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The Nurturer

Chapter Text

He stood at the bank of the river, calling his son's name over and over again. "Jonas! Jonas! Jonas!" But the river echoed nothing back. The only sound was the water moving across the stones. He couldn't help but peer at them - waiting, looking for some sign.

"Jonas!" He screamed over and over again, until he was performing his own Ceremony of Loss, Jonas' name slipping into the current of the river, until he could speak no more.

The first time Ellis saw Release, he was fascinated. Of course. A newchild was not thriving and needed to be removed from the community, it made sense. It worked, it kept the community safe.

He felt a little proud, that he was an Assistant Nurturer, and got to help keep the community where it should be. Pride was dangerous though, he knew that, and he knew he had to bring it up at the Sharing of Feelings.

"I'm very proud," Ellis said quietly. "Part of my job is making sure the community runs the way it should - keeping out those who are not thriving and sending them to Elsewhere."

Katya gave a little 'tuft' and Ellis looked chagrined. Undoubtedly, when it was her turn, she would say she was impatient, because she wanted to ride her bicycle. Katya was a lively child; she would not be a good Nurturer. In three years' time, he would go watch her be assigned. He didn't know what Katya would be good at.

His mother worked in the Hall of Open Records and his father was worked at the Fish Hatchery. He didn't think he'd be good at what either of them did. He liked nurturing things.

"It's okay to take pride in your work, it's encouraged," his mother said, smiling. "I take pride in making sure the records are accurate and complete."

"Me as well," said his father. "Pride is natural. One must keep from being too prideful, though. Is your pride boastfulness?"

Ellis thought about it, while Katya wriggled in her seat; Ellis had to suppress a smile. He had been right, she was impatient.

"It's different than what you do," Ellis said, finally. He kept the words from his training in his mind, You are permitted to lie about Release. Even his rather large Assignment folder had informed him that he could not talk about Release. They didn't know what it really was, and he wanted to explain it, but he felt - glad, that he had the secret. "I feel glad to participate in Release. It makes me feel proud to be so important."

Katya's impatience got the better of her, and she spoke up. "I think you should be happy to contribute to the community," she said. "Mother has an important job maintaining records, and Father makes sure we have food. Yours isn't any more important than theirs."

She might be impatient, but she was very rational, far more than he was. Perhaps she would go into Law. He would have to remember to suggest to her that she volunteer when it was her turn to speak.

"We're all important," his father said. "Ellis, do you see how it's allowed to take pride in your work, and you should, but being boastful leads to thinking that you are above anyone else in the community. Only the Elders are above, and it takes a long time to be an Elder."

"Maybe I'll be an Elder," Ellis said, but his father shook his head.

"The Elders are humble. They understand that their role is to shape the community. The Elders rule when there is discord, but they are not boastful about their position. They weigh things careful, considerably. Do you think you would make a good Elder in being boastful about an aspect of your job?"

He wanted to tell them about Release, to let them know how wonderful it really was - they weren't sending people who couldn't thrive, or were too old to go cause problems in another community, but keeping all communities safe. It was best they not know, though, and he nodded at what his father was saying.

"I would be a bad Elder; I would abuse the position. They would have to Release me!" He laughed at his own joke, and his parents smiled back.

Katya seized the opportunity, "Is it my turn now?" She barged ahead when nobody immediately stopped her. "Today I had to sit in class and all I wanted to do was go ride my bike. I'm getting really good at it, thanks to what Ellis showed me, and today I helped Guillermo balance better …"

Ellis stopped paying attention as Katya prattled on. He knew his parents were right, but he also wish he had someone to share in the fascination of Release with.

He was the only Nurturer's Assistant named that year, but there were two others with him, both not too far above him. Nash, a man with a booming loud voice that could drop to a whisper in seconds, was quickly becoming his closest friend. Sara was a no-nonsense girl who found their shenanigans eye-roll inducing rather than endearing. There were other Nurturers, of course, but they were their own core group.

He was assigned as Kenichi's Assistant. Kenichi had shown him Release, and was now showing him how to update the files for each newchild.

"Each family unit, when they receive their child, gets a letter. In this letter, we put a feeding schedule for the younger newchildren, discipline guidelines - each new family unit gets a discipline wand with their first child - and we like to add in a bit about the personality of the child as well," Kenichi explained. "Not all of them have fully developed personalities, but information about if their child is one who fusses easily, or if they are good at keeping themselves occupied, that sort of thing."

Ellis nodded, wishing he could take notes.

"It comes pretty easily. For instance, the Two. What would you say about her?"

Kenichi picked up Two, who was irritated by this shift, and let it be known with a few cries of disapproval.

"Well, she's a bit finicky," Ellis said, watching Kenichi calm the infant. "She pulls her legs up during changes and it makes wrapping her back up a bit difficult."

Kenichi nodded, "That's about right. She doesn't fuss during feedings, and she burps easily. Now, she'll be taking her first steps for the Naming Ceremony, probably, so some of this you'll be cutting out in your letter. They'll be able to start training her on the toilet very soon after they're assigned to her, so the information about her changings will likely left out." He placed the girl back in her bed, and this time she sighed in pleasure, and was asleep in moments.

Of course. It all made sense. It all made a lot of sense. Ellis was glad he had Kenichi to guide him. Nash was assistant to Paloma, who took everything very seriously, including playtime with the children. Magdalene was the only Nurturer that Ellis wasn't fond of. She was a bit harsh with the Assistants. Sara said it was because she wanted to be promoted, but Lila had been promoted instead.

The structure of the Center was very streamlined. There was the Head, Svetlana, followed by Supervisors - Oleg, Lila, and another man named Rudy. Then came Nurturers, like Kenichi, Paloma, and Magdalene, and then the Assistants, him and Nash and Sara, as well as a few others who had been there for a few years.

The Center was divided into rooms; ten newchildren to each room, assigned by number. Of course, they were only in there for sleeping and napping, most of the time, the infants were in the main room. There, the newchildren learned to interact with each other, which was the first step in development.

At the beginning of the year, like now, the more Senior Nurturers and Supervisors busied themselves with paperwork, leaving the newest newchildren to those ranked lower. It gave them experience with the children, for which Ellis was grateful. Kenichi was the sort of Nurturer who liked to let Ellis be as hands-on as possible.

During lunch, everyone split off in the lunch room. Even Kenichi sat with the other Nurturers, leaving the Assistants to sit by themselves.

Lunch was when they could each discuss what they had learned that day, and Nash and Sara were all too happy to give Ellis pointers about the best way to handle the babies.

"You gotta make a noise like this 'tttttttssssss'," Nash said, his plate already cleared. "Trust me. Nothing will get a finicky baby to sleep faster than that."

"And be careful with peek-a-boo," Sara added, taking her time with her meal. "Some of them aren't ready for it, and they get scared. Remember the Forty from last year who would wail every single time?"

"Oh yes," Nash said, a devilish smile on his face. "Put that right in the letter for the family, that they might not want to play that game with their newchild. Wonder how he's going to turn out."

"No skitterish job for him," Sara laughed. "Could you imagine him on Food Delivery? Jumping at every noise?"

Ellis looked back and forth at them. They were so happy, which made him happy. he couldn't imagine being anywhere else.

After having been there for a year, Ellis was getting the feel of being a Nurturer. There was still a lot to learn, but as the days progressed on, it got more and more routine. He was surprised to find he had been there for a year, as the Ceremony caught him off-guard. Even with school, it was easy to lose track of time.

Katya was an Eleven now, and he told time through her progression. Once she was Assigned at the following Ceremony, he would probably lose track until he had his own children.

One of the things that made it easy to settle were the volunteers who would come in. Some of them were barely not-newchildren themselves, shy little Eights who were fascinated by the newchildren. Some were like himself, and had been volunteering steadily, and were about to be Twelves, hoping to get assigned Nurturer.

It was true that assignments were something that could be semi-predicted. For one, when Nancy retired, there was an opening that would go to one of the young Elevens who volunteered.

One of those Elevens was named Roman, and he came in every so often with his friend Christopher. Christopher wanted to be a Nurturer, but Ellis had his doubts about the boys ability to fully care for the infants; he didn't handle it very well when the infants needed soothing. Soothing wasn't done outside the Nurturing Center, and Christopher was uncomfortable with the concept. Roman, on the other hand, would care for the newchildren tenderly.

They would discuss it, after the volunteers had left, or while the children were in school.

"Nancy's going to be upset if it's another male assigned," Sara said offhandedly as a group of them did a final changing on the newchildren.

Ellis made a face, though that was also in part due to the rather stinky Thirty-Three. "You know the Elders give it to the best candidate for the job. What female comes close? There's Elya, but I think she wants to be in the Childcare center more than she wants to be a Nurturer."

"She likes the older ones, yes," Nancy said, rocking a fussy Thirteen as she did. "But she'd be good here. And Sara is right, too many males already. There's you, Nash, Kenichi …"

"I like Roman. I'd rather him than Christopher, any day of the week. Not that Christopher isn't a nice boy, but he really doesn't do well with the tiny infants. He'd be better maybe as an instructor?" Ellis suggested. He was relieved that Thirty-Three hadn't put up a fuss during the changing; babies who fussed and twisted about during changes only resulted in making themselves dirtier.

Sara shook her head, "No, he's got some soft edges, though. Maybe Childcare Center? He does have that kindness about him. And he talks to the newchildren all the time. Almost as much as you do, Ellis."

She turned from the group, setting down the Nine who hurriedly crawled back to the play center.

Talking to the newchildren was encouraged, but Ellis did have a habit of talking to them more than his colleagues did. He had worried about it for a time, before realizing that everyone did things differently. Nancy prefered to soothe in a soft whisper, nearly a hum, which Sara swayed back and forth, and Nash liked to sit and rock. Ellis liked to talk. He had a soothing enough voice, as he had no issues getting the newchildren to quiet down.

"We'll just have to see what happens at the Ceremony," he said. "Nancy, I hope you enjoy the House of the Old - maybe you'll see Roman." He added a smile. He was going to genuinely miss Nancy, she had been one of his mentors when he was a Twelve just starting out.

Of course, her leaving meant that there was a higher position available, and they would probably all move up. No longer would be be an Assistant Nurturer, he would be a full Nurturer, now. It made him feel good about himself.

Also of note this year would be Katya's Assignment. She would be Assigned, he would be Nurturer, and his training complete, and he would move out the dwelling. Depending on Katya's Assignment, she would move out soon, and his parents would leave their dwelling. Eventually he'd move into a dwelling with a spouse. It was a circle, a nearly perfect one.

In no time at all, the days passed down to the Ceremony, where the newchildren were assigned. The One for the year, a boy named Kim, was all to eager to toddle into his parents' arms, babbling happily. The Fifty, named Michio, was only a few weeks old, and transitioned sleepily into his new parents' arms.

Then came the wait. Ellis could pick who he wanted to sit with for this Ceremony. He could sit with his parents for one last time and they could all watch Katya get Assigned, or he could sit with his colleagues and watch the volunteers get assigned. For him, the choice was easy; he selected his colleagues.

Watching the Ceremony without children of one's own was rather boring; even Nash nodded off at one point.

"We're at the Twelves," he whispered to Nash, waking him so they could watch the Ceremony together.

Christopher, number Seven, was assigned to the House of the Old; Sara had a fixed smile on her face.

Katya was Twenty-Nine, and Ellis sat up straighter as the Chief Elder discussed her childhood. Then came the Assignment - Birthmother - and Ellis didn't know how to feel. Proud, he supposed. Katya wasn't the sort to think there was a lack of dignity in her assignment, and Ellis felt a bit proud of that. She had been the one encouraging him these past few years, keeping him on an even keel.

The only shame was that she would never be an Elder. Katya had a lot of wisdom and would have made a good Elder. Thirty, a rather dour looking boy, was assigned Engineer, which he at least looked happy about.

Then Elya, Thirty One, was assigned to the Childcare Center as a child assistant. Sara's smile relaxed at this point, and every time Ellis caught her eye, she'd quickly look away. He hoped she didn't think she was being too boastful. Sara was good with knowing what people liked. It made her a good Nurturer - even if the infants couldn't tell her, she'd know.

Roman was Thirty Four, and Ellis was a little surprised when he was the one assigned as a Nurturer Assistant. He had said he preferred Roman to Christopher, and the Elders must have been listening, because they had placed Roman there.

Roman did not look pleased with the course of events, and scowled as he left the stage. Ellis had the impression that the boy was unhappy with his Assignment.

So it was with a bit of apprehension that Ellis approached the Nurturing Center the following morning, knowing that Roman would be joining them that afternoon.

"I think I'll give him to you, Ellis," Kenichi said without preamble. "You've worked well with him while he's volunteered here, and I know he'll appreciate a friendly face. I'll still be his supervisor, but you two can work together."

"He didn't seem happy about his assignment," Sara said, and Ellis thought she looked worried. It wasn't his place to say anything to her, nor Kenichi's, so neither of them addressed it.

The day passed slowly with no newchildren around. A Birthmother was due in a few days and with himself guiding Roman, Roman would be able to attend a birth for the first time and see how the process worked.

However, when Roman arrived, he was not pleased with Ellis' suggestion.

"Fine," was all Roman said, and Ellis looked at him sharply. He remembered seeing Release for the first time himself, and how overjoyed he had been with watching a birth and weighing the newchild.

"Is anything wrong, Roman?" Ellis asked, trying not to realize the fact that he was only a few years older than Roman.

"No," was all Roman said, and Ellis didn't press further.

The birth was uneventful, the blindfolded Birthmother was on her third newchild, and the birth passed without much complication at all.

"Then we wrap him up, just like this," Ellis instructed, demonstrating a loose wrap. He slipped the fabric off the newborn. "Here, you try, careful with him."

Roman roughly grabbed the fabric, pulling it tightly across the baby, who gasped and cried. Kenichi was watching, though he made no effort to correct Roman, instead watching Ellis handle the situation.

"No, no," Ellis said softly. "Gently, like when you were volunteering. The new ones are incredibly fragile."

Looking back on it, he wished he had said something about it then. But when Kenichi asked how he thought it had gone, he replied that it had gone fine; Roman seemed to be mellowing out, and was gently feeding the One. It was like he was a volunteer again.

But by the time they were at Five, Ellis knew he had to say something. Roman was gruff with the newchildren, and often made them cry. It was different than how Roman had acted as a Nine, Ten, and Eleven, coming to volunteer with the children. Ellis tried to be patient and nurturing with Roman, but Roman was elusive, and never talked about it.

"You should send him to be judged," Nash mused to Ellis one day, as they watched Roman place One back in his crib as though he were dropping off his bike to be repaired. "His behavior needs correcting."

"I know, but I am apprehensive about what will happen to him," Ellis said. He frowned. "Not apprehensive about a punishment. Apprehensive about his coming back."

It was the first time he'd suggested that he didn't want Roman coming back, even if his behavior was corrected.

"Have you taken it to Kenichi?" Nash asked. "You should. Can't believe I'm saying this, but I'd rather work twice as hard to be short a Nurturer this year than have him continue to make the newchildren cry."

"Kenichi says he'll learn with time," Ellis said, his voice hard. He was surprised to find that he was upset about it. "I think Kenichi is afraid of upsetting the Elders with a mistake. It looks poorly on him, too, as Roman is his Assistant as well."

Nash thought about this. "Might look poorly on him, but it's not about him. It's about the newchildren. He is being selfish; his behavior needs correcting as well."

"You remind me of Katya," Ellis said. "You'll make a good Elder someday, Nash." He left the man alone to supervise Roman and busied himself with paperwork for the remainder of the day.

In bed that night, he could not sleep; Roman had made Number Five - a tiny writhing little boy - cry over and over again when he changed him. It wasn't fair to Number Six, who would be joining them in just a few days, to continue to put up with Roman.

That morning, as he rode to work, he veered off course, heading for the Community Elders. He had never made a complaint before about a member of the Community. He realized he should have asked someone the proper way to go about it, but it wasn't something that came up.

"I apologize for being out of place," Ellis began to the Elder, who smiled kindly at him. "I feel there is a mistake with the placement of the Twelve, Roman, as a Nurturer." He said it all in one breath, realizing he was nervous about what he was doing. He might have been breaking the rules. What if he wound up in front of a Judge?

"Your apology is accepted, Ellis. Please, sit. The other Elders will want to speak with you. We will notify the Nurturers that you will be unable to come to work today."

Ellis did not know what to think about this. He had not expected that he might not be at work at all today. Now he was apprehensive even more about what was going to happen. What would the Elders want to talk to him about all day? He knew he would get his answer soon enough, and he sat down there the Elder had instructed him, and waited.

He did not have to wait for very long. A different Elder than the one he had spoken with came to collect him. As he followed her, he began to feel very small. He thought of Katya, and wondered what Katya would do. Katya would have found the importance of Roman, Ellis decided. She wouldn't have rushed to judgement about him. Ellis was in the wrong here, he knew it, and he knew he was going to be reprimanded for it. His stomach flew to his chest, or his chest flew to his stomach, as he entered the room. The whole Community of Elders was there, along with the Chief Elder. He was a gloomy-looking man, with droops in his face. He had worked in Law for a long time before being honored by being named the Chief Elder just the year before.

"I apologize for being-" Ellis began, but the Chief Elder held up his hand, silencing him. Ellis was stunned into silence. It was usually very rude to not permit someone to apologize.

"Please tell us of your problems with Roman," one of the other Elders said, and Ellis found himself seeking out the Elder he had first confessed to. It was easier to meet her eyes, to pretend he was talking to just one of the Elders, and not all of them.

When he had finished, they started asking him questions.

"You are an Assistant Nurturer with two others, Sara and Nash? Tell us about them," one of the Elders said. He looked mean, and Ellis was a bit frightened of him.

He hesitated before speaking, "Nash is very personable - he likes to know a lot about people. He is the one who recommended that I mention something about Roman. Sara, she's a little more reserved, she doesn't like to involve herself in things." He hastened to add, "She's very dedicated to her job."

"How did you feel when you were first assigned?" another asked. This Elder had been taking notes when Ellis had walked them through the previous weeks.

"I was pleased," Ellis said, remembering his Ceremony of Twelve fondly. "I had been nervous, but I thought I might be assigned something with children. I was happy to be assigned to work with the newchildren. Happy and excited."

The Chief Elder took this moment to ask a question, "Were you proud?"

Ellis didn't know if he could admit that; he looked to the nice Elder, who nodded encouragingly at him. "Yes," he said. "I felt like I was an important member of the community."

"Were you assigned before or after Nash and Sara?" asked the nice Elder.

"Before - I apologize, after," said Ellis. "They were Assistants, like me, Nash from a few years before, and Sara from the year before."

The nice Elder asked a follow-up, "Have they applied for spouses?"

"Nash has, and has a spouse, Sara and I have not. I only just finished training this year," he added, in case they thought he didn't want a spouse.

The questioning continued like this for a while. Upon breaking for lunch, Ellis sat in a small room by himself. He was incredibly nervous. If it was lunch, they had been asking him questions for a long time. And they hadn't even started with asking questions on Roman, yet.

"Ellis?" There was a soft knock at the door. It was the nice Elder. "We're going back in now."

"Thank you," he said, trying to sound more brave than he felt.

She smiled at him kindly, "You're doing just fine." She had been an Elder for a while, Ellis knew. At least as long as he could remember paying attention. She was sweet. The Elders probably needed just as much balance as spouses did.

Reassured by that though and her kind words, he entered the meeting room feeling a lot better about things. Now they started asking specific questions about Roman, some of which he struggled to answer, some of which, like why he preferred Roman, were easy.

"Is it true that Roman would come in on his own, without Christopher?"

Ellis nodded, "Yes. He'd come back on his own. It was why we prefered him over Christopher. He had the aptitude to be patient with the newchildren in a way that Christopher didn't."

The Elders nodded, and Ellis watched several of them take notes.

More questions about Christopher and Roman followed, until Ellis' voice was rough from all the talking.

"Ellis," the Chief Elder said, when there were no more questions. "Thank you for your report. You may report to work tomorrow."

Ellis was relieved to be done. He walked his bike back to his dwelling, tired from the talking all day - too tired to ride. Katya had already moved out, and soon he would as well. He would be completing training in just a few weeks, and his parents, ready to move into the residences for Childless Adults, did not push him for his Sharing at dinner.

It took three more newchildren for Roman to stop showing up at the Nurturing Center.

"Has he been reassigned?" asked Ellis, but nobody could answer his question. By the end of the day, he'd forgotten himself that he'd even asked it. He only paid during the Ceremony, when the newchildren were given their names. Number Forty-four, an impish little boy, even at a month old, had been given the name Roman.

He briefly wished he knew someone in Law and Justice he could ask.

One of the rules of society was that the moment that was was filling in, they were to go see the Doctor. The Clinic was located a bit out of the ways, behind some of the office buildings. Despite all the vitamins that they were given in their fortified diet, and the Relief-of-Pain medicine that they could request, people sometimes fell ill.

Ellis had been to the Clinic overnight once, as a child. Another child had thrown up on him, and he was shaking so badly the Doctor gave him some medicine to help with the shock. He was fine in the morning, but had missed his comfort object, his frog. He hadn't missed his parents, there hadn't been a need to; they had been informed he was ill and would be spending the night, and could be picked up at the Childcare Center in the morning.

There had been many times in the intervening years that he'd been to the Clinic; every year after Twelve, he was to present himself for the extraction; he was drugged and they would come with a needle and remove milky stuff from below his belly-button. They were told it was to keep the population healthy, and Ellis didn't think much of it. He only had to go until he had a spouse of his own, and then he wouldn't be required to have extraction any more. The whole process took only an hour or so.

Other than that, he'd been sick less times than he could count on one hand. The nice thing about falling ill as a child meant you got to miss school and your classmates got to hear a fun story when you came back, but as an adult, getting sick was a different matter. First, you couldn't go to work, in case you were infectious. Second, if one had a dwelling, they had to be careful to take precautions not to infect your spouse or children. Third, like Ellis, someone worked and resided with a vulnerable population, you were quarantined at the Clinic until they were certain the medication had taken hold.

Nobody got sick often; if one did, it was usually a sign of something very wrong. Anyone who was too sick for society was Released. One would present at the Clinic with symptoms, a Doctor would verify them, and then give the sick person an injection and send them on their way. Unless one was quarantined.

He was startled at work early by Kenichi that morning.

"Magdalene's sick," Kenichi said. "So we're on protocol."

Protocol, Ellis had read in his book, was when they essentially locked the Center down, to prevent illness from spreading. The Doctor would come check them out before clearing them to be in the Center; anyone who failed even one component of the exam would be taken to the Clinic for quarantine as well. He paced as he waited for his turn to go into the meeting room, never one to be patient with this sort of thing. Newchildren? All the patience in the world. Waiting? Ellis would rather have his teeth pulled. They would all meet separately, in case one of them was sick.

Finally, it was his turn, and the Assistant, wearing a mask and gloves, came to collect him. He didn't recognize the Doctor in the room.

"Oh, not Yoshiko," Ellis said, looking sad. He'd been hoping to see his former friend. They hadn't spoken since the year after the Ceremony of Twelve, being pulled apart in different directions.

"Ah, you know Yoshiko!" said the Doctor, a kind looking man. "She's still in training, I'm sure you can imagine."

Of course. The training for Doctor would take a lot longer than his own training would - by many years. He laughed at his own mistake.

"I'm still in training! I hope she would be!"

The Doctor was a jovial man, and Ellis could tell he was grinning through his mask.

He took Ellis' temperature and blood pressure, and then swabbed the inside of his cheek with a swab. The light on the end of the swab turned green.

"You're clear," the Doctor said, sounding pleased. "Go right on into the Center to your assigned room; you know the protocol to follow?"

Ellis nodded to show that he understood. They would be assigned to each of their rooms, just in case. That way, if someone was sick, only 10 possible babies would get sick. Since the infants were so small, and hadn't received proper nutrients, any sick newchild was Released immediately. This was done to protect everyone.

The room that Ellis was assigned was Kenichi's room, with newchildren One to Ten. His room was always full; Paloma and the others had to wait to get full as the year progressed.

Kenichi grinned as he walked in. "Ready for a long day? We're not to leave the room until the end of the day, except for bathroom breaks. We'll take our meal in here today as well."

The idea of that was a bit daunting; while Ellis liked Kenichi, he didn't know what to do with only speaking to one person the entire day.

"I've brought the paperwork in," Kenichi continued. "So I'll take primary on the newchildren, and yo can practice on writing letters to the new parents."

"But the Ceremony isn't for ages!" Ellis protested. It was his least favorite part of the job, the paperwork. He could do just fine describing personality for the livelier newchildren, but he struggled with the boring ones. And this group of ten had a few duds in it.

Kenichi only smiled knowingly, and Ellis sighed heavily. It was probably a terrible thing to admit some of the newchildren were boring, but they were. Like Number Two, who slept during the day, wouldn't giggle, and seemed bored by bounce on the knee, and and other game that Ellis had tried.

"What would you say about Two?" Ellis tried to ask, but Kenichi shook his head.

"Only after you're done. I'll look them over and offer my guidance."

That was the way that Kenichi did things, prefering for Ellis to make his own mistakes as he went, instead of hovering over him. Paloma was a hovering sort, and could constantly be overheard telling Nash "No, not like that; no, don't do that; no, do it like this." Nash didn't seem to mind, so it was a good match of Assistant to Nurturer. Sometimes Ellis wished he could have more guidance, like right now. He wasn't creative enough for Two. Anything that he put would feel wrong.

"Studious?" Ellis guessed, hoping to at least guage Kenichi's reaction. Kenichi laughed and tickled Two in his crib.

"I don't know what you're studying, little guy, but Ellis seems to think you are."

Ellis frowned. Kenichi hadn't come out and said that was the wrong language, but the implication was there.

"Studying the world," Ellis tried to clarify. Now Kenichi took some notice.

"Observing," Kenichi said slowly. "Might, if I were you, be a better place to start."

Observing, Ellis wrote on the form under Personality. He tried his hand at a sentence: Two is a quiet observer, preferring to watch as tasks are completed instead of engaging in play.

Kenichi took a break from the children to see. "No," he said. "You can't tell a parent not to play with their child. You're on the right track, but try it again."

"But he doesn't play," Ellis protested. "I can't lie to them."

"You're going to have to come up with something," Kenichi said, in a sing-song voice, as he'd just picked up Four. Four was easy. Ellis could have written pages about Four.

He sighed and stared at the page again. What could he do with observing and quiet that was play related? Play was light, and fun. That was the very point of it, to do light and fun things that still taught the newchildren vital communication and development skills.

Quiet babies weren't lacking, or not thriving, so he tried to come up with something that made it sound like the family unit had a super special baby on their hands: Two is a an observing baby who takes time to make his decisions; quiet games that will help hone his skills are good to engage in, such as pattern clapping.

Two would pattern clap, he did like to do that. He didn't really laugh when he did it, but he would do it. Two just didn't find the world very funny.

After some patty-cake with One, Kenichi took a look at the second attempt, "Now that's a lot better. Get it to half the page and I'll look it over again."

Ellis was wishing bad things upon Magdalene right now, even if this was a part of his job, and a skill he had to learn.

Now that he was considered trained - even if he was still an Assistant, he no longer had to attend school. He was in the residence with the other Nurturers who hadn't applied for Spouses. There was a difference if one had a spouse, as spouses lived together in the Hall for Childless Adults. Those younger though, lived in their own residences, in the back corridor of the Nurturing Center.

Each person had their own room, though they were small, only enough to contain a desk and a bed. Ellis didn't mind. He didn't need much space; he was only sleeping there. He was in the room across the hall from Sara, which was a small comfort to him. David was next to him, and if either left their door open for some cool air, Ellis could hear David's loud snores. He was surprised that the behavior had never been corrected, but it would have been rude to ask David about it. Nash, with his spouse, had his own dwelling.

There was a communal bathroom, and each person was assigned a shower time in the mornings. Those who had been there the longest had the prime times; during Ellis' first year, he was scrambling to shower and get down the hall to the Center on time, lest he be reprimanded. It wasn't as bad as it could be; he could have the earliest possible time, and barely have time to eat his Morning meal. There was no Sharing of Dreams, or Sharing of Feelings, for which Ellis was grateful. That was for spouses and children (though he also knew it was a way of keeping each other in check.)

Pills were lined up in bottles with each person's name on them in the cafeteria. Some liked to take their pill during breakfast, some during evening meal. Every one took the pills, and when their bottles were empty, they stuck them in the buckets to be collected; the next meal period, the filled bottles would be delivered. It was an efficient system, and it meant no one had to go without, or worry about what to do when they ran out of pills.

Meals were a quiet affair, as there weren't too many of them in the Center. Often they were tired from the day, and since the only thing to talk about was the day, they were largely silent. If something had happened in the community, or a new volunteer had come in, they would talk about that.

Currently, they were discussing the fact that one of the Birthmothers' test results indicated that she was going to be having identical twins.

"Who's next on the list?" Sara asked. "Ellis?"

Ellis shook his head, "I think Paloma is next, with Nash. I'm attending the birth, though."

"You're the best at it though," pipped up one of the other Nurturers. "Even if you are a bit off-the-book about it. Kenichi likes to talk about it."

Ellis didn't know what to say; he was unusual when he was assigned Releases. He would talk to the newchild, play with it, sing to it, before Releasing it. He certainly didn't have to do it, and he wasn't sure why he did it, but it made everything easier to deal with, knowing that the newchild wasn't sitting there howling, distracting him from the task at hand.

He said nothing, and quickly finished his meal. A silence hung over the cafeteria. Ellis wondered if everyone was waiting for the Nurturer to apologize to him for being rude; Ellis didn't stay to find out.

The next morning, he made his way to the Birthing Center, waiting for the twin that wouldn't be Released. Kenichi had sent him on his own, a sign that he was trusted by the man.

He waited, tapping his foot impatiently, as the blindfolded Birthmother pushed out the first twin. Paloma and Nash took the first twin to go weigh. It was quickly obvious that something had gone wrong. Eventually Ellis heard the cry of the second twin.

One of the Birth Assistants handed him the second child, hissing "just Release it". Ellis looked for Paloma, but she was nowhere to be found. Perhaps she just assumed the second twin hadn't made it. That happened sometimes.

Protocol dictated weight though, so Ellis headed to the small room to perform the task for Paloma and Nash. Ellis didn't look at the crying newchild until he was about to place it on the scale. It was a girl, but she looked just like the boy - practically identical. They couldn't be identical, they were different sexes and everything.

No wonder the Birthing Assistant had been so freaked out; he was freaked out. He didn't know what proper protocol to follow, so he decided that proper protocol applied here. He weighed the second baby, who weighed in four ounces more than her twin had according to the log. He walked out with the newchild, looking for the lower-weighted twin. Paloma should have had him, to see what the weights were. He had already been whisked away, the other Nurturers having made the decision.

For the first time in his life, Ellis didn't know what to do. The newchild cried, and Ellis automatically soothed her until she quieted into a low whimper. There was no proper protocol for this, and Ellis didn't want to do the Release on a newchild that didn't need it. He walked with her down the hall, back to the Nurturing Center.

No one said anything as he wrapped her up in her blanket, being careful not to make her cry. Once that was done, he placed her in a tiny crib, next to her twin. That was the only part of it that felt wrong. One of them needed to be Released; twins would be a disaster for the Community. These were a boy and a girl twin, though. He wouldn't leave her alone, though. He knew some of his colleagues felt the same way the Birth Attendant had - the second child was the aberration and needed to be Released.

He didn't have to wait long for the Elder to show up.

"It shouldn't be possible," one of them murmured as he came into the room, not noticing Ellis. "We control the egg implantation; identical twins can't be helped, but I've never seen this before."

Ellis had no idea what they were talking about. The second Elder was agreeing, "Yes, this was a monozygotic. That's not possible with the different sexes."

"The male weighed less," Ellis said, catching the Elders off-guard. He felt compelled to speak up, what they were saying, all these words he didn't know or understand, were scaring him.

The second Elder studied him for a moment, then nodded, "Protocol dictates-" but the first Elder was shaking his head.

"We should evaluate them both, longer. This is an opportunity to study- I mean Elsewhere deprives us of-" The first Elder really wanted to make his point, and looked excited. He looked like Ellis did when a newchild was coming in. He clearly valued and loved his work.

The second looked like Kenichi did when the rules had to be followed. "We should ask the Receiver of Memory if this has ever happened and what should be done about it."

This the first Elder could agree with, and he nodded. He turned to Ellis, "Neither newchild will be Released until we speak with the Receiver of Memory and the Elders consult."

The Elders, when faced with consultations and decisions, were known to take forever to make up their minds. All Ellis could do was hope that both newchildren thrived and the decision was made to keep them both in the Community. The words egg and monozygotic were tumbling in his head. He knew what an egg was - the Fish Hatchery was full of eggs. But he did not know how a newchild came from an egg. But the other word, the one he didn't have a frame of reference for, that was one that puzzled him more.

He attempted, when he got home that night, to look it up in the dictionary, but the word wasn't there. How could a word simply not exist?

Seeing the two newchildren every day didn't help the matter disappear completely from his head, but there were more newchildren than those two, and Ellis did his best to distract himself with them. The female was doing fine; the Birthing Attendant must have thought she couldn't thrive, but she was thriving. The male was also doing fine. It was strange though, how one couldn't tell them apart unless they were unwrapped to do a changing.

This was ultimately what led to the decision; one of the newchildren had to be Released. It had been, by Community standards, a very quick decision, taking only two days. The Nurturers sat in their meeting, discussing which of the two would be Released. The male had been born first, but the facts remained that the female had weighed more at birth and weighed more now. In an unusual step, the Elders had told them it was possible for the Committee to vote, if enough Nurturers felt strongly about it.

"Protocol," Ellis said to the group. "Dictates that we release the lower-weight twin. That's always been the male."

"They were supposed to be identical," said Nash. "Why wasn't the second twin male?"

"Something went wrong," Sara added. "It would be unkind to keep the female around. What if there are problems later?"

More Nurturers and Assistants spoke up - with most of them taking the idea that the female should be Released, as she had been born second, and something had clearly gone wrong with the birth.

Kenichi had been watching them, silent, and it was now he finally spoke up, "Are we perhaps affecting our opinions based on what happened that day instead of the facts at hand?"

Ellis thought about it. He was the one who had taken charge of the second twin. "No," he said. "I'm not affected by anything other than protocol. There's no reason not to follow it. What if the female had come first? Would something have gone wrong with the male?"

Sara frowned in a way that Ellis had come to recognise as her thinking face. "He had a lower birthweight from the very beginning. He hasn't thrived as well as she has."

With one agreeing, whatever had been holding the others back had been lifted. In minutes, the table had completely changed their mind.

"It's unanimous then?" Paloma asked, and nobody disagreed.

So it was the Male that would be Released, and the female who would be Number Eleven. How strange, for two days neither newchild had a number, but both had the potential to be Number Eleven.

Nobody questioned Ellis' volunteering to do the Release, though he hadn't been next on the list. He had an Assistant with him, who prepped the syringe while Ellis looked for a vein. The male's eyes stayed open the entire time, eyes wide and round, as if he knew what was coming. Ellis knew the newchild couldn't possibly know, but he soothed the male nevertheless, rubbing his tummy gently as the assistant pushed the syringe in. He didn't cry; quietly his big round eyes got smaller and smaller as he twitched, until he lay still. This time, Ellis didn't wave goodbye.

By the time the Ceremony came, and the Number Eleven - Ella - was assigned to her parents, Ellis had only the smallest memory of the male twin. By the next week, when a new Number One was waiting for them, Ellis had forgotten the incident entirely.

The Committee, made up of a rotating select few Nurturers and Assistants, would meet regularly to discuss the children in that section and what was to be done with them. This year, Kenichi was on the Committee, which meant that Ellis would be on the Committee as well, as he was Kenichi's assistant.

"Oh, lucky," Nash said enviously, once the new Committee was selected. Nash had been on the Committee the previous year. "You'll wish it could be permanent. It's a load of fun."

Ellis was unsure of the idea of fun on the Committee - they had such things to discuss that were terrible things - failing newchildren! How could it be fun?

"It really is fun," Nash said, seeing the skeptical look on Ellis' face. "You don't just talk about the extra care section, you discuss them all, and their charts."

Charts. Ellis had never learned to like charting, which went hand in hand with the letters for each new parent. Kenichi may have instilled in him the vitality of it, but none of the excitement. If he could play peek-a-boo, or bounce-on-the-knee, or even change diaper cloths all day, he would be much happier.

Nash teased Ellis a bit further, seeing how Ellis' frown had fully furrowed, "You don't have to write the charts, Ellis, just talk about them."

That was better. He could talk about newchildren. That didn't sound too bad at all.

The first meeting of the Committee was a rather bland one, as it was so soon after the Ceremony, and there weren't any newchildren yet. In each of their folders was a chart though, detailing exactly when each newchild was scheduled to be born, and if there were any twins recorded. If the sex of the child was known, that was indicated as well.

"So," Svetlana was saying, "You can see that in a few weeks we're going to have a busy week. Magdalene, you're next on the Release list, but there are no twins scheduled, so hopefully we can make it a whole year without a Release."

"Too bad we can't have a countdown," Oleg said, laughing. "We tried to have one once, when I was just an Assistant," he further explained to the group. "It just listed he number of days since we'd had a Release. The Head at the time made us take it down, and we haven't had once since."

Ellis frowned. "I think that would be too much pressure," he said. "What if something was wrong with a newchild, but you wanted to see the number go higher?"

Nobody said anything for a moment, and Ellis worried that he was out of place. Oleg tapped his nose and nodded at Ellis, "Got it on the first try, you're one to watch, aren't you?"

Ellis was pleased with the compliment.

He couldn't boast about it to Sara and the others at the evening meal, so he simply remarked that he'd had a nice day. He could have shared with a spouse, but since he did not have one, he liked to pretend that he could talk to Katya still at the kitchen table, and get her read of the situation. This time, she would not tell him he was being too proud. This time, he had been singled out - this wasn't excessive pride in his work.

The rest of the Committee meetings passed in much the same way, especially as more and more newchildren were added in. Nash had been right; the meetings were fun, and it was enjoyable to go over all the charts of the newchildren without having to worry about the best - and most positive - way to put them in a letter.

"Sixteen is a reacher. Be careful of your buttons, as he will grab them and yank them off. Using the wand as a deterrent is difficult, as I do not want to discourage him from exploring the world," Svetlana read from one of the charts. "Do we have any suggestions for Sixteen?"

Ellis didn't have any, but he was eager to learn. No wonder Nash had been promoted to Nurturer, he could gain a lot of skill and experience sitting on the Committee.

"They should try putting him the play area with a lot of things to reach and encouraging that sort of reaching," someone suggested. "And still use the wand to discourage reaching when he's being fed or held. Then Sixteen can learn the proper setting in which to explore, and the proper setting to keep his hands to himself."

"How is he with the other newchildren?" Kenichi asked. "Is he very handsy with them? The notes don't say. Whatever we recommend, we ought to recommend that more detail about how he reaches goes into the charts."

Ellis was suddenly very glad that he put as much detail as he could into the charts. Thank goodness for Kenichi's lessons.

At another meeting, they discussed the babblers, the children who consistently talked. It was always a delicate balance with the newchildren, over when to use the discipline wand. Too much use could negatively affect the child, while not enough could result in problems down the road. The Committee's job was the find the balance and make proper recommendations.

The year went by quickly, and before Ellis knew it, it was the last meeting before the Ceremony. This meeting was special, it featured a Nurturer appeal; when a nurturer had a specific case to make for a newchild either not going to the Ceremony, or not being Released, it was usually done in front of the Committee. Ellis' situation with the differently-sexed identical twins had been a very special circumstance.

This appeal was not like that at all. A newchild, a male born earlier than expected, was in the extra care section, and was not doing too well at all. The worst part of Ellis' job was the extra care section. These were infants that, as the section indicated, required a bit more care before they were given to families to take home. The vast majority of them were fussy sleepers, who needed some extra help before they could sleep easily. Some of them had trouble with food and getting their birthweight up.

Sara and her Nurturer were assigned to Forty-Eight, even though he was not from their room, but they were struggling to handle the infant, who wasn't gaining weight fast enough.

Sara was at the meeting, sitting at the end of the horseshoe, staring down the rest of the committee. Her Nurturer was with the newchild while Sara spoke to the committee. Ellis felt pity for her; she looked worried, and he knew that he would be shaking if it were him.

"I came to appeal for more time," Sara said quietly. "I believe that Forty-Eight can thrive, if he is given another year in the Center in which to do so. The Doctors said that it's his lungs that need more time to get stronger, and that once they do, his birthweight will start to climb."

She gained confidence as she spoke; Ellis knew she didn't want to fail the newchild, and he appreciated it.

"We have the notes from the Doctor," Oleg said, looking over his papers. "But it also says the Doctor isn't sure that his lungs will get stronger, or if they are damaged from the unexpected birth."

Sara nodded, "I know the Doctor does not know, that none of us know, if Forty-Eight will get better. But that is why I appeal for time. If we Release him now, we will never know. The Ceremony is in a few weeks; grant the dispensation, and permit Forty-Eight more time. If he is still not thriving, the new Committee can advise Release."

She looked almost near tears, and Ellis was prompted to speak up. "I don't know that more time is going to hurt anything," he said, and Sara looked relieved, though she was trying to keep her face calm. Ellis liked that about Sara, she tried to keep her personal feelings in check, though in a job like this, when one cared about the newchildren, it was hard.

Svetlana nodded, "I agree. More time cannot hurt anything. Does anyone else disagree?"

Oleg spoke up, "Are we certain we just do not want a year with no Release?" When nobody made a move to say anything, either because he was right, or, like Ellis, they were shocked at the accusation, he shrugged his shoulders. "If it is what the majority of us want, I will agree."

"He doesn't have other problems," Lila said. She was flicking through the paperwork at a rapid pace. "He sleeps through the night, he can smile, he can reach for things … it's just his lungs that are needing some more development. I agree with Ellis and Svetlana, I do not know what we lose - except potential - by giving the newchild some more time."

In the end, they didn't even vote on it officially, as it was evident that the majority of the Committee was going to give Sara more time. At evening meal that night, she looked as though she wanted to hug Ellis.

"Thank you," was all she said. "I know he'll thrive with more time. Thank you for being the first to say it."

"You are welcome," Ellis said, genuinely meaning it. "If I had been you, I know you would have made the same choice."

"I went to Svetlana after and volunteered to stay behind from the Ceremony, so I could keep an eye on him," Sara added, looking a bit sheepish. "I don't trust the night and backup nurturers with him."

Ellis had to laugh at that, "I wouldn't either." He dropped his voice to a whisper, "They might drop him."

It was no secret that the night nurturers were looked down upon by the rest of the staff; one did not get assigned to be a night nurturer. No, at the Ceremony, one was assigned to be an Assistant, and was further assigned to the night crew once their training was complete. Only those who really failed at the rigorous demands of being a Nurturer were assigned to the night crew. The extra care section was often guarded against them.

He would have offered to stay and help her, but all hands would be needed for the Ceremony. All that would happen was that there would be no number Forty-Eight that year. No family unit had been told they would be assigned a child, only to not have one; a family would simply not get a notification, and would be notified the following year. They might even get to take Forty-Eight home if he thrived. If he did not …

Ellis did not want to think about if he did not. Sara would feel terrible for weeks after; they all did when a newchild failed to thrive. Instead, he would be like Sara, and believe the child was going to get better, and be assigned the following year.

In the weeks after the Ceremony, long after the new Committee had been rotated in, Sara was proved correct, and Forty-Eight was moved out of the extra care section. It would have been cruel to leave him in room 5 by himself for so long, so they rotated him out of cribs, as more and more newchildren were born. He was lively and bright, and by the middle of the year, you could hardly tell that he had been needing of the extra care at all.

He was a wonderful success story, something the whole Nurturing team could take pride in.