No tour of Baram’s house was complete without seeing three things: the bolt-hole in the basement, the hawthorn trees around three sides of the property, and a pile of children climbing up the furniture to greet you.
Pocket-Claws-Neska took in the bolt-hole with wide eyes and a small smile, especially when she saw the preparations the children had helped with. Baram wasn’t sure child-sized riot shields were really adorable, but the kids liked them, and so did this small person.
She took in the hawthorn trees about the same way. “So, this Briar-Rose, she really is like you and the Spear.”
Not, Baram noted, anything about him. She looked in fear at Via, not at him.
“Briar-Rose is like us. Maybe a little harder, maybe a little softer, but like us.” Viatrix shrugged. “If you last long enough, you’ll meet her. She’s off right now.”
“Last long enough.” The girl shook her head. “You sound like you think I’m afraid of a little hard work.”
“Well, many people are. And it’s crowded conditions and hard work and a lot of people think that’s just too much.”
“You’ll keep my kids safe. I don’t see how anything could be too much in that case.”
“Like her.” Baram rumbled it. “Like her, Viatrix.”
“I like her too, Boss. Okay, Pocket-Claws, you’ve got the first vote of approval. The second one’s the hard one.”
“Second one?” She was still looking at the trees, and at the back yard. “An addition shouldn’t be too hard…”
“You’re good with those words, then?” Via actually cracked a smile at that. “Good. None of us are, and the last things-Worker didn’t stay long enough to do much at all.”
“As long as someone else can excavate the foundation…”
“I can.” Baram nodded. “Easy.” It was like caves, and Baram liked caves.
“Ah, here comes the welcoming party.” Via’s voice had the pre-combat sound to it. Baram noticed how Pocket-Claws-Neska pulled her hands out of her pockets – ha – and shifted her stance, legs spreading a bit, center of gravity dropping.
And then the kids were everywhere. “Are you new? Are you staying? Are you magical? You’ve got to be okay, Dad’s smiling. Are you from the school? How come we’ve never seen you before? Where are your kids?” The questions bounced around from all of the kids, but they seemed as if asked with one voice while the children climbed up Baram, Via, and Pocket-Claws-Neska.
She’d handled the bolt-hole and the hawthorn. But, buried in children, the short woman froze.
Baram watched her carefully. Via, moving as if she wasn’t weighed down with offspring, shifted behind the visitor. This had gone badly before – not usually after they’d handled the defenses, but sometime.
The woman took a breath. She carefully lifted a child off of her hip and placed it on the ground, and then another. Baram watched the way she moved her hands, compensating for a sudden twitchiness.
“Hello.” Her voice was very quiet. The children stilled to listen.
“Hello.” Gerulf was their designated spokesperson when things were being serious. He was one of the oldest, after all, and he had the best voice.
“I may be moving in here.”
“People do that.” He patted a smaller child before she could speak up, and shifted another child off of Pocket-Claws-Neska’s leg. “You don’t like kids?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“We’re not stupid… ma’am. You don’t like kids touching you.”
The small woman shook her head. She sat down – already the height of some of the bigger kids, this brought her down to all the kids’ level.
Gerulf paused a moment, and then sat. Baram hid a smile with a cough. The boy was smart.
“It’s not kids touching me I don’t like. I have two kids of my own, of course…”
“Everybody does. At least two.” Gerulf shrugged. “Not here yet? ‘Sides, having kids doesn’t mean you like kids. Lots of people don’t like kids. Like Sergio’s mom.”
“Hey.” Sergio’s complaint was faint. Baram patted the kid on the head – Gerulf was right. There was a reason the kid was still here and the mum wasn’t.
“I like kids. I get along okay with most kids, at least.” Pocket-Claws-Neska looked around the group. “I just don’t really like being touched at all, by kids or by taller people… heck, some of you are taller than me.”
Gerulf looked around at the other kids. After a minute, he nodded. “The little ones won’t get it.” It sounded like a warning. “But the older kids understand.”
Baram wasn’t watching the kids. Neither was Via; Baram was splitting his attention between Via and Pocket-Claws-Neska. Viatrix’s eyes were firmly on their newest visitor.
And that visitor’s eyes were on the children. Her throat worked a few times. Swallowing? Gulping. “You… just like that?”
“We’re not stupid.” The boy’s voice had a little impatience in it this time. “Sometimes people don’t like being touched. Or shouted at sometimes, or they don’t like strawberries. It’s not rocket science.”
The girl made a sound like a stifled sob. “Not rockest science.”
“It’s not.” Now Gerulf didn’t sound so sure. “Right, dad?”
Baram turned his attention to the boy. Not his son by blood, but his son nonetheless. “Right.” He nodded. “Hard for lots of people to get, but not rockets.”
“See? Oh. Is this one of those things where grownups are dumb all the time?”
Baram barked out a laugh. It was quiet enough that he could hear the little noise the new girl made as well. He thought it was probably a laugh.
“Yeah. Yeah, this is one of those things.” She held out a hand, now, to Gerulf. “My name is Neska. Your… Viatrix says that I can stay here for a while, with my kids.”
“Aunt Via.” Gerulf shook her hand. “I’m Gerulf sh’Jaelie. Welcome to not-a-safe-house.”
And now, they all laughed: Neska, Baram, Via, and the children.
“That’s quite a name.”
“It’s better than ‘dad’s cave.'” Gerulf sounded pleased with himself.
“It’s a good name.” Baram tousled the boy’s hair. “It’s a good thing.” And they still weren’t, really, a safe house.
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