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How You Always Get the Best of Me

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When Daine said, mostly joking, "Well, you didn't like Perin, either; why did you never approve of my boyfriends?" to Numair at the tail end of her college graduation party, the very last answer she expected to hear was:

"Because I'm in love with you."

Daine struggled not to inhale her drink.

Her childhood friend-cum-high school tutor-cum-college professor-cum-... well, childhood friend, she supposed, paused, then looked down into his rum and Coke. "I don't think I was supposed to say that."

She herself had switched to fruit punch right after the obligatory toast, but for some reason, Numair seemed to be determined to whittle away a whole bottle of rum tonight.

Which, apparently, he was starting to feel, six foot five nothing.

"In my defense," he added slowly, slouched in the plush loveseat to her right, "even if I wasn't, the fact that you only ever date out of obligation means that you only ever have lovers who make you feel obligated to do... things. I don't much like seeing my Daine being guilted into anything, much less..." He trailed off with shaded eyes, then grimaced and downed the rest of his drink in a single gulp.

'My Daine,' he said. It wasn't nearly the first time he'd said it, but this time it lit her face on fire.

"Um," she squeaked. "Could you go back? I-In love with—?"

He looked at her for a moment, uncomprehending, and then the comprehension leaked through—along with a complicated assortment of other emotions.

"You aren't nearly drunk enough for this conversation," he informed her. Then he reached for the bottle of rum on the glass coffee table.

She grabbed his wrist, stilling it. "I'll decide how drunk I need to be for this conversation, thank you."

"No, that wasn't for... for you," he said, voice getting weaker as he stared at her hand. "It... it's for me. I can't... I'm not..." He let out a heavy breath and swallowed audibly, but let her guide the appendage back to him.

When she let go, her fingers trailed over goosebumps.

"Did... did you mean it?" she had to ask, butterflies kicking off a storm in her stomach as the implications started to sink in. She hated how small she sounded, but after four years of carrying her torch in quiet (hopeless) peace, the thought that maybe she wasn't quite as alone in her feelings as she'd been convinced she was was...

He stared at her for one eternal moment, then looked away with a sigh. "Yes."

"How long?"

She'd known he loved her for just as long as she'd loved him—since the day they met, and he'd convinced a scrappy little thirteen-year-old orphan to laugh for the first time in months—but in love—?

He let out a single harsh laugh. "Too fucking long," he muttered, and succeeded in swiping the rum while she was left blinking over the curse word.

She recaptured the bottle. She didn't trust him not to just pour the whole thing down his throat when he sounded like that.

He eyed both her and the rum unhappily, then scrubbed his flushed face.

She waited, eyebrows raised.

"Five years," he muttered eventually. "When you nearly died in that car crash. I thought—I thought I lost you, and then when I found out I hadn't, you grabbed my hand and told me it would take more than that to keep you from me, and it just... clicked."

She didn't remember saying that, but she did remember dipping in and out of consciousness in the ER afterwards and finding him at her bedside all throughout. The unreasonable terror of being stuck in a hospital—again, tasting ash in her mouth and hearing the ghost of Hakkon trying to arrange for her foster care—had eased every time she saw him.

...That was also shortly before he'd gotten back together with his ex, who Daine had absolutely loathed for reasons unknown for all of two weeks before it became obvious that the woman did genuinely care for Numair (even if she still refused to call him by his chosen name), after which it died down to mere intense dislike.

(Even now she still didn't quite like Varice—they'd never truly be friends, and she still had to swallow down her irritated jealousy whenever Numair mentioned her—but she didn't begrudge the woman her happiness and no longer had to force smiles around her. She reminded Daine too much of Ma for her to truly hate her.)

Numair contemplated his empty glass. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this. Can I have the rum now?"

"No." Daine swallowed. "Is that why you got back together with Varice?"

His smile was twisted. "You, love, are much too sharp."

(It was funny; realizing she was in love with Numair was why she'd dumped Kaddar, not even a year after the car crash. He hadn't been particularly surprised. It had only occurred to her much later that maybe, possibly, perhaps she should have talked (ranted) about Numair and Varice a little bit less. Just a smidge.)

She thought about this for as long as it took to sink in that she'd been pining hopelessly for four years, which was four years longer than she had apparently needed to, then she scowled at him. "Were you ever going say anything?"

He just looked at her. "Yes," he drawled, "I was absolutely going to tell my teenage student that I was completely gone on her, because there's absolutely nothing wrong with that at all." He slumped a little further in his seat, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Am still gone. Dammit. Can I have the rum? Please?"

"No." He did have a point, granted, but it still stung. Or, well, as much as it could sting around the words I was completely gone on her.

Suddenly, Daine was feeling much more charitable towards Varice.

"I'm not your student anymore," she pointed out slowly.

His expression was nothing but a blank question.

She swung the too-light bottle of rum in her hand, sloshing the remainder of the liquid against the sides. "And I'm not a teenager either."

"Barely," he said under his breath, looking away.

"Twenty one is a perfectly respectable age, I'll have you know," she informed him, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, and his stare lingered there in a way that made her tingle pleasantly all over. "So what's stopping you now?"

"Not the rum, certainly," he grumbled, then paused as he processed what she said. He blinked several times, then said, "...Come again?"

"What's stopping you?"

"A hundred things," he said, bemused. "I can list them all if you like."

Daine wrinkled her nose and grimaced. She was fairly certain she didn't want to know.

"Why do you ask, then?" he wondered, and she wondered if he would have been this slow on the uptake if he wasn't quite so drunk.

She set the rum down on the end table on her left, so he'd have to reach around her if he wanted to get to it, and then leaned on the arm of her armchair, looking up at him through her eyelashes and subconsciously arching her back.

He licked his lips and swallowed again as he looked her up and down, the want on his face so blatant and open that she was starting to realize just how often she'd caught little flashes of it before.

"Daine?"

She shivered at the way his voice cracked, and asked one more time: "What's stopping you?"

She held his eye for all of three seconds before it became obvious that he wasn't going to get there on his own, then she got up from the armchair, took the single step over to the loveseat, and straddled his lap.

He gaped at her for a moment, his large, warm hands steadying her thighs and sending heat all through her, and then something about him—closed off. Something sad, bitter, resigned.

"This is the biggest reason I didn't tell you, you know," he said quietly while she tried to figure out that look. "You're not obligated to humor me. I don't want you to humor me. I want you to choose someone you love, not—"

"I didn't spend five years eating my heart out every time Varice came over only for you to decide I'm humoring you," she retorted, exasperated, and then kissed him.

He grunted something unintelligible against her lips, and then, after a little prodding, started kissing her back.

She'd been expecting this to be like the kisses she'd had before: fun, more or less, more enjoyable with people she liked more, a little musky and a little exciting in the right situations, boring and gross in the wrong ones.

It was not like the kisses she'd had before.

Maybe she should have been tipped off by the way she burned during those rare occasions when he traced down the curve of her spine as he guided her, or the tingly-squirmy-melting feeling that took her over when he held her close and murmured in her ear—but she hadn't, and the wave of need that swamped her took her completely by surprise.

It left her panting and trembling by the time they broke apart, her shirt riding up just enough that Numair could stroke the skin of her hips, her thighs spread to the limits of her skinny jeans and her back arched hard enough that she could press her front against his despite the restraints, eagerly seeking out every point of contact she could. He was gloriously solid beneath her, the heat seeping through her clothing making her shiver and tingle all over.

Her arms, twined around his neck, loosened when he started kissing down her neck, his five o'clock shadow (or whatever the nine o'clock version of it was called) scraping the sensitive area and making her hips shift and her breath catch.

He laid one very soft, very definitive kiss on the crook of her neck, then murmured, "This is a dream, isn't it."

"We'll see if I have the stubble burn in the morning," she replied, voice mostly gone. The way he sounded just then, the way his breath felt, the way he'd pulled her a little closer as he'd said it—they were making her understand a bit better why sex was a thing most people seemed to want.

He huffed a laugh and then kissed that spot again, this one open-mouthed and sucking with hie tongue darting in to taste her, and it made her every nerve jolt.

And then, to her great disappointment, he pulled away. He nudged her to sit back as he did it, and she found the strength somewhere in her to comply, her whole body aching at the loss. Panting, he dropped his head back against the back of the loveseat, eyelashes fluttering and his Adam's apple bobbing deeply.

She was the one who let herself look this time, feeling herself heat up a bit more with every bit of him she took in. His broad chest heaved, his button-down open a button or two more than it necessarily needed to be, showing off wiry hair, the fabric pulling tight over his arms and hinting at the way his stomach was working, the dark watch framing his wrist, the dark slacks with—ah.

Maybe... maybe she wasn't the only one thinking about sex.

Molten awareness flooded her, biting her lip and swallowing hard against her watering mouth, trepidation and craving both tightening her belly.

Which was funny, because boners and bulges had never really had much of an effect on her before, but this was Numair she'd managed to turn on, and the idea that Numair wanted her enough for him to start feeling like that...

(Also, that was a hell of a bulge. Intellectually, she knew that vaginas weren't exactly fragile flowers, but physically she was roughly as excited as she was intimidated. Would he even fit? She didn't know but she thought she might like to find out.)

His panting hitched, and she could swear she saw that bulge twitch for a second, and then he croaked, "Um."

She dragged her eyes away from his crotch to look at his face.

"W-we should stop here," he said abruptly, staring at her and blushing scarlet. He shifted his hands from her hips to her thighs as if to nudge her back in a jerking movement.

She pursed her lips in a pout just to tease him, and was rewarded with a gulp, his color darkening further. His stance on the matter didn't seem to shift, however, so she wiggled off his lap—

And her knees buckled.

"Daine?"

"I always thought 'weak at the knees' was just an expression," she laughed breathlessly, giving in to gravity, and then flashed him a sheepish grin. "Give me a minute."

His face blanked for a moment, and then he dropped his head back again. "Don't worry about it," he said weakly. "I think I need twenty."

Daine bit down her grin, but couldn't do much about the blush.


Eventually, she did manage to get largely upright—and then Numair attempted to follow suit.

Keyword: attempted.

He pitched forward, and Daine had to scramble to keep him from crashing through the glass coffee table.

"This is why I didn't give you the rest of the rum," she grunted, trying not to stagger under his weight. She wasn't well-built, but she wasn't exactly a waif, either, and that was the only reason they hadn't both gone down. He was heavy.

He leaned so it was easier to support his weight and tried to laugh, though it trailed off in a groan.

"Come on," she said, slinging his arm around her shoulders so she could make sure he didn't fall when he walked. "I'll take you home."

He tripped and she squeaked with the effort of steadying him.

"Take me what?" he rasped, oddly scandalized.

"Home," Daine repeated, raising her eyebrows even if he couldn't see them. "Unless you plan to drive yourself...?"

"I could take a-a..." He struggled to find the word.

"Uber? Lyft? Taxi?" she provided, then actually thought about it and grimaced. "You could pay them to get you there, but are you going to pay them to make sure you end up in your apartment instead of passing out on the front lawn?"

Getting into Numair's apartment involved a receptionist and an elevator and door that involved keypads and cards, because while he wasn't quite at Alanna or Jon's level of old money, he was still the kind of filthy rich that owned a penthouse in the ritzy part of town. She wasn't sure you could pay someone to navigate that, come to think of it.

He didn't have a reply for that.

"Besides, if I take you, then I can bring you back in the morning for your car," she added, guiding him towards the back door—it was easier to get to the driveway that way. "It's not like I have classes anymore. Hey, Onua!"

The woman looked up from where she was talking with Sarge, both of them looking rather invested in the conversation. Daine felt bad for interrupting.

Daine readjusted her grip on Numair's waist and pointed at him with her other hand. "This dolt decided to try to finish off the rum all on his own, so I'm driving him home."

She felt him nose her head, hot breath puffing over her scalp, but the gesture didn't garner so much as a blink from either of them.

Onua nodded her acknowledgement. If she noticed the suspiciously pink splash of color around Daine's mouth and throat, she didn't show it. "Be careful on the highways."

"I will," Daine promised, and then staggered with Numair to the gate before she remembered—"Oh, and I'll be staying the night."

Neither of them even glanced in her direction as Onua raised a hand in acknowledgement, Daine noted, amused, while Numair had gone stiff all over.

"Daine—"

"Well, how else am I going to bring you back in the morning?" she muttered to him, then dragged him over to her car—the one she'd bought off Craigslist with money she'd earned herself when she was in high school.

She was still proud of it, if she was honest. It served her well.

Kaddar was sitting against the garage door with Kalasin, the two sharing a red cup of what she assumed to be punch between them. Kaddar, unlike Onua, didn't fail to notice Daine's new marks.

He raised his eyebrows at her, enough of a smile on his face that she knew he was going to be a good sport about this, and that was even more embarrassing than it would have been otherwise, somehow.

Kalasin looked between the three of them in confusion until the penny dropped—along with her jaw.

"Oh, shut up," she mouthed to them, and Kalasin covered her mouth while Kaddar only smiled wider.

Daine turned her back on them, blushing scarlet, and set about getting Numair into her car.


"I'm not sure you should... should be alone with me right now, Daine."

She'd been able to feel him gearing up for this the whole trip, and was more surprised that he waited so long to bring it up than that he'd tried to bring it up at all.

Thankfully he'd said it quietly enough that Selda, the receptionist on duty, didn't hear. Daine caught her eye and smiled, and got back exactly the kind of look she'd come to expect from Selda at the end of her shift.

"I'm not sure you should be alone at all right now," she said to Numair, punching the code for the top floor into the elevator's keypad. She was still supporting a solid half of his body weight and throwing her own weight into their trip so he ended up walking in the direction he more or less needed to be walking in, instead of veering off into a ditch somewhere.

There were no ditches between the basement parking lot and the elevator they stood in now, but Daine had the sneaking suspicion that Numair might find one if she let him go right now.

"No... no, I mean..." he said, obviously fighting for every word as the doors hissed shut. "I'm not... I'm... I want you."

He probably felt the shiver that ran through her at those words, but probably didn't feel the surge of desire blossoming through her core and thighs. "I know."

His arm tightened around her. "Aren't you worried?"

The elevator slid into motion. "That you'll assault me? No."

"You're awfully sure," he said sourly.

Daine watched the digital readout count upwards as they climbed and dryly said, "I'm fair certain you'll fall down the moment I let go of you."

He processed this. "And... in the morning?"

"In the morning you're going to spend ten minutes retching and then another two hours apologizing, if you have your way." Not that she intended to let him have his way, but that wasn't the point she was making.

He didn't have anything to say to that.

She twisted so she could see his face and grinned. "I know you very well."

He was too out of it to frown properly, but he did narrow his eyes at her, belying the way she could feel his breath catch and his pulse jump.

She just kept grinning. It was hard not to now that she'd realized that she didn't need to hide away just how much she adored him—and just how much she was adored in return.

Slowly, the look slackened, then vanished, then tugged sideways into a smile that was soft enough to melt. Just as the doors to the elevator hissed open again, he said, "I would very much like to kiss you right now."

There were a lot of physical impracticalities with that idea, from the height difference to the fact that the elevator would take them right back down to the lobby if they stayed in it much longer, so all she said was, "Hold on," as she pulled him out of it and into the hall that kept the elevator from opening directly into his apartment.

She took out her key card (the one he'd given her when she was fourteen and he asked her to look after his plants and fish when he was away on a business trip) and swiped it, punching the code in the keypad beside the card reader (the one that changed monthly, the email for which he'd had automatically forwarded to her for the past seven years), and then dragged him over to his darkened bedroom.

She'd always loved it. The floor-to-ceiling windows had the best view of the city and the massive fish tank along the solid wall beside the door always seemed to have something new no matter how much time she spent staring into its depths. The haphazard stacks of books on the floor that waxed and waned seemed to be in recession at the moment, and the experiment of the week was safely cordoned off on the other side of the room, so it was a fairly safe journey over to his bed.

She dumped him onto it—all six foot five and two hundred sixty pounds of him—and tried not to be too obvious about her sigh of relief. Her shoulders ached, and that was a much heavier core workout than the gym ever gave her. She reached over and tugged the switch for the lamp, casting them half in golden light, half in blue shadow.

(It occurred to her, not for the first time, that while his bed wasn't nearly as opulently ridiculous as the rest of his apartment, it could still easily fit two people. That thought was much louder now that she knew he might not mind her joining him.)

He was rubbing his forehead and wincing while she got her breath back (less out of pain and more out of vertigo, she'd wager), and then paused, took in where they were, and gave her such a vulnerable look that for once, she just didn't know what to do.

The moment stayed there, suspended, twisting her all up inside with the fragile tension of it, until Numair let out a shuddering breath and blinked.

Oh, right. She'd been meaning to kiss him.

She clasped his face, stubble-covered jawline in her palms and overwarm skin against her fingertips, then ducked in and slanted her mouth over his.

It was brief this time, chaste and sweet, just enough to leave her warm from the inside out, and when they separated, she had to stay there a moment to catch her breath all over again.

He encircled her left wrist in his large, warm hand as she slowly straightened again, then smiled at her in just that way—that way she'd seen flashes of before, even more often than the want—and murmured, "I love you."

Oh.

She didn't let her legs buckle under her this time, but they wanted to. The responding smile that took over her face ached.

She hadn't said it yet, had she.

She covered his hand with her right, and whispered, "I love you too."

He stared at her for a long moment, then his smile took on a wry slant. "This is definitely a dream."

It was feeling rather dreamlike, she couldn't disagree. "We'll find out in the morning. I s'pose." She walked over to where the controls for his fancy digital blinds were; as gorgeous as the city view was, the morning light would be hell to wake up to with a hangover like the one coming for him. "Do you need help getting undressed?"

He didn't answer for a long moment—just long enough for her to fully realize what she'd said—then, strangled, replied, "No. No, I'm... fine. I got it."

"Right," she said, trying not to squeak, and then fled to fetch water and Aspirin for the morning.

He was stripped down and in bed, dead asleep, by the time she went to turn out the light.


It was approximately nine forty-five by the time she left his room, which left her with approximately three hours to burn before she could sleep.

She ended up finding a nature documentary that she somehow hadn't seen before on one of his streaming services and letting it play on the TV in the living room while she absently attended to the chores that she could; cleaning out and charging his veritable army of Roombas, making sure that all the ingredients for their Sunday falafel-making tradition were in order and then setting out the chickpeas to soak, putting the makings for bread dough in the breadmaker so there would be sweet rolls of some sort in the morning, checking on the dishwasher and then unloading it, doing inventory of the bathrooms and pantry and updating the shopping list on the fridge, making sure the treatments for his entirely impractical rooftop pool were well-stocked...

Eventually, once she was satisfied that everything that could be done was done, she went to take a shower.

In the mirror, she found that the stubble burn was still there, along with the dark pink mark that wasn't quite a hickey.

Both were sensitive when she trailed her fingers over them in something like awe.

She could feel her blush as well as she could see it, could see herself biting her lip against the silly grin as much as she felt her teeth digging in—so similar and yet so very different from Numair's—

She splashed water on her face before she could venture further down that path, for fear that she'd need another, much colder shower in order to fall asleep.

She redressed in her pajamas (the ones that had taken up permanent residence in the bathroom cabinet a shelf below Numair's) and brushed her teeth (with the toothbrush that lived beside her pajamas), then went back to the living room to rewind the documentary and bed down on the couch.


She woke, as she expected, to the sound of retching.

What possessed him to drink that much? she wondered, wrinkling her nose at the ceiling, then got up to attend to her indisposed friend.

She'd predicted ten minutes of paying for his overindulgence, and she'd been off by only a little bit. It only took seven minutes of rubbing his back and brushing his hair back from his face for the worst of it to pass, and another minute or so for the dry heaving to trail off.

"Better?" she asked sympathetically as she helped him up and handed him a glass of water to rinse his mouth with.

He nodded, then shook his head, then winced much harder than she was used to seeing from him. "Why the hell did I..."

"No idea." She waited until he had refilled the glass at the sink and cautiously moved on to sipping at it to say, "Toast?"

He made a face, then nodded, looking at her in the mirror.

Then he frowned and looked at her directly.

...No, not at her. At her neck.

She raised her hand and touched the place he was staring at, found still-tender skin, and felt a blush race to her face. Try as she might, she couldn't squash her smile. It had happened. It hadn't been a dream.

It hadn't been a dream.

"Ah..." he started, but didn't seem to have anything to follow it with.

She couldn't kiss his cheek, so she squeezed his wrist instead. "Toast."

He shifted her grip on him so he could slide his palm into hers and squeeze back.


They didn't really talk about it as they consumed breakfast, nor as Numair sat and waited for the Aspirin to kick in while she put together cinnamon rolls with last night's dough and left them to rise, then put the chickpeas in the crock-pot with seasonings as per Numair's exacting instructions, nor as they both took possession of the couch to put on some movie they'd both seen enough times for it to become background noise.

It was a testament to how out of it he was that he didn't immediately pull out his laptop to start catching up on work; he was content to stare blankly at the screen and absorb none of it. Daine, seeing that both of his arms were free, budged up to him until he was forced to drape one over her shoulders.

He didn't get up as soon as the post-credits scene finished, so she started tabbing through the rest of her favorites list for something equally mindless.

That was the point at which Numair finally broke the silence with, "Last night... you said..." He swallowed heavily. "That you didn't... spend five years jealous of Varice only for me to decide if you were humoring me?"

"I only realized why I hated her so much after she moved out—the year after that," she admitted sheepishly. "Kaddar knew before I did. That was embarrassing."

"Kaddar knew?"

Daine felt herself blush. "He was the one who had to listen to me rant about the two of you endlessly."

After a moment, Numair accepted this. "Were you planning to ever say anything?" he said in a way that would have passed for casual if not for the way she could feel his heart pounding.

"Yeah," she said, and dropped her head onto his shoulder. "Soon. Or as soon as I could get up the courage, I guess." She bit the inside of her lip and let out a breath. "I told myself I would after I got my degree."

He placed a kiss on the top of her head, to which Daine felt her insides turn to goo and then she decided that really, she'd waited for her other kisses long enough.

She squirmed out from under his arm and turned so she could straddle his lap, turning off the television as she did so. No sense in wasting electricity.

He rested his hands on her thighs, then blinked at her face. "And you're sure you're not just humorin—"

"Four years," she cut him off.

He looked properly chastised, and then she was kissing him again, finally, shivering deliciously as his hands stroked her as gently as his mouth.


"Not to derail," she panted into the hollow of his throat about an hour later, absolutely glowing from head to toe, "but you're rather less apologetic than I expected. Not that I'm complaining."

He chuckled breathlessly, and the noise sounded like it was born of happiness, rather than amusement. "It's very hard to apologize for anything that makes you smile like that, sweet."

Oh.

She arched under him and tugged his hair until she could kiss him, suddenly impatient and needy all over again.


It wasn't anywhere near morning anymore when she brought Numair back to his car, a copious amount of falafel packed between them on Onua's request—apparently some of last night's party guests had stayed the night—and a collection of hickeys on them both that were much more difficult to miss than a bit of stubble burn.

He opted not to go inside with her, instead transferring right over to his S.U.V..

Rapping her nails on the glass, she made him roll down the window before he pulled out, and then hopped up on the step and stole a kiss when she could lean in far enough to reach him.

He drew back after one sweet moment, watched her mouth with hazy eyes, and breathed, "I have to drive after this, you know."

She chased him for one more peck, then grinned. "Be careful."

He had to smile back for a moment, then he rolled his window back up and backed out of the driveway, leaving Daine to face Onua alone.

It was with mild trepidation that she let herself in through the kitchen door—

Only to find Sarge sitting at the kitchen table.

She froze, staring at the large man, and he stared right back, strangely meek.

Of all the people she'd expected to spend the night, it hadn't been him.

Then his eyes dropped to the collar of her shirt, and the meekness vanished.

Daine cleared her throat, but couldn't help the grin. She had a lot to grin about right now, really. "Is it just you?" she asked. "From Onua's text, I thought there would be more people."

Mouth twitching, Sarge nodded at the living room.

Peeking in, she found Kaddar and Kalasin there, squished together lengthwise on the wide couch. Kalasin's head was tucked under Kaddar's chin and Kaddar's arm draped around her waist. Both were still fully dressed in their party finery—which looked none too comfortable to be awake in, much less sleep in, but they looked peaceful despite it.

She drew back smiling. Good for them.

Onua and Buri walked into the kitchen behind her, and Daine turned to greet them.

"Oh, Daine, there you a-are..." Onua had spied the hickeys painting Daine's skin. Her face went through a series of odd contortions.

Daine looked pointedly at Sarge, who was now hiding a snicker in his coffee, and Onua flushed.

Grinning again and holding up the stack of tupperware, Daine said, "I brought falafel."

"Thank you, Daine," said Onua, effectively stymied from saying anything else.

"Daine too?" said Buri, exasperated. "I swear there was something in that punch."

"Then it would seem that you and Raoul had half the bowl," Onua said in the tone of a woman who had seen too much, and Buri blushed. "Go fetch him, will you? And make sure he's dressed this time."

Buri muttered something that sounded like, yes, mum, and slunk away.

Sarge raised his teacup with laughter in his eyes. "To graduation and new beginnings," he said gravely.

Daine raised the tupperware in toast. "To graduation and new beginnings."