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Without Ever Going to China

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There's a commotion in House Azik when George finally drags himself out of bed, indistinct to his ears. He glances at Isabella; she cocks her head and listens, then says, "Visitors, I think. Rispah's happy."

He nods, tugging on trousers and a shirt. Isabella lands on his shoulder and preens his hair. "Thanks," he says, dry. "Always appreciate you makin' me presentable."

"As much as possible," she says, just as dry. George smiles and scratches her head before heading out into the hallway. He stops short at the staircase, legs suddenly not working at the sight of Alanna, talking to Rispah and Corram, easy as anything. Fidelity is at her side, in her famous lioness form. The daemon notices them first, turning at the sound of the creaky board at the top of the stairs.

Isabella doesn't seem to have any trouble moving. She pushes off his shoulder and Fidelity leaps into the air, shifting into a hummingbird, and George feels something in him relax at the knowledge she hasn't settled yet, after all. The two daemons circle each other in the air, delighted, and Alanna turns to him, her smile brilliant.

He mirrors her expression automatically, and it's enough that he can finally move, bounding down the stairs to wrap her up in his arms. She laughs and buries her face against his neck. She's firmly muscled, hardened from her time in the desert, perfect. And she doesn't have Jon with her. It's not selfishness to be happy for that, he tells himself. If she is to marry, he's glad she'll at least tell him without her intended.

And surely, if she were engaged, her daemon would have settled. Surely that would be enough.

"You didn't say you were coming," he tells her, nuzzling her hair before letting her down. "I would have had somethin' ready. Breakfast, at least."

She looks up at him and her face quivers for a long moment and then falls; suddenly, she's crying in his arms. Fidelity flies back to her, shifts into the lioness and butts her head against Alanna's legs. Alanna scratches her behind the ears with one hand, but she doesn't let go of him. George looks to Corram and Rispah, but they've already left, giving them privacy.

"Come on upstairs," he says, as much to Fidelity as to Alanna. "Rispah'll send up something to eat."

Alanna laughs, shaky but real. "You know it's past noon, don't you?" she asks. Her voice comes out even enough. "We ate already."

"You're too thin," he tells her. "You may have gotten stronger in the desert, but you didn't eat enough."

"You just like to fuss."

"I said you didn't eat enough too," says Fidelity.

"She's got the right of it," George says, letting them into his private sitting room. He sits down on the couch and tugs Alanna against him. Her fingers are bare of rings. "Now, tell me what's happened, lass."

Fidelity settles on her feet; Isabella perches on the couch between the two of them, preening George again. It makes Alanna smile. "At least I'm not the only one with a fretting daemon."

"Alanna," he says, voice gentle. "What's wrong?"

She settles in closer against him, head resting on his chest. She looks young with her eyes closed, young and overtired. He's not sure she's ever taken a break, as long as he's known her. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Jon stopped by on his way out," George says, carding his own hand through her hair, preening her too. It's an easy habit to pick up. "Sounded like he was goin' to see you. Had something he wanted to ask."

"I don't want to talk about that either."

He thinks about pushing, but instead he turns his attention to Fidelity. "What are you goin' to do if you settle to somethin' besides a lioness?" he asks her. Alanna's famous for a lot of reasons, but most of them tie back to her female daemon; she would have had more trouble passing for a boy in Oxford if Fidelity had been male, like most girls' daemons, and if she hadn't managed that, she wouldn't be half as famous. "She'll have to get a new nickname."

Fidelity yawns. "We're pretty sure. I like this shape," she says. "It'll be soon, I think."

"And it might be nice if she was something else anyway," says Alanna, snuggling closer. She's not engaged to Jon, he's sure. It doesn't mean she'll take him, but it's more than he expected. "No one would recognize me."

George's daemon settled when he was twelve, long before he met Alanna. His mother was ill, and they weren't sure she'd make it. At the time, he'd been angry about it; he'd been so upset, and he wanted her to be something huge and warm, someone he could cuddle. Ravens aren't much for comfort.

"Don't think you could blend in that easily," he tells her.

She smiles a little. "Maybe not." She yawns herself.

"Did you come straight here?" he asks.

"Mm," she says, already drifting off. "Where else would I go?"

*

George has been in House Azik for almost two months. He'd been getting sick of it until Alanna showed up. He's a Gyptian; he's not meant to be on land for so long. He misses his boat and his Fens, misses the river beneath him. But he has business here, and now he has Alanna here, and she needs him as much as anyone does. And he needs her more. Everyone's said how much better tempered he's been since she came back, and he knows it's true. He deserves a break himself.

"You should ask her again," says Isabella. Alanna is bathing, which George tries not to think about and fails every time.

"She knows how I feel," he says. "And she's not ready for it. If she was ready, Fidelity would be settled."

"You're an expert on daemons now?" She nips his ear gently. "I think you're scared."

Alanna comes back in before he can answer, still drying her hair. She's gotten it trimmed, but it's still longer than it was when she was at school, and she looks soft and warm, inviting. His mouth goes dry.

"What?" she asks, misinterpreting his look. "Is something wrong?"

He licks his lips. "What happened?" he asks. "When you were in the desert?"

She'd left Brytain entirely after she revealed her true gender and killed Jon's cousin in a duel. George would have gone with her, but he's King of the Gyptians. He had responsibilities of his own. And she didn't want him along anyway. He hadn't been sure she'd ever come back to him, but she has, safe and only a little more scarred than when she left. At least on the outside.

She sits down with him, curling her feet under her. "I said I don't want to talk about it."

"Yes, but you came here to me, didn't you? And you knew I'd ask."

Fidelity changes to a black cat, leaping into Alanna's lap and kneading her claws on Alanna's leg. Her transformation is slower than it used to be, not the split-second shift of a child's daemon. Alanna isn't the oldest person in recorded history to have an unsettled daemon, but she's close. "You did know he'd ask," Fidelity says.

"The Bazhir didn't suit you?" he prompts.

"It wasn't the Bazhir. You know it was Jon," she adds, somewhat accusatory.

"I thought it might be somethin' else too." He doesn't like the idea that Jon alone was enough to get her so riled. He knows the Prince is flirting with a new girl now, some princess from Oceania, blonde and buxom and beautiful. He's overheard enough of her conversations with Fidelity to know that Alanna would be upset to know Jon had switched his affections to a lady, someone so proper and feminine.

"It's everything," she says, folding into herself. George tugs her gently, and it's all the encouragement she needs to slide into his lap. He swallows hard and wraps his arms around her. It's his favorite thing, having her in his arms. He wished it happened more when she wasn't upset. "I said I wouldn't marry him. He said I wasn't--he said a lot things."

"He said if she was a proper woman, she'd had a proper daemon," says Fidelity. She shifted back to her lioness form once George took Alanna, taking up half the couch. "A male one who'd settled. He said she wasn't ready to grow up."

George kisses her hair. "You know he's wrong. He knows he's wrong too. If he'd thought any of those things, he wouldn't have proposed to you to start with." He smiles at Fidelity. Isabella came up to perch on her, giving her own comfort, but George wishes he could do more. "And you've got the perfect daemon, Lioness."

"Don't you call me that," she says, laughing. "It makes you sound like a reporter."

"I wouldn't change a thing," he says, and it feels selfish. He wants to make her feel better for her own sake, not because he's hoping she'll take him instead.

"I know," she says. She turns in his arms so she can pet Fidelity, and the lioness purrs. "It's nothing we haven't heard before, but--I didn't think I'd hear it from him."

"No, I wouldn't have thought so either," George admits.

"Regalia said it too," says Fidelity, looking at Alanna. "I thought she would argue with him, or at least stay quiet, but she said it right along with him.

Isabella gives him a look, like there's something he's supposed to be doing, and he realizes it all at once. He looks away from her stare and sees Alanna instead. She's looking at him too, considering, and he moves his hand, slow, until it's just above Fidelity's golden head.

Alanna's still looking at him; she doesn't look away as she reaches up, takes his wrist and places her hand on Fidelity's head. They both shiver; George hasn't ever touched anyone's daemon, the intimacy felt like too much, even with women he slept with. Fidelity's fur is softer than he'd expect from a lion, not as coarse as Isabella's was when she took the shape years and years back, and it's easy to scratch her behind her ears, like he's seen Alanna do a thousand times.

Isabella hops back up onto the back of the couch to preen Alanna's hair; George shivers again when Alanna strokes her finger over the raven's back, the strange feeling of someone else's touch on his own soul.

It feels almost anticlimactic to kiss her after that, but it's not, not when she melts against him and wraps her arms around him, and he lets go of Fidelity to slide his hand into Alanna's hair instead.

"I didn't come for this," she says, against his lips.

"I wouldn't mind if you did." He pulls back, but she follows him. "But we shouldn't do it too often."

"Why not?"

"Because I won't be able to stop."

She licks her lips, and George isn't sure he'll be able to stop anyway. "I don't want to stop either."

She doesn't say she loves him. She doesn't say she'll stay. But when he wakes up with her in his bed, Fidelity is next to them, still a lioness.

He yawns and stretches, scratching his stomach. It's been a long time since he slept with anyone, and it's never been like this. He doesn't want to sleep without her ever again, though he's sure he will.

Fidelity opens one eye and looks up at him; Alanna groans and rolls over, making a face.

"I'm not going to change anymore," Fidelity says.

"No?"

"No."

George feels himself start to grin. "That's good. It suits you."

"If you two are done," Alanna grumbles, "I'd like to get some more sleep. If it's all the same to you."

Fidelity yawns and closes her eyes, and George does the same. But he can't get the grin off his face.

Alanna pokes him on the chest. "Smug isn't a good look on you," she says, without opening her eyes.

"It is," he retorts. "Go to sleep."

*

He takes her as far as the Fens when she gets restless, some rumors of a treasure in Muscovy she wants to find. The kiss she gives him lingers after she leaves, and so does the feel of Fidelity's fur under his fingers, the warmth of her head against his leg, just for a second.

"They're coming back," says Isabella.

"I know," says George. He has his own responsibilities. He can't follow her around the world on a whim.

"They love us."

"I know."

And the good part, the part that makes it bearable, is that he does.