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a case of mistaken identity (vehicular, recurrent)

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1.

"Sorry I took so long," Daine said as she cracked open the trunk of her guardian's brand new green Subaru Forester and started offloading her five bags worth of groceries. "I just couldn't find the bread. I asked someone and they said it got moved, and then another said they were out of stock and then someone else found the stock. But I got it."

She hefted the trunk door shut, absently kicked the cart over to the planter between the parking spaces, and then went back and swung herself into the passenger seat.

The person in the driver's seat was decidedly not Onua.

He looked about the same age, but he was distinctly taller and broader and darker. He wasn't dressed in Onua's favorite old leather jacket, but in a white button-down that was pulled tight enough over shoulders muscled enough that she suspected he needed to be careful when he flexed, for fear of popping a seam. He was quite handsome, too, she noted—an impression which was helped along by the bemused laughter that lit his eyes.

Daine registered all of this, and then felt her face near burst into flame.

The stranger's mouth twitched.

"Sorry! Sorry," she squeaked, physically backpedaling so hard she nearly fell. "I didn't— Um."

The stranger's amusement grew.

Daine closed her eyes, bit down on the searing embarrassment, then opened them and told him levelly, "I'm sorry, sir," righted herself, and went to retrieve her groceries, face-ears-neck nearly smarting with her blush.

"That will teach me to lock my doors," he said, rich and warm over his shoulder as she opened his trunk re-collected her bags.

She was too mortified to offer a reply.

With her bags back in the cart, she gave the man one last apologetic nod and left in search of the brand new green Subaru Forester that belonged to Onua, soothing herself with the knowledge that she'd likely never see him again in her life.


2.

In Numair's defense, trying to sort out credit card fraud was distracting, and he'd just finished a frustratingly unhelpful phone call by the time he got to his brand new green Subaru Forester.

Slightly less in his defense, he'd tossed both of the packages he'd picked up at the post office into the backseat without noticing the long archery bow stowed on the floor or the black duffel bag on the opposite side.

Whether or not his obliviousness was defensible, the moment it finally clicked that this was not, in fact, his brand new green Subaru Forester was the moment he tried to slide into the driver's seat, and promptly banged his head on the door frame and his knee on the steering wheel.

He stared down at his seat in consternation, and then frowned at the charms dangling from the rear view mirror—a grey pony plush and ceramic puppy, not the black die with up, down, charm, strange, top, bottom on the sides instead of numbers—then, finally, at the person occupying the passenger seat.

Well, that was a familiar face.

The girl was about college age, if he had to guess, headphones clamped over her ears and her mass of voluminous brown curls now pulled back into a bun with rows of clips to keep the front end of it in order. His first impression of her had been 'slight', bundled up as she'd been, but he had to re-categorize that as 'lithe' now that she was wearing a form-fitting sweater and tight jeans. Her legs were folded tailor-style, a bulky textbook laid open on top of them, and a smartphone resting on top of it, held loosely in petite hands.

Long 'lashed piercing blue-grey eyes studied him in surprise, then started to sparkle in mirth as he faltered and flushed.

"I believe that this is not my car," he said eventually, rueful.

"Afraid not," she said with a grin and that adorable accent as she pulled off her headphones. Then she picked up her phone and shut her book with her knees (legs, his hindbrain blurted immediately), and he took that as his cue to get out again and retrieve his packages.

"Archery?" he asked, glancing down at the bows.

"I'm to be teaching my first class today," she said.

"Good luck," he said, smiling, and shut the door. "And make sure you lock up when you get there."

"Yessir," she said, grinning back at him.

He raised his free hand in farewell, and then left in search of a slightly different brand new green Subaru Forester.


3.

Daine was waiting for Onua yet again the next time it happened—though this time she was the one driving, because Onua had dental surgery and would be in no state to operate any sort of machinery for a day or two.

She camped out in the passenger seat, because she was still studying for the last calculus test before her final and books were easier to hold when there wasn't a steering wheel in the way, and wrestled with the problem that had been giving her trouble for all of today and a good chunk of last night. Onua had left her with a megapack of Twizzlers before she left, and Daine had chewed her way through a good half of them on this problem alone.

She'd just scrapped her nth attempt when the driver's side door was wrenched open with far more force than Onua had in her even undrugged.

"Thank you," said a familiar voice tightly, and then the man who she had now had two less-than-fortunate meetings with wrestled himself into the seat behind the wheel. He pulled his phone away from his ear and swiped the End call button with one angry motion, then pressed the corner of it to his forehead and emitted a deep sigh.

Daine considered alerting him to her presence, then decided that she could wait until he'd had a few more deep breaths to announce that he had the wrong car (again).

As it turned out, she didn't have to. First he stared at the steering wheel, then at the charms hanging from the rear view mirror, then, wincing, he turned to her.

She offered him a smile. "Bad day?"

He looked at the steering wheel like he was considering thumping his head against it, horn be damned. "You have no idea."

She sympathetically held the pack of Twizzlers out to him. He considered the offer with a blank look for several seconds, then slowly pulled one out and took a bite. His barely-contained fury seemed to have been bewildered into submission.

He chewed slowly, still expressionless, for a long moment, then swallowed, exhaled, and shot her a tired smile. "Thank you."

She nodded acknowledgement, ignoring the fluttering in the pit of her stomach, and then turned back to her textbook and notebook and rubbed away the burgeoning headache behind her forehead.

The man opened the door and squirmed out from behind the steering wheel. "Tough class?" he asked once he was fully out of the car.

She made a face, and earned a realer smile. "Calculus."

He tilted his head and held his large hand out over the seat, crooking his fingers in a totally innocent gesture that still made her mind go a little widdershins. "Give it here."

Baffled, she handed over her work materials.

The man flipped back in her notebook to her last few attempts, then scanned the open page in the textbook. Placing his finger on the problem she'd been trying to solve, he studied her incoherent scribbles for a long moment, then flipped back to her clean page, picked up her pen, and started writing.

His face was fascinating in that state of absolute focus, cool and intent and honed, hands moving with the skill and efficiency of a professional, and the scratch of nib-on-paper came to a stop much sooner than it should have.

"Try that," he said, handing the books and pen back to her, and she startled out of her trance. "It should help... or, at least, it shouldn't hurt. You have got all of the steps right except for one."

She stared.

He smiled encouragingly, then the corner of his mouth quirked. He tapped the side of his long nose. "I used to teach physics."

She stared harder.

(That was hot.

Why was that hot?)

"Well! Excuse me, professor," she managed eventually, strangled, and he laughed. Really laughed. It lit up his whole face and everything.

Daine felt her cheeks heat, the butterflies in her stomach returning with a vengeance.

The grin he flashed her next wasn't even a little bit tired, warm and infectious and charming. "I would wish you luck, but I don't think you need it. You are going to do great."

And now she was blushing in earnest, and smiling despite herself, too. "Thanks," she said, and busied herself with her notes, like that would do anything to hide the flush. "And..." She made herself look up and give him a much more intentional smile. "I hope your bad day gets better."

He looked at her for one eternal moment, inscrutable dark eyes drawing her in deep, then his mouth tweaked into a much gentler smile. "Thank you."

With that, he leaned away from the car, gave her one last wave, and strode off to the other side of the parking lot.

Many, many minutes later, when she could look at the notes he'd left her with and actually read them, she found that, lo and behold, they really did help—a great deal, too.

It was a pity she'd never gotten his name.


4.

Eventually, Numair managed to sort out his credit card troubles with minimal losses, and then the plates for his car arrived, and a quick check to the bumper kept him from getting into the wrong one yet again.

Which seemed to be the end of his acquaintance with the owner (or user?) of the other brand new green Subaru Forester in town.

He had mixed feelings about that.

On one hand, she seemed like might be good company. There was just something about her that he liked, and it looked like that feeling was mutual.

On the other hand, in the space between one indignant remark and one blushing smile, his opinion of her had gone from too young for him, but pretty to he would do some pretty embarrassing things if it would get her to smile like that at him again with a speed and intensity that was rather disconcerting.

Not to mention that she obviously shared the car with someone; he wouldn't be surprised in the least if that someone turned out to be a long-term partner. Maybe it was better for all involved if he didn't get too invested.

It was with some amusement that he walked out of the DMV at dusk and saw two brand new green Subaru Foresters parked an isle and five spaces apart, one with plates and one without. It wasn't a small city, but obviously they lived close enough to one another that they shared shopping centers and government buildings. Maybe he'd see her in passing inside a Target one day.

He did check to make sure that it was his license plate before clicking the 'unlock' button on his fob, but didn't give it any more thought than that until he opened the door and tossed the sheaf of paper down on the center console.

Someone stirred in his passenger seat.

Nested in a large, black-and-rose-gray polar fleece blanket that most certainly wasn't his, the girl blinked open hazy blue eyes and groaned under her breath, the timbre of it dragging his mind to less-than-gentlemanly places for a moment.

"Hey," she said sleepily, "where'd you get... the dice..."

He braced his forearms on the door frame and grinned as he watched the realization set in.

"Odd's bobs!" she squawked in outrage, flushing yet again and scrambling upright, and Numair muffled a laugh at the idiosyncratic oath. He could see the flash of bare feet and a backpack resting on the floor as she flailed, then heard the clunk of the door latch as she opened it and tumbled out.

Her curls bounced and billowed as she staggered and yelped, and he circled around to the other side of the car in concern.

Her feet were indeed very bare, and were now met with the worn-ragged asphalt of the parking lot.

"Are you okay?" he said, trying not to smile and failing, and she scowled at the ground.

"Delightful," she grumbled.

He offered her a hand up, and, after a long moment of accepting her defeat, the girl accepted the assistance too, slipping her dainty, calloused palm into his.

"For the record," he said as he pulled her up, "mine has plates now, if you want to check before you get in." At this point, it was fairly obvious that neither of them were going to remember to lock their cars.

"So will mine soon," she sighed. She really did blush very prettily, he couldn't help but note—then she sent him an embarrassed smile, and his heart skipped a beat. "I'll check, promise."

He really wouldn't mind if she didn't, which was probably a good sign that she should.

He smiled back as she backed up and half-sat against the passenger seat so she could put on her boots. "I'm Numair."

She paused, frowning in thought, then shook whatever it was off and said, "Daine. Pleasure to meet you."

(Oh, like Onua's foster. Maybe it was a more common name than he'd thought.)

"The pleasure is all mine," he said mildly, and earned a smile for it as she brushed off her feet and pulled on her socks.

He more or less managed not to stare as she got both socks and boots on her feet (those legs...), and then she was dusting her hands off on her thighs and digging around the passenger seat for her things.

"Where did you get those dice?" she asked as she stuffed her blanket into her bag.

"It was a gift from a coworker," he said, leaning on the door and absently scanning the businesses around the parking lot and trying to guess which one she had (or had had) business with. "It was given to her at a conference."

She hummed thoughtfully, then straightened, swinging her bag over her shoulder and treating him to a warm, if shy and sheepish, smile. "Thanks kindly for lending your front seat. I'll see you around?"

Practicalities, intentions, and desires aside, that was the kind of smile that made it impossible to say no.

"See you around," he agreed, and shut the door behind her.

They traded waves, and then Numair was free to reflect on his life choices, and then on what he wanted for dinner.


5.

Daine could have sworn she looked at the license plate before she got in the car. Granted, she'd been so exhausted she'd only given it a quick glance to make sure that it had the right number of ones before crawling into the back, but she had checked.

Her archery students were preparing for examinations, which overlapped with her own finals, and Alanna had had her looking into a suspicious lump near Darkmoon's left forehoof—two near-sleepless nights of cramming plus moderate exercise meant that she was half asleep by the time she left the ranch.

'Half asleep' became 'wholly asleep' as soon as she arranged her sleeping bag under her and closed her eyes. Onua was still with Alanna, and then she was going to go pick up food for the two of them from the Vietnamese place across the street, so Daine had reckoned that she had about forty five minutes to catch a nap. She thought about texting Onua about it, and didn't get much farther than that before unconsciousness claimed her.

And then she blinked awake to a moving car.

She grumbled under her breath as alertness was jostled back into her head, then sat up, shifting so she could pull herself up on the backrest of the backseats. "Why didn't you wake me?" she wondered sleepily at Onua.

Except whoever was driving spat a curse in a very male voice and swerved hard enough to knock her back to the floor, tires squealing as he pulled over in a hurry.

Daine hauled herself back up, rubbing the back of her head, and found Numair twisted around in his seat, staring at her like she was... well. An unexpected, unwanted hitchhiker that had materialized in the back of his vehicle. Which she was. And she had.

Somehow.

Poleaxed and indignant—this wasn't her fault!—she said, "I checked!" and then recited Onua's license plate number to him.

He slumped, rubbed his forehead, and then recited the number back to her, except there was an E instead of an H right in the middle.

Their plate numbers were exactly one letter off from each other. Of course they were. Daine buried her face in her arms and groaned.

"So," he said, sounding amused now that the shock had worn off, "where am I dropping you off?"

Daine was mortified enough that her first reaction was to lurch for the latch on the inside of the back door. "I-I can walk."

"Daine, wai—"

She opened the back—and was promptly given a brief, intense, icy shower. She slammed it shut again.

"So," he repeated dryly.

"The nearest bus stop...?" she tried, though it came out weak. There were water droplets trickling down her scalp and her sleeve was damp.

"...Daine. It's pouring."

She was a little touched that he'd remembered her name, but it didn't stop her from shooting back, "Yes, I saw that, thank you."

"I'm not going to leave a girl to wait for an evening bus in the rain," he explained patiently, then paused. "I don't even know if the evening buses are still running at this hour."

She pulled out her phone to check, and found that he was right to doubt; she might have to wait half an hour for a ride on any bus, much less the correct one. "I don't want to impose..."

"You're not," he said, easy as that, and he meant it.

Daine caved.

He waited while she texted Miri to check whether her friend was at home—she was the one the closest at the moment—and then took her (still somewhat mortified) directions to the townhouse her friend shared with Evin, Farant, and Selda.

On the drive, she confessed that she was two finals away from an early graduation, and, hopefully, vet school, and learned that he worked as a physicist and that the dice were from a friend who attended a conference to record the presentations for him—and then she learned that he was an absolute nerd who adored his job while also learning a great deal about physics.

She was finding that, for as much as she'd shuddered at the thought of physics in school, she could probably give him the topic of paint drying and he could give her the full history of it, take her through all the technicalities, and make it funny to boot. They idled outside of her destination for a few minutes before she found they'd gotten there at all and were wasting gas while they talked.

(It was in no small part due to that voice, too. She'd thought it was pleasant to listen to when all she had were bits and pieces, but hearing him speak at length brought out the gentleness and deliberation of it, the passion and joie de verve, the subtle surety and good humor—no airs, no fronting, just the auditory impression that this was someone who had settled into his (very, very attractive) skin. If she wanted to do nothing but listen to him for hours, well, who could blame her?)

Eventually, he nodded to the townhouse, all dressed up in Christmas lights, and she blushed to realize how distracted she's been.

"Thank you," she said, suddenly shy again as the reason they were here flooded back.

He just smiled, eyes dark and warm in the reflected glow of the decorations. "Of course. Good luck on those last two finals."

"What happened to 'you don't need luck'?" she demanded archly, and his smile widened into a grin.

"You don't," he assured her, and her belly tingled at the way he said it like it was just a fact, "but a little extra never hurt anyone."

Daine felt her cheeks flush hotter, and rather thought that she needed the recharge; meeting him tonight had probably used up her reserves. Aloud, she said, "Then I'll hope it goes to my grades. Goodness knows I need every A I can get." Then she looked out at the stretch of pathway between the door of the car and the door to the townhouse and grimaced. The rain had gotten better, but not by much.

Nothing for it but to haul her bag over her shoulder, brace herself, and then shove the door open and dart under the meager protection of the patio overhang.

Numair idled until Miri opened the door and let her in, then waved goodbye and drove off.

Miri shot a questioning look at Daine once they were safe from the sleet. "That didn't look much like Onua."

Daine winced. "It's a long story."


+1.

In theory, science didn't have a Christmas crunchtime.

In reality, most of the lab was off for the holidays and there was a backlog of paperwork to catch up on before the end of the year, projects still needed monitoring and there were a handful of interns struggling with finalizing their theses. It was a far sight better than retail or academia, but Numair was still putting in a lot more overtime than he usually did.

In the end, he succumbed to the inevitable and cancelled his flight home, calling his family to apologize for not being able to join them for the festivities and dropping his gifts off at the post office for delivery instead of attempting to make them all fit under the flight baggage weight limit.

And he'd been perfectly happy with the thought of spending Christmas alone, but then Onua insisted that he join her and Alanna and Jon and their families at a restaurant the night of.

"It's just one evening," the technician had said as they tackled the mountain of reports and notes between them. "We're inviting Buri and Lindhall too. Get out, dress up, socialize a bit, and then you can come back to your projects. It's Christmas. Everyone will be happy to see you."

He'd agreed, then laughed as he realized: "And I'll finally get to meet the mysterious Daine. What has it been, two years since you started fostering?"

(A flutter of a thought of another Daine had crossed his mind then, messy curls outlined in a halo of fairy lights with a shy, irresistible smile, and he pushed it back, as he had been for the past two weeks. There was too much to do for him to get distracted pining after a girl he may well never see again.

...Track record aside.)

Onua had just stared at him for a moment—and then solemnly informed him that it had been seven since she'd signed the adoption papers, Daine would be twenty in January, and he was never allowed to skip out on holidays or social events with them ever again. Then, unsympathetic of his minor crisis over the chronological nature of linear time, she thumped him on the head with a stack of reports and told him to get back to work.

Which was what found him walking up Onua's front driveway at six P.M. on the twenty fifth, between Alanna's well-loved minivan and Thayet's Corvette, overcast sky threatening precipitation and blacking the dusk out into full nighttime.

Onua greeted him at the door with a nod, ushering him in and snapping the door shut behind him. "Good, now that you're here, we're only waiting on Sarge—oh."

The last part was because he'd pulled her into a hug and kissed her cheek. "Merry Christmas, Onua," he said with a smile.

She huffed and hugged him back, distracted but genuine. "Merry Christmas, season's greetings, all that. Daine!" Leading him into the living room, she directed her call at its occupant. "This is Dr. Salmalí—"

"Hey, Onua!" George called from somewhere a few rooms away.

"Coming!" And Onua left without so much as finishing introductions, looking harried.

Numair barely registered it.

The other occupant of the room was Daine—his Daine—bracing herself on the staircase banister while she wiggled her foot into a shoe, dressed to the nines and stunning.

A creamy, gauzy blouse clung to her shoulders, all the delicate shadows of her throat and collarbones on display for the world to see, her voluminous smoky curls spilling down her back and curtaining her face, black pants near skintight on those legs...

Her long eyelashes fluttered as she straightened, revealing steel-grey-sky-blue eyes that brightened with a welcoming, if distant smile on her soft mouth. "Dr. Salmalín, it's nice to..." The smile froze. "...Numair?"

He had to cough before he trusted himself to speak without stuttering, suddenly glad he'd taken the opportunity to dress for the occasion. "Daine."

"You're Dr. Salmalín?!" she demanded. The expression on her meticulously painted face was indescribable, but beautiful all the same.

"You're Daine," he said, a little helplessly. He wasn't sure why he hadn't connected the dots as soon as Onua had said she'll be twenty in January, but, in his defense, Onua's stories about her were usually horse-related, not life milestone-related. His friend hadn't even mentioned that Daine was in college, much less that she was about to graduate.

A blush caressed her cheeks, her familiar embarrassment tinged with ruefulness this time, and then conspiratorial humor. She offered her hand for shaking. "Nice to finally meet you, Dr. Numair Salmalín. Onua's told me a lot about you."

Numair thought of all the things Onua had likely said about him and made a face—earning a lilting giggle that all but confirmed his worst fears—then took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Ditto, Veralidaine Sarrasri."

Her blush darkened as she took her turn wincing, which was understandable. His impression of Onua's ward had been that the girl was incredibly willful, had a strong aversion to admitting she was sweet to the bone, and was firmly convinced that animals were better than people.

None of which ran counter to the lovely young woman in front of him, but she certainly wasn't what he'd expected.

There was something more to say there, probably, but the blush and the aquamarine droplet just below her clavicle and those eyes were rather distracting. There was an oddly pleased little smile lurking around her glossed lips, teasing at a dimple beside it, and Numair was certain he'd never seen a smile like that before—which, obviously, meant that he should spend the precious few seconds it was in existence memorizing it.

His concentration was only broken when Onua called out, "Daine? Are you sure you don't want to wear something warmer? It's going to be mighty cold."

They let go of each other's hands in a hurry, Daine studying her (mind-numbingly gorgeous) outfit with a thoughtful moue.

Then she glanced up, met his gaze, and an impish look lit her face, her eyes sparkling and the dimple actualizing with it.

"I think I'm good!" she shouted back cheerfully, leaving Numair to blink.

She did, however, succumb to a bulky (adorable) winter coat of suede and faux fur once they all walked out back to the cars, only to let it fall open once she'd wedged herself next to him in the backseat of Onua's new car—

Which... was a brand new green Subaru Forester with a license plate that was one letter off from his own.

Damn Onua and her complete refusal to talk about normal life events.

He had claimed the middle seat of the bench in the back so he could stretch his legs out in the gap between the seats, Daine seated to his right and Alanna to his left as the two smallest people in their group. Alanna, in an attempt to join the conversation happening in the rest of the car, was pushing the limits of her seat belt, incidentally (and as far as he could tell, accidentally) shoving him half into Daine's seat, forcing him to brace himself on her headrest and try to angle his body so she had as much room as possible.

The hot line of her thigh still pressed against his and his face was nearly buried in her hair, but he tried.

(She smelled like skin and sweet perfume and cosmetics, something so utterly feminine it was making his mouth water, and he now had a whole host of reasons why he shouldn't want to press his nose into the crook of her neck and pull her into his lap, but here they were.)

"I am sorry I didn't recognize you," she murmured, voice disguised by the engine and the laughter of their friends. "I thought your name sounded familiar, but Onua always just calls you Dr. Salmalín."

"Your excuse is better than mine," he murmured back, wry now that the consternation had worn off. "She always called you by name; I just thought you were fifteen for five years."

(That had been the year he'd been given that hellish transfer to Cairo for six months, and after that his life had organized itself into 'before Cairo' and 'after Cairo', but still. Five years.)

Daine tilted her head, considering this, then leaned back (into the space he now realized that she had and simply wasn't using) so she could look him in the eye with a teasing grin. "Sounds about right, Dr. Salmalín."

'Sounds about right'? "What, exactly, has Onua said about me, now?" he asked, his voice rusty with her proximity but amused all the same.

"That you're probably going to qualify for a Nobel prize one day if you stop leaving your papers on your desk." She settled back into place, resting a hand on his knee and effectively distracting him from all else. "Also once you were the last one to leave, and Jon asked you to turn off the lab equipment once you were done, and they got left on all night because you forgot to leave until she found you the next morning. Also that you held up an experiment for three hours because you couldn't find the face plate when it was on your head. And you took a tour guide's job by accident because people kept asking you to explain the particle reactors and never thought to ask why. And the cafeteria doesn't let you in anymore because—"

"Stop. Please." His face was burning. They weren't the egregiously bad stories, but hearing them recounted in her voice made them feel twenty times worse.

She gently elbowed his undefended side, smiling. "Oh, buck up. I'm sure her stories about me were much worse. She actually lived with me."

"Hm..." He thought about it. "Not really."

(He could come up with a few things that might count to her, but mostly those stories almost made him wish he'd known her forever—although that would have made this ridiculous degree of attraction even more awkward than it already was, so maybe not.)

"Seriously?" Even in the flickering illumination of the passing streetlights, her eyes were absolutely hypnotic.

"Seriously—for the most part," he assured her, and she smiled again, dry but warm. After a moment of silence, he had to ask, "...I am curious to know what happened to Zek."

The smile vanished in favor of a scarlet blush, and he laughed.


(Coda.)

There weren't many names for the emotion Onua felt watching her coworker and ward interact for the first time, but she sure felt something.

If either of them were aware the rest of the world existed, much less the rest of the table, they could have fooled her. Daine had spent more time smiling in the past hour than Onua had seen her smile in the past month. Numair visibly melted on the spot each time she laughed—and Daine had laughed more than once, blatantly preening each time she got a similar reaction.

Trying to put 'Daine' and 'Numair' and 'romance' all into the same sentence made her feel like an experiment gone wrong, but they sure were... something.

As Onua watched, Daine popped a cherry tomato into her mouth, rolled it between her teeth with a grin, then winked as she closed her lips over it.

She dropped her head into her hands with a pained noise, unable to bring herself to continue watching as Numair appeared to finally catch a clue, flushing red.

To her right, she could hear Alanna muffling a laugh and George chuckle in just his way, and both the figures across the table from her startled and came back to earth with the rest of them.

Onua gave Daine a look of absolute despair, ignoring Numair's guilt and the rest of the table's amusement. "I didn't even know you knew how to flirt."

She never flirted with anybody, not even her boyfriends, of which she'd had a few. Onua had just assumed that her version of attraction was either subtle or nonexistent.

This was neither subtle nor nonexistent. Not even slightly.

Daine pinkened but remained unrepentant, her eyes still sparkling in that rare mirth.

"I always knew they'd get on well," Jon said, as diplomatically as one could when they were silently laughing at someone else's pain.

"Like a house afire," Alanna agreed, biting her knuckle and grinning around it still.

"Called it," George said cheerfully, and Onua was very tempted to kick him, manners and maturity be damned.

A few seats over, Kaddar inspected his linguini with a rueful look. "For the sake of my heart and my ego, I'm going to pretend that you're just that interested in physics."

Daine refused to bow, but Numair was rapidly approaching crimson. Everyone was making this worse, and they knew it.

(If Numair had been anyone else, Onua would have been sharpening her metaphorical knife and cleaning out her less metaphorical gun, but she'd known Numair since she was a prickly intern with a chip on her shoulder and he was a gawky wunderkind with one foot in his masters despite still not quite knowing where all of his limbs were, and she knew the day he hurt a fly was the day he'd spend mourning the fly. He would be a far sight better than most of her ward's beaus if (when) it came down to it, but that didn't mean Onua didn't want to strangle him on sheer principle.)

(...If Daine had been anyone else, Onua might have been giving her a major side-eye too, because Numair was both wealthy and sensitive and any potential gold-diggers would have to go through a vetting before they broke his heart, but Daine cared in that way so few did—Numair would be fine.

That, however, was a much more awkward thought, so Onua didn't pursue it.)

"...I seem to be missing the joke," Lindhall ventured, benignly curious, scanning the table.

Kalasin spoke up from beside Kaddar. "Daine never, like, likes guys," she explained, waving the meatball on her fork. Then she frowned. "Or girls. Or people. Or laughing." She paused again. "Or fun."

Daine was slowly flushing dark enough to match Numair. "I like all of those things just fine—"

"No, you don't," Kalasin said without missing a beat. Then, ostensibly to Lindhall, she added, "Daine is, like, the nicest porcupine you'll ever meet. Or badger—she's a total Hufflepuff—or maybe a wolf? Ai-dee-kay. Like, usually if she likes you she'll, like, sit in the same room as you and help you with chores and maybe, maybe smile sometimes. She doesn't flirt. Like, ever. At all. Not even with the guys she dated. And she dated a lot of guys."

"Kally," Daine said through gritted teeth.

"I mean, you did," Kalasin pointed out practically. "I was a freshman while you were a senior, remember? You kept going out with the guys that got pushy about dating you and then dumping them when they got pissy you wouldn't put out." Jon made a strangled noise and Thayet stared at her daughter in horror; both went ignored. "Y'know, I don't know why you never saw that coming. I saw it coming and I was, like, fourteen."

"Kally," Daine repeated.

"How many were there?" Kalasin went on, studying her meatball. She took a bite, then, still chewing, she said, "Like ten or something?"

"Ten?" Onua choked. Surely that was an exaggeration—

Kalasin swallowed, set down her meatball, and counted on her fingers for a moment—too many fingers. "Or, well, eight, I guess. Unless you count that one soccer guy you only went on one date with, and I don't think he counts as a bee-eff because it was only one date, and he grabbed your ass in the back of J.C. Penny's—" She paused again while the rest of the table processed that, then finished the story in a single breath: "—and you suplexed him and then you called me and cried and I stole a hamster to cheer you up while we hid from mall security." A beat. "I still don't know how we didn't get in trouble for that."

"Kalasin..." Jon started helplessly.

"But, anyway," said Kalasin, disregarding him entirely. "My point is, now you actually, like, want to jump some guy's bones, and it's like, 'Woah. What?' And it's Uncle Numair, too, and he's like... way older than you. Like, a decade? Probably more." She frowned again, then looked at Daine. "That's kinda weird, Daine."

Numair had joined Onua by burying his scarlet face in his hands, Kaddar was rubbing his temples with shaking shoulders, Lindhall's eyebrows had climbed right up his forehead, and the others were all caught somewhere on the scale between amusement and horror.

Daine, for her part, was red from neckline to hairline, trying to invent eye-lasers by force of will alone. If looks could kill, Kalasin Conté would be but a distant memory.

"That's... quite enlightening," said Lindhall, bemused into his professor-voice. "Thank you, Miss Kalasin."

"No probs," said Kalasin cheerfully, then popped the rest of her meatball into her mouth.

And awkward silence fell—until Daine shoved her chair and stood abruptly.

"Washroom," she said, clipped in that way that said she was much more upset than she wanted to let on, then pulled on her coat and stepped away from the table.

Onua winced and shot a look at Kalasin—who was also starting to wince.

"Too much?" she said, just audible under the burble of conversation from the rest of the restaurant.

Kaddar gave her a look of his own, then nodded to emphasize an asperity-laden, "Yes."

Kalasin sunk in her seat and glanced after Daine, rubbing the side of her nose. "...Sorry."

Numair was looking in the direction Daine had left, open, selfless concern written into the lines of his gentle face, and Onua sighed to herself and nudged his foot under the table.

He startled and turned to her.

Onua jerked her chin in the direction he'd been looking. "She'll be by the cars," she said, low enough that he probably had to read her lips for the message.

His expression softened into gratitude, then he stood himself, picking up his own coat as he left quietly.

"So!" said George, once Numair had disappeared. "What's the workplace drama this week?"

Onua relaxed in her seat and passed an incident with an intern along to her friend's gossip-loving husband. With any luck, they'd be fine, however it panned out.


They were fine, as it turned out. Fine enough that by the time the rest of them were ready to leave, all the extra food packed into takeout containers between them, Daine and Numair were still by the cars, collecting snow on their nice outfits and beaming at each other like nobody's business.

Oh boy.

(She got the full story that night, about the cars and the license plates and the accidental kidnapping-slash-hitchhiking, and spared a moment to be very grateful that it was Numair that Daine had found before the moment was buried in the pure awkwardness of the whole situation.)

If, following that, Daine became considerably more cheerful as a human being and Numair no longer forgot the days of the week or passed out in the break room, then Onua... Onua just wasn't thinking about the possible reasons for that.

She loved them both with her whole heart and soul, but she didn't need the details. She really didn't need the details.