                Cody’s problem wasn’t that he had too few people to pick from to bring to the club, but that there were way too many.  It was funny, he didn’t realize just how many acquaintances he had until he actually thought about it.  When he did, the numbers were overwhelming.

                He knew almost everyone’s names in all of his classes.  That was something Garrett had taught him: remember a person’s name and they’ll be flattered and open up to you.  Even though the memorization didn’t come naturally, Cody had followed his advice, and it was really true.  Every time he said hello to another cadet in the halls, they tended to smile at him like he’d given them a gift.  It was easy to get lost in the crowd when you were one cadet out of thousands and thousands, and so it had to seem a little special.

                The girls were especially nice.  Samantha in his physics class, Tyrelle in Introduction to Tactics, Yelena in Chemistry…Cody never sat by himself, and he had more offers to study together than he knew what to do with.  Cody recognized flirting, he wasn’t completely sheltered, and he wasn’t at all turned off to the idea of spending a few hours alone with one of his pretty classmates, but he just didn’t seem to have the time for it.  He was doing fine in all of his classes except for Chemistry, and he had Ten to help him with that, so he usually declined.  Most of his free time was spent with Phil learning the tools of the spy trade, and that wasn’t exactly the sort of thing he could bring into casual conversation, either.

                Cody wasn’t a virgin.  His first time had been with Lacey, back on Pandora.  It had been…well, hilarious was really the only way to describe it.  They’d known each other since they were six, and while Cody was at an age where he could get hard just watching someone walk away, he wasn’t particularly attracted to Lacey.  She wasn’t really into him either, but she’d offered and he’d accepted and once they’d figured out what worked for them, it was nice.  Really nice.  Really, really nice, especially afterward, when she’d crawled on top of him and rested her head on his chest, her soft breasts pressed against his stomach, and she’d stroked his arms while he’d played with her long, pale hair.  Lacey was a comfort, was comfortable, and Cody loved her.  But they were friends first, and he was going away, and Lacey had been okay with that. 

                Now that he was here Cody didn’t really have time for a relationship, and he wasn’t wired to be happy to fuck people he didn’t care about.  As for friends, yeah, he had a lot of them, but no one really stood out in his mind as the sort of person he wanted to introduce to the rest of his quad.  They were all too much like him: friendly, inoffensive, middle of the road.  Cody felt compelled to try and find someone different, someone who would really stand out from the crowd.

                Ten was the first to pick someone out, and once ze’d dedicated to a cause, ze threw hirself at it full force.  Everyone had already met Bartholomew, Ten had brought him home the first day, then forced the guy to speak genetics at hir for hours on end.  He was friendly enough, and Cody knew that what Ten was doing was ostensibly for Cody’s benefit, even if Bartholomew didn’t realize that, but he kind of missed spending time alone with his roommate. 

                On the last day of classes that week, Cody went out to the garage instead of back to his quad.  He wanted to look in on his bike.  All the chemical components were very stable, but Wyl said it wasn’t good to let them sit idle for too long, and Cody was dying to go for a ride.  He was pretty much healed up, and he’d invited Ten to come along, but ze’d turned him down.

                “Tomorrow,” Ten had said distractedly as ze mixed reagents in tiny test tubes.  “After the stupid club.  And save the good fuel for me.”

                “I will.”

                Which meant Cody would be riding by himself today, but that was fine.  He liked solo rides.  He’d missed out on a race earlier this week, but the side benefit of that was that the course was pretty abandoned now.  It was a five kilometer circle, with obstacles you could program in for added difficulty.  Cody logged into the course’s control program, pulled up one of its advanced options and selected everything he could.  There would be a few sharp turns in there, but he could handle it.

                He got into his protective gear, made sure the bike was fully charged and healthy, and then rode her out to the beginning of the track.  Cody strapped himself in, activated the frontal shield and waited for the course to finish arranging itself.

                Thirty seconds before the go-ahead, another bike pulled in next to his.  It was a little larger, very sleek but commercial—a Firecat, Cody was pretty sure.  The person on the back of it was taller than him, their face already hidden by their helmet.  “Mind if I join you?"

                “You know I set it to advanced, right?”

                “I wouldn’t want to run it if it was easy,” the person—the guy—replied.  Cody could hear the smile in his voice.  “I bet I can finish before you can.”

                “Oh, you’re on,” Cody said, pulling his own helmet down.  He watched the counter out of the corner of his eye.  Five seconds.  Four.  Three.  Two…

                The lights flared and they took off, accelerating toward the first corner.  The guy had a slight lead on Cody, since he was on the inside, but Cody knew he could make it up.

                First obstacle: the rings.  They weren’t material, just projected, but if you made it through all of them without touching the edges, you upped your score.  Cody swerved tightly, left, right, carefully gauging his elevation as he shot up into the high ones.  He was good at these, he knew it, but this guy was better.  He pulled another meter ahead.

                Next were the hurdles, which could be hard on a bike’s compressors, but Cody’s were top of the line.  He bounced over them smoothly, grinning to himself when he noticed the other guy slowing down to avoid knocking a few of them over.  Cody gained until they were neck to neck heading into the next obstacle, which was…

                Oh, shit, random projectiles.  These were immaterial too, but Cody hadn’t been paying close enough attention and one of the bars grazed his shoulder as he reacted with a sideways jerk, lowering his score.  He could hear the guy laugh over the sound of their engines.  “You have to do better than that!” he called out, retaking the lead.

                Yeah, Cody knew that, thank you very much, jackass.  His blood surged as he put on speed, trying to make up time.  He grinned helplessly with the fun of it, the joy of being back on his bike, the race, the competition.  They hit the final straightaway, and Cody nudged even further forward.  A few more meters and he could—

                Oh, the other guy blocked, and blocked hard.  Cody had to swerve to the right to avoid contact with the other guy’s fender when he slowed down suddenly.  Blocking was a legal move in a race, a way for a confident leader to hold onto his position when there was just one other person to worry about.  His bike was big enough that Cody wouldn’t be able to shove it aside, and fast enough that Cody wouldn’t be able to maneuver around it in time.  The finish line was closing fast.  He needed a new strategy.

                Well, it had worked before.  Cody gritted his teeth and activated the downward propulsion units, launching his bike into the air.  He pulled it into a loop so he wouldn’t lose his forward momentum, and had the distinct satisfaction of watching his opponent’s helmet turn up to watch as Cody sailed over his head.  He righted himself and took the lead, and a few seconds later he zoomed over the finish line.

                The other guy pulled in to where Cody eventually stopped, laughing.  “That was incredible,” he said.  “I’ve never seen a tighter loop.”

                “One of my favorite moves,” Cody replied.  He pulled his helmet off and shook out his sweaty hair, the curls flopping over his face.  “I still took a hit on points, though.”

                “You got more than enough to compensate for the hit by coming in first,” the other guy replied.  “Seriously, sweet moves.  Your bike is something else.”

                “Thanks.  She’s custom.”

                “I can tell,” the guy agreed.  “She’s gorgeous.”  He held out his hand to Cody, who shook it.  “Thanks for the race.”  Then he turned and started to head back to the garage.

                Maybe it was the adrenaline, maybe it was because Cody’s finally found someone who intrigued him, maybe it was just a spur of the moment thing, but before the guy could get away Cody called out, “Hey!  What are you doing tomorrow?”

                He twisted around to look back.  The guy was very attractive from behind, Cody acknowledged, even with the helmet on.  There was just something smooth about the way he moved, liquid and facile.  “Why?”

                “Because I need to bring a guest to my quad mate’s club and it has to be someone interesting, and you’re…uh…interesting,” Cody said, feeling more and more lame by the second.

                “You don’t even know me.”

                “I’d like to,” Cody offered, pulling in next to him.  “If only so I can figure out how to beat you even harder next time.”

                “Next time I will ride you into the ground,” the other guy promised. 

                “It’s…look, you don’t have to say yes,” Cody went on, ignoring the way the innuendo made his stomach tighten.  “I mean, I don’t even know if you’re a student here.”

                “I am,” the rider said after a moment.  “And sure, why not?”  He reached up and took off his helmet.  “Thanks for the offer, Cadet Helms.”

                As Cody looked at him, dumbfounded, all he could think was, My quad mates are going to kill me.


Monday, February 24, 2014

Lesbian Romance and the Issue of Readership

I know that most of the people who read this blog do so because of my m/m romance stuff and my weekly serial story.  I respect that, believe me, I'm grateful you're here, but I do write other things as well and sometimes that spills over.  So if lesbian romance is of no interest to you, I'll see you tomorrow when I post the next part of The Academy (it will be so fun!).

For the people who've stuck it out, first things first: my co-author and I got the cover for the first novella in our f/f BDSM series.  Jeez, that's a lot of letters.  The only other lesbian romance I've ever published was a short story in a Cleis anthology years ago, and it's not the kind of fiction I'm often inspired to write, but Caitlin Ricci was interested in collaborating and I've never gone all the way with another author before, so I agreed.  Interestingly, I've written very, very little BDSM before as well (the only other story I can think of is my Shadows and Light series on Literotica) so this ended up being quite the stretch for me.

Let's get the cover reveal out there first:

I think LT3 did a great job with this cover.  It's got the elements we were looking for without being overwhelming in any particular way, and there are no partially naked torsos.  Not that I don't like a nice naked torso, but that wasn't really the feel I wanted, and it's not LT3's style either.

Onto the issue of readership.  E.E. Ottoman recently did a very cogent blog post on the subject of why lesbian romance doesn't sell as well as gay or straight romance.  She makes a lot of very good points, and I'm going to highlight one here:

I think for a lot of women it's triggering to see women portrayed as confident and sexual without having men involved. It brings up, all of their own insecurities about their bodies and their sexualities. It highlights all of the ways they've been told that they are bodies aren't good enough and their sexual desires are wrong without the 'safe space' of a male body or male sexuality to retreat to. 

I know this can be an issue for me when I read lesbian romance.  I  primarily seek the company of men, in part because they tend to be the majority participating in my very physically inclined hobbies, and in part because I just feel like I can be more comfortable with men.  Other women tend to intimidate me.  There's an unspoken layer of competition there, whether it revolves around looks or material success or just sheer poise, and I generally label myself as lacking.  Part of the joy of reading a book is losing yourself in the characters, but there has to be something to draw you in and make you identify with them, and sometimes I just can't quite manage that with lesbian romance.  True, I'm not a lesbian, but I'm not a gay man either and I get down with that all the time.  Perhaps the problem is a lack of personal verisimilitude.  Maybe I need to write a lesbian romance about an introverted, jiu-jitsu loving, knife-wielding writer. :)

I strongly suggest you read the rest of the post, not just for it's primary content but for the comments too, some of which are incredibly well thought out: http://thisjourneywithoutamap.blogspot.com/2014/02/why-is-lesbian-romance-so-unpopular.html

When it comes to the issue of readership, though...here's where it gets interesting to me.  Since I've not published a lot of f/f fic, I can't speak to sales, but plenty of authors (see the above article) said that their lesbian fiction didn't sell as well as their gay fiction.  The only experience I've had with selling both types of books came at last year's Denver Pride Fest, and here's what's interesting: the only author in the group selling lesbian fiction sold out in an hour.  Really.  She brought like forty books, and they were snapped up instantly.  All of the rest of us with our piles of m/m?  We did okay, but not great.  Certainly no one else sold out.

Why would this happen?  Is it because a large part of the readership of m/m romance is straight women, who weren't as present at Pride?  Is it that the women who were at Pride were more interested in reading than the men?  I'm not entirely sure, but it definitely inspired me to have something ready for this year's Pride Fest that would meet the need of more of the people there.  This new series (only one book will be ready for Pride this year, but it's a start) might not sell fabulously online (really, I can't say that anything of mine has sold fabulously yet) but it will be there for the people who are interested, and that makes me happy.

At some point I'll write another blog post on the trial by fire that is co-authoring, but not today.  This is long enough.  Happy Monday, darlins.  Be strong!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Academy Post #11


Notes:  Busy morning for me!  My coauthor and I turned in our f/f novella, I set up initial appointments with a new client’s family, and I wrote this.  I know it feels like baby steps, but I’m building a platform from which to leap.  Bear with me, darlins.

Title: The Academy

Part Eleven: Not Exactly A Fight Club




                “The first rule of humans,” Jason Kim had told his ward almost a decade ago, “is that humans are complicated.”

                Grennson had been intrigued by humanity ever since he was a little pup.  The tragedy of his youngest years had been transformed into opportunity by Matriarch Grenn when she took him in, and as he slowly got over his loss, Grennson had started to pay attention to his new circumstances.

                He’d gone from living in a rural community with no one but his immediate family group for company to Berenze, the capital of Perel, surrounded by hundreds of people who claimed fealty to his matriarch, all of them living together in her extensive home.  There had been dozens of other pups, many visitors from other Families and finally Jason Kim, a human, the real, live human who Ferran had married and brought to live with them.

                Jason was Grennson’s first real exposure to humanity, and for a long time he’d assumed that most humans were like Jason: calm, poised, smart, kind.  So kind, and so patient, and Grennson had fallen a little in love with him as a pup.  With Ferran’s help Jason developed an empathic ability almost unheard of in humans, and with their guidance Grennson was slowly introduced to the larger universe. 

                And it was terrible.

                Or at least, it was terrible at first.  Perels who went abroad were warned before they left to guard themselves carefully, because they wouldn’t like a lot of what they felt out there.  They learned how to shield their minds and hearts, to protect themselves from both the adulation and hatred that would be directed at them abroad.  Grennson was significantly younger than most Perel when he was introduced to his first big group of humans, and he hadn’t been prepared for all of the—

                So young—not as pretty—could be useful—looks like my daughter’s pet—sweet thing—turn him to—try to get—done here—alone, I might—want one—get in good now—introduction—

                --rush of thoughts and emotions that flowed at him.  He’d frozen up, and a moment later Ferran had taken him back into the ship, away from the party and the press of human minds, and spent the next few minutes projecting calm and love and warmth at him.  Once Grennson had calmed down, Ferran explained.  “Most of them mean well enough, but they aren’t raised to have the same control over themselves that Perel are.  We mold our purpose to the greater good of our Family, while each human’s personal wellbeing is usually his or her own greatest motivation.  It can be different for some, especially if they’re parents, but they are a naturally selfish species.”

                “How do they manage to work together?” Grennson asked.  “When each one wants something different?”

                “They have very complex minds,” Ferran replied.  “Very versatile minds.  They are capable of learning great things, and even though they cannot feel each other’s hearts, they can still be swayed by circumstance or sympathy or explanation.  Learning to manage humans is much harder in some ways than managing Perel, and it is something you’ll learn if you stay with Jason and I.”

                “I do want to stay with you,” Grennson said immediately, and Ferran purred and pulled him close.

                “Then you shall.  And by the time you are grown, you shall be a master at understanding the ways of humans.”

                Ferran had been right, and now, in his current living situation, Grennson had never been more grateful for his knowledge.  After Cody’s revelation and the sudden lowering of everyone in their quad’s boundaries, Grennson had seen two things immediately: one, that this was an opportune time to build bonds between the four of them, and two, that if they restricted their company to just each other, they would be going for blood in a matter of hours.  Their personalities simply didn’t mesh harmoniously, no matter the best of intentions, and until they had more time to really learn how to work together, sheer willpower wouldn’t be enough to force them to get along.  The obvious answer was to introduce new variables into the mix.

                Valero had been good for one thing when she hung out in here, and that was acting as a lightning rod.  Grennson couldn’t think of a better person to receive Ten’s bountiful ire, but he also didn’t want to replace one poor companion with another.  The best thing to do, he figured, was to spread out the challenge of integrating new companions into their group that would keep them from killing each other.  Hence—

                “You want to run a club out of our quad?” Ten demanded.  “Are you insane?  Does it look like we’ve got the space to accommodate dozens of Perel fankids all slavering to get their hands on you in here?”

                “Not a fan club,” Grennson corrected.  “A culture club.  Educating humans about my home and learning about their homes in return is part of my mandate while living here, and I’ve been very remiss so far about doing it.”

                “I thought you didn’t want to spread yourself too thin,” Darrel said, for once firmly siding with Ten.  Grennson suppressed a smile.  “Starting a culture club is just going to make it worse.”

                “I promise to start small,” Grennson said.  “If the meetings are going to be in our quad, then it would have to be small.  I have no interest in letting just anyone in here.  Perhaps you could each invite someone to attend?”

                “What is this, the Midyear Ball?  Should we come all painted up in our glitziest frocks?  Do we need a secret handshake?” Ten asked.  “And stop talking like a damn diplomat.”

                “Grennson is a diplomat,” Cody spoke up from his spot on the couch.  Since his revelation the day before everyone had been stepping a little softly around him, bringing him drinks so he didn’t have to get up, cooking him meals, giving him the couch all for himself.  He’d accepted their largesse with grins and increasingly ridiculous demands until Ten had gotten tired of it and thrown a pillow at his head.  Now Cody still got the couch, but he had to share it.  “So’s the rest of his family.”

                “That doesn’t mean he has to talk like one, it makes me feel like he’s coddling me.”

                “Poor baby,” Cody crooned, then laughed as he took another pillow to the face.  “Feeling emotional?” he asked, lobbing the pillow back at Ten, then grimacing as it pulled the muscles in his ribcage.

                “Idiot,” Ten snapped, snatching up the pillow and gently placing it behind Cody’s back.  “Moron, how can you not remember that you aren’t supposed to do stupid things?”

                “Why do you provoke me to them?” Cody asked, but he graciously let Ten adjust his posture and soften the tension setting on the couch until he was almost swallowed by the cushions.  “Thanks.  And I think a culture club is a good idea.”

                “I think it’s an abysmal idea,” Ten said.  “If you think I’m going to waste valuable time that could be spent on my experiments, think again.”

                “I bet we could do it for credit,” Darrel said.

                Everyone turned to stare at him.  “They offer credit for private clubs?” Cody asked.  “I didn’t think that was allowed.”

                “Every cadet needs to have at least three credits per year in—they call it Diversity Options, but that really just means doing something beyond the required classes for your specialty,” Darrel explained.  “Most clubs aren’t eligible because they’re connected to their member’s specialties, just like a lot of sports aren’t, but they make exceptions for activities with a heavy cross-cultural emphasis.  Most cadets just do the Many People, Many Worlds workshop at the end of the year, but that eats your weekends for a standard month and they’re run by the counselors, which means there’s a lot of group exercises and guest lectures.”

                Ten couldn’t have looked more horrified if ze’d tried.  “I am not doing that,” ze said carefully.  “Not.  Absolutely not.  I would rather excise my own kidneys with a hatchet.”

                “Then you’d better sign on to Grennson’s club idea,” Cody said.

                “But I don’t have anyone to bring!” Ten whined.

                “Well, you have a week to figure it out.  Make a friend.”

                “Do you know me at all?” Ten asked.  “I don’t just make friends.”  And Ten didn’t really want to, Grennson could tell; hir reticence simmered at the front of hir mind, making hir feel unhappy.  Ze wanted to focus on chemistry, Cody and naturalism, in that order.

                “I’m sure you’ll find someone that doesn’t bore you to tears,” Cody said.  “Try a medical student.  You might learn something from them.”

                “Oh, haha.  Your situation is off limits, remember?”

                “I’m not saying tell them about me,” Cody clarified.  “I’m just saying that they might know something you don’t, and it would be nice to have a source for information that doesn’t log every search you do on Hermes.  You know they’re monitoring you ever since the fire.”

                “Maybe,” Ten said sulkily, then took on a considering expression.  “Do you think they could get me into the med labs?  Because I need a pint of Regen to experiment on and it’s not available through the chemistry department.”

                “You should find out,” Grennson encouraged.  “I will set up a meeting with the educational directors and ask for their approval and guidelines.  If they agree, shall we start next week?  Only for a few hours,” he said placatingly to Ten. 

                “I suppose that’s acceptable,” Ten said at last.  “But it better not interfere with going for a joyride in the morning, because you,” ze said to Cody, “still owe me fuel samples and proof that you aren’t a wicked liar, since we had to push everything back thanks to you having bad judgment.”

                Cody rolled his eyes.  “Yeah, how dare I interfere in your beatdown?”  He held out an arm.  “Help me up?”

                “You’re not an invalid,” Ten said, but ze came over and helped Cody up anyway.  “Where are you going?”

                “To change.  I’ve been wearing these clothes for the past two days, they’re starting to smell.”

                “You can barely raise your arms over your head, how are you going to get your shirt off by yourself?” Ten huffed.  “Come on.”  Ze led Cody into their bedroom and shut the door.

                “You’re pleased with yourself.”

                “Hmm?” Grennson asked Darrel.

                “I can tell you’re pleased with yourself.  You’re purring.”

                Oh, he was purring.  He’d done it unconsciously all the time as a pup, but Grennson had thought he’d kicked the habit.  He cleared his throat and stopped.  “I’m sorry.”

                “I don’t mind,” Darrel said.  “Are you really this excited about a culture club, though?”

                “I’m excited about it as a solution,” Grennson said, deciding to be honest with his friend.  “I think we need to expand our circle a bit.  We’re bound together with a secret, but that won’t help us to appreciate each other, and I fear if Cody is the sole reason we try to get along he will effectively be used by us as a lever for good behavior, which might make him resentful.  So, a small club seems like just the thing.  Making it for credit was an excellent idea,” he added.

                “Thanks.”  Darrel hesitated, then said, “But we can still work on languages alone, right?  Just the two of us?”

                Grennson patted Darrel’s hand.  “Of course.  I wouldn’t give it up.”  No one here regarded him with quite the same mix of affection, attention and ability that Darrel did, and it was nice to be around someone whose mood lifted whenever they were together.  “Not for anything.”