Inspired by the prompt here: “calendar seasons vs. natural seasons.” This is part of the November Creative Jam over on the Crowdfunded Creativity community. The theme is seasonal changes.
My story is part of the Team Hotel ‘verse. Kylie has been a lot of places, but even the mild seasons of coastal California take getting used to, not unlike her new team.
Kylie makes their hotel, their home, in California because she has lived half a hundred places and life here is easy. Expensive, but easy. The seasons pass gently. She has seen Australian summers and German winters and she must learn subtlety all over again in this place. Kylie haunts the corridors of the hotel, caught in the memory of harsher winters than what California’s coast can give her. The last attempt on Ned’s life, the damage to her arm, the perpetual fog–it has all left her maudlin and prone to sulking. She is not the only one who needs time to adapt.
Estrella and Caleb come to them in winter and they bear its mark. Estrella, fresh from the horrors of that compound, skulks from her room to the common areas to the gym. She speaks to no one. She is as smooth and unreadable as lake ice, as brittle and treacherous, too. If she notices Kylie watching her from the pool in the gym or the balcony overlooking the dining area, she does nothing to stop it. She seems entirely indifferent to her new home and housemates.
The others are not indifferent to Estrella. Kylie sees how the hunters avoid her eyes, rumor having spread of how her body-swapping ability works. The nawa do not trust easily and she does nothing to win them over. Kylie did not plan on this woman for her team and she cannot yet see if she can make use of Estrella.
The answer comes in Caleb, and Kylie fears at first the answer is “no.” Against Estrella’s silent indifference, Caleb storms and rages, blusters and wails. He picks fights with her from the moment they meet. Estrella hits him–a knee to the nose the first time, then punches, kicks, throws that leave him gasping for breath on the floor. Kylie considers intervening and cannot decide which one to remove. Caleb suffered enough abuse, but he keeps egging Estrella on. Estrella had to fight enough for one lifetime, but she refuses to stop training Caleb. Ned tells Kylie to wait, tells her to trust. She does the first, if not the second.
Then one night, the visiting hunters in the common room break out in a fight, beer-fueled and pointless. Caleb panics, eyes wide and seeing something half a continent away. Estrella, barely bigger than he is, moves him into the shelter of her body. His hands, so steady on a rifle, shake where they fist in the back of her shirt. Estrella backs them out of the room, eyes never leaving the fight, body never leaving Caleb exposed. Kylie finally trusts that, under winter’s harsh frost, something good has been growing.
Spring comes early in California, even the fog enough to bring up the first green shoots. It brings an abundance of fresh starts. It brings Juliet and Brigid and Anapamu, varied as wildflowers. This, Kylie has expected and planned for. She still does not get what she thought she would.
Brigid, for all that she has been a slave for fifteen years, shows no sign of being cowed. She leads her little pack in with the air of one conquering a frontier. Fisher brings up the rear and looks as happy as a petulant teenager, both his child and his slave oblivious to him. As they settle in at the hotel, Brigid speaks freely, goes where she pleases, and ignores Fisher blithely. She blooms wherever she is planted, hardy and adaptable, and Kylie wants her for the team more than she can stand.
Juliet follows Brigid like a sunflower with the sun. Ironic, considering how Brigid looks at Juliet like she hung the moon. Kylie cannot tell if either one of them realizes the other’s affection. Juliet brings the green and breeze of spring with her wherever she goes, thanks to her construct. Juliet was Ned’s idea. He’s been watching her solo work. Kylie is not convinced. She grew up with a nawa slave and now has bound one to her body. Is it loyalty or servitude that keeps them at her side? How can Kylie trust her?
Pam proves orchid-fragile. She explodes–literally–at the smallest threat. She seeks out Juliet’s company and reels away just as quickly. She fears even comfort. Estrella and Caleb approach with caution but persistence. They mist her with reassurances, sprinkle fortifying training at the safe edges of her. Juliet gives her sunny conversation and the shade of quiet nights in front of Juliet’s private television.
Kylie catches them in Juliet’s room one night. Pam, delicate and unsure, sits in the middle and laughs with her bald head thrown back carelessly. She and Estrella sandwich Caleb between them, sisters he once would have spat at for their darker skin and foreign names. Estrella sits with her back against Caleb’s arm, still watching the door, still keeping herself between him and the world.
Juliet sits on the floor beside Pam, and Brigid’s legs bracket Juliet’s shoulders from her perch on the bed. Brigid, so short, rests her chin on Juliet’s head, the afro there framing her tiny, elfin face. Her smallness deceives, though, for her supernaturally strong arms curl around Juliet’s neck like armor. Fisher may have ordered Brigid to protect Juliet, but Fisher is not in the room, is not privy to this. It might be loyalty keeping Brigid there, but to Kylie, it looks like possessiveness. It looks like two trees grown so long and so close together that they cannot be separated. Kylie sees an ecosystem taking shape and knows to leave well enough alone.
In summer, they finally find Ken, or rather, he finds them. Stable and social, big and cheerful, Ken seems too straight-forward, too undamaged to fit with the rest of them. Kylie has figured out, though, that happy accidents keep changing her plans for the better. She might be a control freak, but she knows how to roll with the changes.
She regrets it immediately. Fisher, military and stern, takes a shine to Ken, police and obedient, and Kylie sees disaster brewing. Juliet disdains Ken for gaining her father’s approval. Brigid follows Juliet’s lead. Caleb flinches from the combined male authority of Ken and Fisher with the instincts of the long-mistreated. Estrella does not show her thoughts so plainly, but where Caleb goes, so does she. Kylie wonders if it is too late to introduce something more to her garden. Has she planted something invasive and destructive without realizing?
She discovers Estrella sharing the gym with Ken. His leg, scarred from the encounter that introduced him to a world of nawa and magic and danger, still requires time and attention to recover. From one day to the next, silent proximity becomes casual chatter. After that, Kylie notices how Ken can talk to any of them about anything, if given half a chance. He drifts from Fisher’s rigid domination and into the welcoming anarchy of the others.
Caleb learns sports for the first time from Ken, the convict and the cop at ease over beers and television. Juliet teaches him everything he never knew about the world he has entered. Pam trades curry recipes with him, India meeting Japan in the kitchen. Brigid teaches him to fight with the cane he still uses and lets her small body show him how best to use his large one. Kylie realizes Ken is not a new plant; he is a bee, flitting between the others and gathering something from each.
It is only in the autumn, when work is hardest and the need most urgent, that they truly come together. In fire and stone and bullets, they harvest the first fruits of what Kylie planted seasons, years, ago. When it is over, when they are all that remains alive and moving in that factory, they fall together like wheat stalks before the scythe. She and Ned find them like that, led back to them by Fisher.
Estrella drips blood and bruises. Caleb smells of gunpowder. Ken shivers, shirtless, until Pam curls against him, skin shiny with burns and wrapped in Ken’s clothing. Brigid clutches the remains of her shattered pearl in one hand and Juliet with the other. Juliet, wrists bloody from iron shackles, can’t stop touching the others, like she cannot trust they are really there, that they came for her. Kylie does not care that they are crashing, that they must practically be shoveled into a van to go home. She only cares that they fall as one, attuned to the same rhythms, rising and falling with the same seasons.
Another winter has come to the hotel. Fog blankets the ocean and turns the world dim and soft. Kylie has no time for melancholy this year. The team moves and thinks as one and so too do they hunger for action together. Kylie plans and plots, looking toward the days of heat and change. The winter is short and mild here and Kylie must plant now what she wishes to harvest in the next year. Wild and delicate, hardy and damaged, her team grows, season by season.