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galaxy beneath us

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Katie Holt used to want to meet their soulmate. They wanted to see what kind of person would find their company fulfilling. You know, as a nonbinary, asexual, and demi-romantic. (Romance-romance is gross and over-the-top and didn’t seem meaningful or personal enough for the kid. Who wants botanical samples that will wilt and die an early death? Or dinners where you have to dress fancy in outdated gender-specific clothing to eat food that’s way too expensive? An afternoon walking around any number of museums would be so much more relaxing and a better way to bond.) Some people seemed to think that it was somehow okay to voice how awful it might be for Katie’s soulmate to accept a kid like them. A kid who “found sexuality and gender irrelevant.”

Despite all the negativity that they faced from the public towards their orientation and self-expression, Katie still eagerly looked forward to meeting their person.

Until they were truly old enough and aware enough to notice.

Their person got hurt.

A lot.

Like, a lot a lot.

It seemed like every day was a new injury. Sometimes it was something very clear, like a papercut showing up as a small red line on a finger that would fade away. Sometimes, if the injury was bad enough, a hint of sensation would also filter through. Katie remembered the feeling of running into the coffee table shins-first when they were out practicing soccer in the backyard one day, no shinguards, nothing around to cause that pain, but there it was, bringing the kiddo to a stumbling halt. Clumsy, everyday occurrences of kids growing too fast for their coordination to keep up were normal. But this? This amount of what looked like outright abuse injuries? Bruises in “soulmate pink,” the color of a fresh scar, located where nobody could see them in public. Broken bones in an area after a long pressure-pain that reeked of “look what you’re making me do to you.” Bruises in defensive locations . . .

Katie had learned what to look for early on.

At first, it had worried Katie’s parents. Sam never got over his distress. He wanted so badly to go and help and save this hurting child somewhere, but anything coming from the Holt family side was bound to make a bad situation worse. Katie knew that the cut on her chin she had gotten when she took a chin-dive against the corner of a doorframe the was four would have alerted their soulmate of their existence in a very obvious way. There was another beating that day. Maybe because of Katie’s clumsiness.

It hurt. Not physically, but it hurt their heart.

The worst was The Night.

~*~

~*~

~*~

Katie watched, horrified, as angry red lines traced along the inside of her left forearm. Colleen had held her weeping child close to her chest, her own tears splashing hot against the gingery hair. “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I’m so sorry.”

“Why?! Will it stop? Will they stop?!

“I don’t know. I just don’t know. Not everyone has what you have with us, Katie. Some people know very deep and scarring pain in many ways very early in life.”

“I hate it! I hate this soulmate shit!”

The mother didn’t correct the child’s language; this was a unique situation. She wanted to cover Katie’s arm, to prevent more psychological trauma, but she knew that she had to treat the little child as an adult. If she took the choice from Katie to cover their arm and find out later if their soulmate died by their own hand, she knew that it could end up scarring Katie even more. “I know. I do, too.”

Katie looked up in shock. From their very young age, they hated that soulmates’ injuries showed up on their counterpart’s skin. Ink didn’t always transfer over without using expensive pens that had a unique chemical makeup, with the really expensive ones requiring the DNA of both soulmates. At the same time, scratches would show up if done carefully, not deep enough to damage skin, and the marks faded within moments. Soulmates would write love-notes to each other all the time, and everyone seemed so very happy with their partners. But Katie never realized that the relationship between their parents was anything other than a fairy-tale romance. “You do?”

“There are so many unrealistic expectations that the system perpetuates. People say that your soulmate will entirely fulfill you, erase all your pain, fill your heart to overflowing with their love . . . But that’s all so untrue, little Katie-bird. You can’t save your soulmate alone, and even if you’re perfectly-matched, you’ll never be able to be everything to this person.” She smiled sadly and picked up a brush to start untangling her child’s wild hair. Social grooming always soothed Katie.

“Are . . . are you and Dad happy together?”

“Yes. Because we both look to help each other find fulfillment in many people, and not just in one person singularly. We balance our lives with connections with many other people. With your father’s soul against mine, I feel complete in a way that goes deeper than most emotions. Without him, I would be a wandering planet.”

“What . . .” Katie looked down at their wrist. There were no new lines. “What if my soulmate dies, Mom?”

“You’ll . . . you’ll know. I . . . I wish that you never have to experience that until late in your life, dearheart. Your father and I lost a soulmate before we even met them.” She pulled the collar of her shirt aside, showing the so-purple-it-was-black mark a few inches below her collarbone and just left of her sternum, then settled it again. “We don’t know how it could have happened, just the day and time. We were still in college together.”

Katie reached over and grabbed a pen, taking the cap off and examining the edges. Putting it in her left hand, she scratched a heart on the fleshy part between her thumb and the back of her hand. And then she carefully scratched a second heart.

And another heart joined their first two. And another. And . . .

Then there were several hearts being drawn at once, different pressures, different scrapes.

Colleen froze.

“Oh.” Katie’s face went slack with shock, then bounced into a bright grin. “There’s . . . there’s a lot of us. Good! Oh, good!”

Colleen couldn’t tear her gaze away from the sight, tears still falling, but happy to see as Katie switched hands and began drawing hearts along the back of the other hand. She pulled her phone out and began taking pictures, knowing that Katie would want to analyze everything of what they just learned.

~*~

~*~

~*~

Xs and Os followed those first few scratched hearts, then several languages whispered along the small arms. Colleen saw something that looked Chinese, something in a Spanish dialect, something possibly from the Pacific Islands, lots of English once that became known as the common language for everyone, and then shaky lines on the palm of the left hand drew a scratched heart and a small message.

I’m safe. I’m okay.

I’m sorry.

Colleen pulled out the generic soul-pen that she always kept in her pocket, handing it wordlessly to the little hand that started trembling. “Here. This will be easier. I’ll make sure to have pens for everyone when the time comes.”

“This . . . Mom, this is expensive.”

“It’s worthless against the price of a life. Write. Go on.”

The first scratches had faded, and Katie uncapped the pen with their teeth and spat it out, voice soft as they spoke the words out loud. “We . . . love . . . you. Don’t . . . leave . . . before . . . we . . . meet you. I’d . . .” Katie sniffed hard, and whispered, “I’d be so sad.” They wrote the last words silently, following it with a heart.

When Sam saw the footage later that night, he sagged and leaned back against the couch. “This gives me a lot of hope, Colleen. Damn. We got ourselves two smart kids with hearts so big . . .”

“How are Matt, Adam, and Shiro doing?”

“They’re working things out as they go, Colleen, it’s only been two months. They’re good for each other, even if they’re not all soulmates. Shiro had an emergency to attend to tonight, so he had to miss the study session. But Matt and Adam seem to be getting on all right. Matt’s actually kind of glad that he and Shiro don’t match scars, but Adam seems upset that both Matt and Shiro don’t match up the same, and that Shiro has probably another two soulmates out there. I think, anyway. Adam’s a little difficult for me to read sometimes, and Shiro’s no open book, either.”

“Mm. How is Matt helping Adam cope with that?”

“How’d you guess?”

“I know our son.”

“He’s working on it. Adam and Shiro have known each other for half their lives; Matt fits perfectly with Adam in complementary ways to Shiro, but Shiro and Matt only fit together as friends.” He leaned in to brush her nose with a kiss. “You’re anxious about their relationship.”

“You know that I’ll be working through my anxiety until we have more word on Katie’s soulmates, and making sure that they’re all okay. I want my babies and their people to just all be okay. It’s the parent in me.” Shaking her head with a smile, the mother pulled her legs up onto the couch. “I’ll be fine, Sam. Just so long as they all know that they can come over anytime if they need help or need anything at all, I’ll be fine.”

~*~

The offer made was taken up the next day. Shiro looked like a wreck; deep circles under his eyes cut through the otherwise-ashen tone of his skin, so he was dismissed from classes early and ordered back to bed. Both Adam and Matt had insisted that they get off-base and away from the campus environment to get his head back on straight. He wouldn’t tell them why he was so upset, or why he hadn’t been with Adam and Matt the night before.

When they got to the Holt’s, Colleen welcomed him inside with a firm hug. The kid sibling/gremlin had immediately started in on their brother and teased him mercilessly about Adam. They were happy to see each other and immediately started in on the verbal sparring matches that were vital to their friendship. But Adam, who didn’t know that Katie was really enjoying making their brother blush and squirm? Who clearly didn’t know that Matt absolutely adored encouraging Katie to get more and more inventive and creative with their teasing? Adam finally snapped.

“This isn’t a game, kid! Soulmates aren’t easy.”

The young face stilled, and Matt looked ready to haul off and break Adam’s jaw. “Adam, that—”

“Wow, fuck you too, Adam.”

“Katie!” Sam hissed, aghast.

But Katie had more in mind. “You think I don’t know that soulmates are a curse, too? I’m glad that you and Matt get along and know each other already. I don’t know my soulmates. And one of them?” They shoved their left arm up, lines still red and raw. “One of them tried to kill themselves last night. I’m fucking twelve, you asshole. I don’t know how old my mates are or who they are, and I can’t fucking dare try to find out because one of them, probably this one, gets beaten on a regular basis. You get it, now? I tease Matt because he has you and he loves you and you love him. And you have Shiro, too, and Shiro’s a badass because he deals with both of you monstrous idiots.”

Adam didn’t know what to say. Matt picked his kid sibling up in a bearhug, eyes leaking and mouth moving almost-silently. But Katie burrowed into their older brother’s embrace, so he must have said something that they needed to hear.

Shiro was pale, holding onto the doorframe for support and eyes wide, panicked.

Sam thought that he was just in shock that Katie had just shut Adam down, and turned to focus on Adam. Colleen touched Shiro’s elbow from behind, leading him off to the study, closing the door. “Takashi?”

He held his left arm out, scared to do this one thing himself, needing a parent in this moment. He hadn’t needed a parent to help him for years, but right now . . .

She took his arm gently, cradling his hand and pulling the sleeve up to see the exact same lines that sat on her child’s arm. Resting a hand over the new scars, she leaned in and kissed his pulse-point. Then, not breaking skin contact, Colleen guided his head to rest against her shoulder with her right hand on the back of his neck. “You’re scared.”

“I’m so much older than she—fuck-they I meant they—are. They. Fuck. Fuck. I’m sorry, Colleen.”

“They’d forgive you on this slip-up, Takashi. So do I. But you’re scared.”

“I don’t want to hurt a kid, and I’m almost an adult, and they’re like my sibling, like Matt, and I don’t know if I could ever tell them that . . .” He stopped, horrified, and trembled in Colleen’s grasp. “Adam. Oh my God. Adam will be so pissed. He . . . he doesn’t want to know my other soulmates. He’s jealous already. He knows that it was one of the other people last night, and he . . . He’s insecure. It doesn’t make sense! If anything, I should be the one that’s got sharing problems right now because of him and Matt!”

“But that’s not you to be the jealous type. You want everyone to find some sort of fulfillment, no matter what kind of soulmate-family is drawn together. Adam fears that you’ll leave him behind, Shiro. Maybe because he’s already left part of who the two of you have been to each other behind in the wake of his new relationship with Matt. Maybe he doesn’t know how to balance more than one partner, especially since his first partner has some serious health concerns.” She stroked her hand through his hair, reassuring him without words that she didn’t see his illness as anything more than a facet of who the young pilot was. “It’s okay to be mad at your soulmate. They’re just as human as you are, and they’re going to screw up. Sam and I fight over a few dumb things, but we also fight over a few really important things. We just don’t do that in front of Matt and Katie.”

Shiro shuddered, tears leaking and falling onto Colleen’s shoulder. “I want to be good enough for Katie, when they’re ready to meet me and know me as theirs.”

“Oh, Shiro,” Colleen sighed, smiling and pulling him into a full hug. “You already are. I know you, and you already are.”

When they walked back out ten minutes later, Shiro was smiling and hiding his pain again with Colleen’s careful help. He stood with his hands clasping behind his back just as he saw Katie uncap a pen. “We’ve been doing this randomly all day today and it’s been pretty cool and I think that it’s helping our soulmate feel better. Watch.” They traced a heart on the back of their hand, along with a smiley-face sticking its tongue out.

Within a minute, other lines, different hearts and handwriting started showing up.

Katie beamed. Shiro traced a heart with his thumbnail on the fleshy part of his left thumb, close to the palm, then dragged a line to make a series of three lines crossing in the middle. Colleen caught the movement, grinned and watched as Katie gasped. “Oh! Whoops. Someone’s busy somewhere and can’t have anything showing on their skin.”

“Which one? Wait, what?” Adam leaned in, watching how several hearts appeared around the asterisk.

“This heart. Here. We agreed on a ‘busy,’ and ‘can’t have marks showing’ system, because we want to keep that one soulmate safe. Busy is any symbol on either palm, and an asterisk on the left palm is ‘no marks.’ We’re still working on how to proceed from that symbol to a notification to get help to anyone who needs it.” Katie smiled at the heart. “I hate that my soulmates get hurt. I hate that I’ve hurt my soulmates, too. But I’m glad that my . . . Dad, what did you call it?”

“Well, in your case, it’d be a horde of soulmates.”

“Dad!”

“A flock,” Adam suggested.

“A gaggle,” Matt laughed.

Colleen snorted delicately. “It’s called a cohort, you plebian walnuts.”

Shiro shook his head, shoving his hands in his pockets until the marks faded. “Why not call it a pride?”

Grinning, Katie lit up. “Like lions? I like that. A pride of soulmates. Shiro, you’re the best!”

And Shiro buried the warmth he felt for the kid deep in his heart.